A confession: I bought an e-reader last month. I’d held out for a long time—I’m a natural Luddite, a knee-jerk Luddite—but I live a long way from the library, a two-day trip, and while the library folks will send books through the mail (bless them!), lately it’s slowed. No one knows why. Used to be when I ordered a book, it came in a week. Now it’s six months. My wife wearied of living with me without a book, so I gave in and bought what we call affectionately “the machine.” I still order books from the library, but they arrive in nanoseconds.
So the machine arrived on my spring break from teaching, and I promptly sat on the couch and read more books in a week than I usually read in a month. I devoured novels from best-of lists— and they were really, really good. It felt nearly intoxicating to read so much exquisite prose. But one thing began to bother me. Almost every novel was set largely in or around New York City: The Interestings, Someone, The Flamethrowers, Dissident Gardens. I live in a remote corner of the Pacific Northwest. I may as well have been reading about Mars—and though I’m pretty interested in Mars, pretty interested in New York City for that matter, it started to seem like the same Mars, over and over.
Then it was time to go back to work.
A change of scenery: One of the advantages of teaching is that you re-read books you thought you knew inside out, and you begin to see them in completely new light. Your students pick out themes and flaws and turns-of-phrase you never noticed before. They hate books you love, and vice versa. In this particular class we’re reading essay collections, and the books have taken us far from New York City and far, too, from the remote Pacific Northwest.
Descanso for My Father, by Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, took us to roadside memorials in New Mexico, while Teacher at Point Blank, by Jo Scott-Coe, took us to suburban public schools in California. Create Dangerously, by Edwidge Danticat, conjured Haiti, past and present. Amy Leach’s Things That Are led to unnamed worlds, while one student counted more than nineteen specific places in Eula Biss’s stunning No Man’s Land.
It’s been like taking a long road trip with a dozen smart friends. When it’s over, I’ll be exhausted and changed.
A small soapbox: I’ve heard all the arguments about the value of real books over e-books, objects you can hold in your hand, objects you can keep, objects that might even survive the apocalypse. But in the last month, I’ve realized—duh!—it’s not the object itself that stays with me but the stories inside and the places they take me and the people who journey with me.
A musical coda: My favorite bands lately as background for reading, writing, teaching, splitting kindling, sitting in the newly-melted out yard: Moondoggies, The Cave Singers, Midlake, Phosphorescent.
Ana Maria Spagna lives in a cabin in snowy Stehekin, Washington. She is the author, most recently, of Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness. “10 Remedies for Cabin Fever,” her latest contribution to Orion’s Enumeration department, appears in the March/April 2014 issue.