It has to be one of those cold, half-light afternoons. A radio in the house mumbling something low and steady — Click and Clack or the news. The snow might be fresh, might be coming, might not come for weeks. The heater kicks on in the basement and the warmth balloons up through the rooms, a fog of comfort along the floor. Those are the afternoons perfect for reading.
When I was serious about my reading, I’d gather 10 or 15 books from the library and scoot through them in rapid succession, dumping the books that got boring, finishing the books that caught my fancy. I got through most of Vonnegut on those afternoons, a lot of Bradbury. I read Richard Powers and lot of fiction that I couldn’t quite follow but liked the sound of. I read a lot of Stephen King. A lot.
This is a paean to that crepuscular time between two and six, that four hours of daylight on a few very specific days, when the book makes perfect and absolute sense. Maybe the days between Christmas and New Year’s or maybe some mid-winter weekend when you have little to do and can afford to laze and read.
Those afternoons happened all year round, to be sure, but the holiday book is a better book. It’s new, perhaps, freshly unpacked, or maybe it’s a discovery you found on your visit home from college or away. Maybe it’s an old friend or maybe it’s a stranger. Maybe it smells of the basement, a mix of mulch and mold, or maybe it smells like new paste. Either way, it wants us to open it.
Soon it won’t smell at all. Soon it will be all bits.
If there’s anything to recommend the purchase of paper bound to cardboard, it’s in honor of the holiday read. There is nothing like it, I think, and it made lovers of the written word out of many of us. The ways books change our brains are myriad, almost as myriad as the ways we’ve been changed by our electronics. But I like to think the slow saunter through a broke-spine copy of On The Road changes us in ways Reddit and 24/7 news sites can’t. That squib of glue and pulp changes how we think, how patient we are, how much we fall in love with the world and its wonder.
A Kindle loaded with books is the next best thing, sure. But it’s a cold comfort, isn’t it? That glass and plastic and bright light?
The opening scene of The NeverEnding Story, when Bastian escapes to the attic to read his secret stolen book, is a formative image for me. It’s that mix of running, rain, fear, excitement, and wonder that defined my winter reading jags. It defined the narrative that said when I opened this strange new tome I’d meet characters from across the universe. Imagine Bastian doing the same thing today — somehow stealing an ePub, side loading it onto a Nook, pressing power — and the drama isn’t there. Maybe someday it will be, but not now.
So as we roll into the season of quiet afternoons and long dark evenings when the weather gets nasty and there’s no reason to take to the streets, when the apartment or the ranch or the duplex gets warm and and there are no appointments, and the books are there like old friends waiting for a visit, then visit them.
We owe it to the book not to forget. For no matter how fast memory fades, the written word, stamped on old paper, is still the best repository for the world we’ve ever created.