Words on Paper

Here, between the shelves, I escape everything worrisome, petty, mundane. In late afternoon, as the weak winter sun begins its slide, pale yellow light washes through the west-side window of my office in Fairhope, Alabama, and something like magic floods the room. I sit in a big, soft chair, and the words that are bound here come loose all around me.

French cavalrymen on white horses charge through shifting shadows on the wall above my desk, as Lord Nelson, Fletcher Christian, and Captain Horatio Hornblower set sail across the floor. In one corner, Bedouins glide on camels across a void of Sheetrock, while, in another, Sherlock Holmes grapples to the death with Professor Moriarty on the lip of a high shelf. Here, Willie Stark sits with Atticus Finch, Ishmael leans against Ignatius Reilly, and the Snopeses rub elbows with Shakespeare. It lasts only a little while, this glow, until the sun descends toward the dark trees somewhere across the Mississippi line, but not before Woodrow Call keeps his promise to Augustus McCrae, George Smiley sends one more spy into the cold, and Elmer Gantry does a hook slide for Jesus in the last, fading light of the day.

I know that the world of reading has forever changed, that, in this cold winter, many people who love a good book will embrace one that runs on batteries. I know that many of you woke up Christmas morning to find that Santa graced your house with an iPad, or a Kindle, or a Nook, or some other plastic thing that will hold a whole library on a doodad the size of a guitar pick. Some of you may be reading one of my books or stories on one today, which is, of course, perfectly all right, and even a sign of high intelligence. Someday, I may have to read The Grapes of Wrath on the side of a toaster myself. I am hopeful when young people say, “I read you on the Kindle,” because it means they are at least reading, and reading me, which means my writing life is somehow welcome in whatever frightening future awaits.

But I hope I will never have a life that is not surrounded by books, by books that are bound in paper and cloth and glue, such perishable things for ideas that have lasted thousands of years, or just since the most recent Harry Potter. I hope I am always walled in by the very weight and breadth and clumsy, inefficient, antiquated bulk of them, hope that I spend my last days on this Earth arranging and rearranging them on thrones of good, honest pine, oak, and mahogany, because they just feel good in my hands, because I just like to look at their covers, and dream of the promise of the great stories inside.

Here, not far from the shores of Mobile Bay and the white sands of the Gulf, is a limitless world of Gallipoli; Sanctuary; Go Down, Moses; Tennyson’s Poetry; The Comedians; Riders of the Purple Sage; For Whom the Bell Tolls; Of Mice and Men; The Last of the Mohicans; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; A Christmas Carol; Brave Men; An Outside Chance; Cold Mountain; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Blood Meridian; The Prince of Tides; a dog-eared edition of Salem’s Lot I read in high school with a BB gun by the bed, and a slightly molded flea market copy of Dixie City Jam.

It is not just the stories, but the physical book, the way I feel when I see the spines, when I read the titles, the very feel of the paper under my fingers as I turn the pages. I see the words Lonesome Dove and I see the beauty and great cost of true friendship, played out in a wild, wild West. Every book comes alive in my mind. I like to be in that company.

Cicero said a room without books is like a body without a soul, but I don’t know about that. I just know I like to have them close, when the sun goes down.

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