Last night, the Stranger and Fred Wildlife Refuge hosted a reading with Michael Chabon for book and music lovers alike. Chabon was reading from his latest novel, Telegraph Avenue, in which Archie Stallings and Nat Jaffe, co-owners of Brokeland Records, are forced to confront the uncertain future of their shop when a chain store opens down the street. Naturally, the age-old question was put forward by a member of the audience: Will books suffer the same fate as records, cassette tapes, and CDs and become a relic of the past? A rare comfort for individuals plagued by nostalgia to keep along side their record players and type writers? Will they fall prey, as so many have predicted, to our increasingly clutterless, convenience obsessed society with their collections of multi-purpose devices that all essentially do the same thing?
This is a question that I'm faced with myself on a semi-regular basis here at the bookshop. The other day a man came in and told me that he would not be buying a book from us because he had just downloaded an e-book onto his Kindle. "How does it feel to work in a dying industry?" he asked me. Others are more positive, saying that they think that books will stick around because there is nothing quite like a book. But everyone says it with a degree of hesitation. I hope it doesn't happen... but let's be honest, the outlook is a little grim.
When I heard Mr. Chabon's answer to the question of the future of books, I felt like I had been waiting for someone to explain it in exactly those terms. He first pointed out that records have had a longer life than both cassettes and CD's. Though they are large, easily scratched, and difficult to take jogging, they are still to this day being made and sold. This suggests, he said, something inherently valuable - that smell, the rich sound, the art on the jacket, the dust. Human beings love to have multiple senses engaged at once. The same argument, obviously, can be made for books. The sense of accomplishment that accompanies the sound of your hand sliding over paper as you turn the page, the yellowing sides of dust-covered pages welcoming you as you pick up your favorite book, the raised letters and faded colors of the cover art that gives a face and identity to each old friend - these are the qualities that make me such a fierce defender of the physical book.
Maybe this won't be as profound to you as it was to me, and when I heard him give name to that "thing" that keeps us coming back to books, I was almost embarrassed that I had never thought of it that way myself. Telegraph Avenue will forever be a placeholder of the night I heard Michael Chabon offer hope for the future of my industry. Here's to embracing the new obnoxious habit of repeating this story to anyone who questions the future of books: "I once heard Michael Chabon say..."
An immensely gifted writer and magical prose stylist.
Michiko Kakutani, New York Times