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The Tuesday Essay

Books are more than just text Add to ...

Summering in England is all about being stuck inside somewhere, in the rain. In my case it was usually a large tent, planted in a field with the minimum of facilities.

The summer I was 14 my family spent a magical, if damp, few weeks camped in a grassy field on the grounds of a stately English home. On a crooked wooden shelf in an unheated "community room" that was little more than a large, unfinished shed, stacks of books were available on a take-one-leave-one basis. Regency romances by British author Georgette Heyer, of which someone must have been a big fan, were lined up as if to dance, some of them fat with damp and others missing half a cover.

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I read them all. While the rain pelted on canvas, I read of Beau Brummell and his perfect cravats, and gentlemen who strove to be "true Corinthians." When the sun (rarely) shone, I climbed into one of the great elephant-grey elm trees along the drive and read of ladies in muslin and the picnic excursions by carriage to visit a ruin or to watch the actual Battle of Waterloo.





In the evenings, after the day-trippers were all gone, I had the Georgian manor's grounds to myself, and as I walked the great yew-bordered terrace, still peering at pages in the gathering dusk, I felt all the ladies and gentlemen promenading beside me. It wasn't important that Regency romances were not "great literature". What was important was that they were available in abundance and free to a girl with very little money and a very hungry appetite. What was important was a whole summer immersed in reading.

Books are nourishment to me in a way that visual media, the Internet and I dare say e-book text can never really be. They carry more than words in their pages. They carry smell and memory; they live in their shapes and heft. My copy of Middlemarch is a good three inches thick and its harlequin cover of turquoise and white with maroon markings suggests heraldic cresting. My first edition of Henry James's The Sacred Font is tan-boarded under its protective plastic. Its pages, thick and as darkly cream as rice pudding, remind me not only of James' dense, delicious prose, but of my husband trudging through a dark December evening to find me the perfect gift at New York's Strand Bookstore. My copy of Stieg Larson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo shrieks from the shelf in its neon yellow and orange jacket; rioting with life and newness, but forever reminding me that Larson, like too many other writers I admire, did not live to enjoy the success of his work. A first edition of Kipling's Mine Own People, a gift from my agent to mark the selling of my first novel, still has uncut pages. I read it by flexing the pages into a cone, revelling in this direct link to history and reminded of the Regency romances that arrived with uncut pages and accompanied by a pearl-handled paper knife.

I am not opposed to the rise of electronic media, and I think the various e-book readers have the portability issue nailed (or will, just as soon as the airlines stop making us turn them off during takeoff and landing). I like the way pages fade and appear on the new screens with an almost a Harry Potter quality to them. I can see the advantage, on the metro, of reading War and Peace or the latest Danielle Steele with equal anonymity. At least we can hope the goateed young men switch to e-readers and no longer inflict on the rest of us the implied superiority of their battered Dostoevsky or Rimbaud.

But I just don't believe the cool, sleek plastic of an appliance that looks like a large Game Boy can truly carry the weight of memory and myth that is absorbed into the bindings of the books we cherish.

Last summer, a metal cart of books appeared at the village beach I often visit. In New York's famous Hamptons, known for its $20 martinis and its celebrity-studded fundraisers, it was a pleasant shock that my village thought it important to have a book swap. Dog-eared paperbacks with lurid pulp covers and torn-jacketed hardbacks deaccessioned from the library sat out in the sun and salt for anyone to take-one-leave-one.

Kids' picture books occupied the lower shelf and any child could feel like a millionaire as they took whatever books they wanted. A yellowed copy of a Georgette Heyer Regency romance caught my eye and immediately transported me to that magical summer of my childhood. I took the book down to the sea and read it while my teenage sons splayed out on a blanket and niggled each other about being bored. I may have moved on in my reading tastes to much more substantial books than romance novels, but that afternoon on the beach was like rediscovering an old friend. The scent of sun lotion and the sound of my sons' amicable discord became forever mixed with the earthy smell of elm leaf mulch underfoot, the sound of rain on stretched canvas; the remembered feel of length and awkwardness in my skinny 14-year-old limbs. They are combined in one tattered, sandy paperback.

Needless to say, this time I kept the book.

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