Defying the ebook revolution

Book return slotWent to return a book to the library the other day and it refused to go in the BOOKS ONLY slot. Odd. I tried again several times, thinking perhaps I had suddenly aged beyond belief and could not muster the muscle to cram it through the wall, but no, it was the book itself, adamant, recalcitrant, bristling and ruffling indignantly, that would not allow itself to be returned.

This was a conundrum unlike any I had known before.

I tried the return bin in the library parking lot, a steel tank big as a refrigerator where I have seen many unusual things, among them a small boy climbing into the bin to see what it was like inside, people tossing books at the maw of the bin from moving cars, and a man with a ball-peen hammer attacking the bin for reasons that remain murky.

But again the book refused to be returned.

I should perhaps note that this was the first volume of Jan Morris's magisterial Pax Brittanica trilogy, Heaven's Command, an unbelievably great book, the single best-written history I have ever read, and this includes William Manchester's glorious first two volumes about Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, which remain superb even though I cannot forgive Manchester for dying on me before he finished the third and concluding volume. The sheer nerve of the man, leaving me hanging like that.

I tried the AUDIOVISUAL ONLY slot in the adjoining gaping steel bin, to no avail, and then tried the AUDIOVISUAL MATERIAL ONLY AND WE MEAN IT slot by the front door, looking around carefully to see if there were any slimy little kids who would rat on the strange man stuffing books into the wrong slot, but there weren't any, not even the usual ubiquitous Girl Scouts with their rickety card tables and boxes of howling sugar and those evil laser glares they deliver when you say airily that you bought 50 boxes yesterday, they can smell lies, you know, like wolves do, and did you know there are ten million Girl Scouts worldwide, try to think of that without a shiver of fear as you crawl into bed tonight.

I thought about just heaving the book at the door of the library and shuffling away briskly, pretending to scour the heavens for falcons and rockets, but that would be a disservice to the holy librarians, and it was a moist day also, and no man in his right mind would leave a genius like Jan Morris out in the rain, so I tried to stuff the slot one last time, this time with as much of a manful effort as I could muster, which wasn't much, which made me think ruefully of the Girl Scouts again, so I sat down to ponder.

There was a powerful temptation to blame Jan Morris for this turn of affairs, but she's Welsh, and you can't insult such a heroic muddy nation, and she's the finest writer in the world, not to mention by all accounts the absolute soul of gentle courtesy, and then I thought about blaming the Girl Scouts somehow, but then it occurred to me to wonder why the book was so adamant about not being returned.

Because I am afraid no one will ever check me out again, said the book suddenly. I was wondering when you would ask. Because I am not stupid and all this talk about the whole world going utterly digital gives me the roaring willies. I don't want to be kindled. I don't want to be electrified. I like the heft and thud and thump of me, the smell and substance. I like traveling in cars and planes. I like beds and couches and beaches. I like hands and bellies. I like kids poking into me by accident.

I like the cheerful mind who made me. I like that she scribbled me in inks of various colors in notebooks of various shapes in more countries than she can remember. I like that they printed thousands of me with paper and type and glue and thread and cloth.

I like the crumbs and coffee people spill on me. I like the way people flitter their fingers along my shelf-mates and alight on me and pull me down and flip me open and get absorbed and have to hustle to borrow me when the librarians bark the time. I liked being borrowed and not downloaded. I like being in the trunk of your car and being read in pubs and hotels and dens. I like kids' voices in the other room from where I am being read. I like being stacked by the bed with Pico Iyer and Silver Surfer comics and the Bible.

I have lived in this library for 40 years and I'll be damned if I will go back in there to molder until the revolution converts me and my friends into digital bits. I know what I am about, and if the British Empire stood for anything it stood for making dreams real by force of will and character, and I dream of being held by hands and heads and hearts until my pages melt in the rain and the words in me dissolve into dust. Any questions?

I sat there dumbfounded, as you can well imagine, and then I went home and did the only sensible thing to do, which was to write to Jan Morris. She replied immediately, the soul of gentle courtesy. 'Try returning it at the same time as you donate my newest book,' she wrote, which I did, and this worked, which is something to think about, and so we come to the end of this essay, looking both ways for Girl Scouts.

Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of Thirsty for the Joy: Australian & American Voices. 

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, Pax Brittanica, Heaven's Command, library book, kindle, jan morris, Pico Iyer, silver surfer



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Existing comments

Brian a big thank you for some lovely light relief from the stuff they call political comment I am hearing on the radio this morning. What a load of unintelligent thoughtless blather.
My screams have ceased and I feel at peace with the world again
Love your piece and feel in sympathy with the book
GAJ | 28 July 2010

What an inspiration. Thanks Brian and Eureka Street who offer us this treasure of a writer.
Ray O'Donoghue | 28 July 2010

Ooh.I have gone to apologise to the forty or so books which remain partly read on my table, to promise that I love them all equally and to swear that I will never, ever abandon them.
patrick | 28 July 2010


You continue to awe and inspire, even for this kid in the real west (western australia), as opposed to the fake western bits of Oregon, wooded, lovely, green and rainy. I continue to pile the books on the nightstand. Look forward to your visit to Perth ... soon?
Tom | 09 August 2010

The feel of a book, the smells of old or new pages... I too have treasured comments scrawled in margins, and the helpful underlining of students who have preceded me in tackling the same essay topic. Book lovers of the world, unite!
Maureen Howland | 19 April 2011


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