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The Book on the Shelf

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

BOULDER, Colo. -- On an average day when I am here, I amble over to the Boulder Book Store. Often, I simply browse -- it's a very good bookstore -- and sometimes I buy something, but mostly I just like the feel of the place. It has a cafe and lots of specialized sections, and recently I watched my granddaughter as she observed a yoga lesson for children. I bet they don't do that over at Amazon.

Instead, over at Amazon they are inadvertently thinking of ways to make the world worse for children and for the grown-ups who love them to pieces. What Jeffrey P. Bezos, Amazon's founder, wants more than anything is to do away with the book as we know it. "Jeff once said that he couldn't imagine anything more important than reinventing the book," said Steven Kessel, one of Bezos's top guys. Kessel is in charge of digitizing everything in sight.

Nothing more important than reinventing the book? Not ending world hunger? Not taking Rush Limbaugh off the air? None of these? What's wrong with the book? I understand that it's bulky and expensive to ship and that it entails the consumption of paper, which is probably not green, but then what is? The book has been around for a very long time (Google the exact number of years, please), and I love it so.

The book is warm. The book is handy. The book is handsome to the eye. The book occupies the shelf of the owner and is a reflection of him or her or, actually, me. The book is always there, to be reached for, to be thumbed and, too often, I admit, to wonder about: Why did I buy this? My bookcase is full of mysteries.

I loathe Amazon even though I know it is the future and will prevail. Already, the local bookstore is becoming a thing of the past. I used to frequent one in New York -- Books and Co., now closed -- that recommended certain kinds of books. It led me to Joseph Roth, the great central European writer of the interwar period, and Thomas Bernhard, the eccentric Austrian who so hated his country he wouldn't permit his plays to be staged there. I read all of Bernhard and all of Roth. What joy -- although Bernhard, to tell the truth, was sometimes a bit of a slog.

Can Amazon do anything like that? Does Kessel -- "We wake up every day thinking about digital," he once told the New York Times -- even know who Roth was? Roth killed himself in Paris. At least he never knew that one day he might be digitized.

I never buy from Amazon unless I have to. I buy from actual bookstores, if I can. You go there and people are browsing or having coffee or staring into open laptops and pretending they're writers or something. If I were younger, I'd go there to pick up girls. I'd look over their shoulders and say, "Oh, 'The Prophet,' a book of eternal truths" -- or some such tripe. (It used to work.)

I am now reading "Her Privates We," a book about World War I by the nearly unknown Frederic Manning. It's a bit of a masterpiece, a glorious piece of writing -- obscene and filthy as a trench on the Somme, and smart as hell. (Ernest Hemingway said, "It is the finest and noblest book of men in war that I have ever read.") I asked a bookseller in New York to recommend a brilliant but unheralded book, and he went through his shelves and picked out several, none of which I had ever heard of. "Her Privates We" was one of them. The Hemingway blurb sold me. No digital anything can do that.

Bezos will win. Amazon has this device that downloads books. It is called the Kindle, which must be one of those focus group words. Sounds like the German word for children. Sounds like kind. Sounds innocent. Of course, it is not. My friends, book lovers all, have bought Kindles. At first, I was shocked: You? A Kindle? It's like discovering some sort of secret perversion.

Feeling oddly guilty, I bought a Kindle myself. Someday soon, I'm going to see how it works. I hesitate because I know it represents the beginning of the end -- books as books, bookstores, book lovers and, inescapably, the brilliant Frederic Manning, resurrected by a bookseller only to be eventually reinterred as too obscure to be Kindled.

cohenr@washpost.com


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