Thirty writers look at their shelves and write about their most beloved books.
Books, the physical objects themselves, inspire passionate responses. Just last week a Facebook friend posted about her desire to dive into a whole room of books the way Scrooge McDuck would dive into a huge pile of money (from a diving board, of course). Everyone who commented -- and there were a lot of us -- knew exactly what she meant.
The contributors to "Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book" would know what she meant, too. Most of them write about their love of not just the words, stories and information in a book, but the artifacts themselves. In his introduction, editor Sean Manning sets the tone when he asserts that one of the best things about reading is "the tactile sensation of turning a page, the sight of my bookmark inching along night after night, getting closer and closer to the finish, then finally closing the book, hearing that whomp, turning it over in my hands, feeling the weight of it, the sense of accomplishment that brings" -- an accomplishment, he adds, that you just don't get with an e-reader.
It's not that Manning is a Luddite; he confesses to geeking out over the new technologies. But he also recognizes that most of us will never cherish e-texts the same way we cherish particular copies of particular books. "When I glance at my shelves," Manning writes, "I see not just multicolored rows of spines, but cities where I traveled and resided, classes I took, jobs I worked, people I loved and who lovd me."
Similarly, Danielle Trussoni writes of loving the "physicality" of "a much-abused Vintage paperback" of Nabokov's "Speak, Memory," cherishing the markings she's made over the years, the dog-eared pages, the water stains from reading in the bathtub, even the grocery lists used as bookmarks. Francine Prose relates how, when she lost her childhood copy of "Andersen's Fairy Tales," she "missed the book more than a keepsake" and "grieved for it as if for a person." Anthony Swofford tells how the beaten-up copy of Camus' "The Stranger" he carried throughout his deployment to Saudi Arabia still resonates, 20 years later, as "a badge of [his] awakening as a writer." And Shahriar Mandanipour remembers both his sorrow and his sense of diminishment at having to burn the "anti-Islamic" works in his library during the 1979 Revolution in Tehran.
Like all anthologies, "Bound to Last" is a mixed bag in terms of style and tone. While I appreciate that not all of the cherished books are literary ("The New Professional Chef," Fifth Edition; "The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy," Eighth Edition), I found some shifts in tone overly jarring and a few of the essays a bit precious. Still, it is good to be in the company of so many book lovers. Although "Bound to Last" centers on books that have meaning as artifacts, not just text, the 30 contributors are, above all, passionate lovers of reading, always aware that they were drawn to their cherished artifacts in the first place because of the texts' resonances.
Anthony Doerr speculates that when we read, we "metabolize" stories, which then become part of us as surely as the food we ingest, allowing us to "live in multiple places, lead multiple lives," practice empathy and "live the emotional lives of other people." "Bound to Last" is an eloquent testimonial to the proposition that as long as we have books -- even, perhaps, in relatively soulless e-copies -- we are never alone.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.