Carlos works across the street from Powell’s books, so I often find myself waiting there for him to get off, a habit that is destined to bankrupt me. I sit at the bar in front of the windows facing the street and pretend to read. (Sometimes even actually reading). Sipping absently from my cherry, Italian soda and people watching.
An older black man with a serious expression brings armloads of books from the romance section and takes great care lining them up on a table. He is here nearly every time that I am and every time he can be found carefully lining up his finds before going back to the stacks to scavenge some more.
Portland is a place where people cultivate their eccentricities.
Earlier, a homeless man smelling strongly of urine stopped me on the street and started babbling at me in a string of sounds that didn’t quite evolve into actual words. The urgency of his expression and the way he implored with his hands gave me pause as I struggled to understand him. I felt badly, but all I could do was helplessly shake my head and say, “I’m sorry.” For what, I’m not quite sure. For being unable to communicate. For being unable to help. For being white, and middle classed, and spoiled. I politely disengaged and fled to the comforting refuge of the bookstore.
Inside I’m immediately put at ease. In my element. I love everything about books. I love the comfortable heft of one in my hand. The feel of pages against my skin. I love the smell of them. But mostly I love words. Stories. The worlds and adventures that they contain.
I credit my parents for nurturing this love of the written word. Reading is the only thing that the three of us had in common. After dinner in the evenings, my mom would sit at the kitchen table with a Diet Pepsi, reading some romance novel. Square jawed men in puffy shirts with arms around the waist of some Victorian woman who is all soft curls and heaving bosom. My dad would be sitting in his bed with a battered Louis Lamour western. And I’d curl up in my bedroom with my headphones on and some sci-fi epic in front of me.
Even though we were all in different rooms of the house, I always felt really connected to them on those evenings when we were all reading.
The first book I ever read (that wasn’t a picture book) was Charlotte’s Web. Having raised a pig of my own, I was especially touched (although Jo Jo’s fate was pretty grisly compared to that of Wilbur’s.) The first book I ever loved was The Hero and the Crown. I’ve read this book so many times since I was a kid that I can recite whole pages of it from memory. Since then there have been countless books that made me laugh. Those that made me sob like a baby. Books have transformed and transported me to universes of exploding creativity, and I will never be the same.
For Christmas last year, Carlos got me a Kindle. I smiled politely and pretended to love it, inwardly cringing because it would take away the tactile experience you get from a “real” book. After downloading my first e-book, a non-fiction work about quantum physics, I completely changed my tune. An e-reader can hold thousands of books at once. Because I usually read 3 or 4 books at a time, having the Kindle is like being able to take my entire bookshelf with me everywhere I go. It has since come to rival my iPhone as my most cherished possession.
In an age of nano-second attention spans, stumbling across another reader is like finding some lost member of a dying tribe. I see you in familiar places. Riding in buses. Sitting in coffee shops. Alone in a cafe. Browsing through bookstores. We may read different genres, but we understand each other. Life would seem so dull, so empty without all the stories and the words out there, waiting to be tasted and experienced.
What are you reading?