Years ago, Bill Henderson and I sat hawking new literary publications at a book fair. A former Doubleday editor, he had just begun something called the Pushcart Press, which still publishes the annual Pushcart Prize anthologies and in 2005 won him a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle. I was co-editing a new little magazine, which soon folded. This was in the early 1970s, in New York, and there was no such thing as an e-reader.
Nearly four decades later, Henderson continues to speak out for our literary culture. His anthologies showcase the best new writing from small publishers. Now he has delivered, Book Love: A Celebration of Writers, Readers, and the Printed & Bound Book, which is welcome reading in an age when hardware displays are often the first thing you see upon entering a chain bookstore. Co-edited by James Charlton, Book Love gathers more than 600 quotations like these:
“Just the knowledge that a good book is waiting one at the end of a long day makes that day happier.” (Kathleen Norris)
“A room without books is like a body without soul.” (Cicero)
“There’s so much more to a book than just reading. I’ve seen children play with books, fondle books, smell books, and that’s every reason why books should be lovingly produced.” (Maurice Sendak)
“Please, no matter how we advance technology please don’t abandon the book—there is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book.” (Patti Smith)
In a recent Publishers Weekly article on the rise of e-readers, Henderson noted that the devices are marketed with a veneer of good intentions. “The book needed improving, said one maven, who also sells diapers and soup online,” Henderson wrote. He added: “Lots of people are making lots of money telling us this is for our own good.”
The e-reader is “a battery-operated slab, about a pound, one-half inch thick, perhaps with an aluminum border, rubberized back, plastic, metal, silicon, a bit of gold, plus rare metals such as columbite-tantalite (Google it) ripped from the earth, often in war-torn Africa,” he writes. Slab manufacturing has high environmental impacts, he goes on. Making a book, on the other hand, requires “recycled paper, a dash of minerals, and two gallons of water. If trees are harvested, they can be replanted.”
In a foreword to Book Love, Henderson recalls the days when writers were not denigrated as “content providers,” readers were not mere “consumers,” and book publishing was not an act of “extreme avarice” pursued by business people looking for a big payday.
As one sympathetic to such views (on learning recently that a young writer-friend had bought a Kindle, I blurted out, “I’ll kill you!”), I confess to enjoying Henderson’s e-book takedowns (“Try to curl up with an e-reader or take a bath with one,” he writes), and find them refreshing. But it’s his appreciation of the printed book evinced in Book Love that pleases most:
“I like how the library smells. Close your eyes and remember it: musty, dusty, gluey, eternal. I like to suck in a lungful of this sweet-book aroma, pick out a volume that has been kneaded by a hundred hands, then go read it under a tree.” (Lee Eisenberg)
“My mother died surrounded by her friends and her family and her books.” (John F. Kennedy, Jr.)
“What bothers me above all else is that a public institution will vandalize itself and decide it will spend, if not waste, huge amounts of money for technology, and at the same time dispose of an existing book collection that is irreplaceable. It is a hate crime directed at the past.” (Nicholson Baker)
Henderson has published Book Love for those who still love books, he says. In a brief interview, he told me that e-books are not an improvement. “Printed and bound books last; you can see them on the shelf and remember,” he said. “E-readers are very speedy, and speed is the sin of our times. Speed kills.” Books are sacred, “plus they don’t need batteries.”
What if someone gave him a Kindle as a gift? “I’d axe it or drown it.”
There’s another side to all of this, of course, and you hear it from TV ads every day, which is why it’s not presented here (though e-book enthusiasts are certainly welcome to comment). Perhaps Henderson is simply being curmudgeonly (“Fine with me,” he says). Many others share his beliefs.
“Books are unkillable,” says Jonathan Lethem. “Actual books will continue to be irreplaceable repositories of our collective wisdom,” says Jason Epstein.
Annie Proulx may have it right: “Every other week someone says that books are dead or dying, that just around the corner is the black hour when they will be curiosities like stereopticon slides or milk stools,” she says in Book Love. That’s “probably the same thing they said when radio was invented, when television flickered its way into our living rooms.”