It’s four a.m. and I want a book


This is a collaborative post, between me and my very dear friend Barry Hoffman, retired executive vice president/executive creative director of Young & Rubicam, avid reader, and author of a fine book called The Fine Art of Advertising.  (Even more to his credit, he’s married to one of my very best friends, Jane Weiss.) Our foray into collaboration is about e-readers, and Barry (in blue below) begins it with the story of their trip to Montreal.

We went on vacation to Montreal and I had just been given a shoulder bag. I filled it with books for the trip. Being a short-attention-span reader (usually reading three to five books at a time until one grabs) I’d usually travel with five to ten pounds of books. This trip, I lugged the books not only to Montreal, but around Montreal on foot. It destroyed my back; it took years for the innocent crushed vertebrae to recover.

So, a surfeit of curiosity, a slacker’s lack of persistence, a desire for instant gratification, and a dose of self-delusion about the (evidently waning) strength of my middle-aged body conspired to lead me to an e-reader. It was, for me, the antidote to back pain.

Like many cunning technological solutions, it solved one problem and created a few others. On the problem-solved side: I now travel the world with a library of over a hundred books. The e-reader serves not just as a reading machine but as a whim machine.

On the problem-created side: Without the anchor of the book itself, the smell of the glue, the feel of the paper, the image on the cover, the crack of the spine, the march of the page numbers, the freedom to thumb my way forward and back, the heft of the thing, the taking of notes with a pen, the writing of important page numbers on the frontispiece, it actually is harder for me to remember what I’ve read. I didn’t expect that.

Barry also cited the pleasure of being able to get information instantly, like being at the Taj Mahal and downloading an e-book about it. “Books take you places you can’t get to; e-readers bring books to where you happen to be.” And he pointed out the “unintended effect on nightly happiness”: you can read your (backlit) e-reader all night long without driving your partner nuts. “It may not be a guarantor of bliss, but it is certainly an antidote to frustration.”

All in all, in my cost-benefit ledger, the book v. e-book comparison is a happy trade-off. I should conclude, however, in the service of full sociological disclosure, that enjoying the virtues of the e-reader has its limits. So I often buy both the hardcover and the e-book of the same work. It costs a bit more, but it allows me to enjoy the pleasures of the future-made-present without the backdraft of nostalgia for the way the world was.

E-readers have been blessings in many ways, we all know that. The debate about the joy of reading a real book versus the joy of reading an e-book will no doubt buzz on like a swarm of gnats. It’s a fascinating topic but an irrelevant argument, because we’re certainly going to have both real books and e-books for the foreseeable future. A thousand hysteria-generating articles about the demise of paper books won’t change that.

Barry and I agree that choice is a good thing to have and one might as well take advantage of both reading options. For me that meant books at home; e-reader on the bus, train, and plane. And then this very odd thing happened.

I was in Medford, Oregon for a week, visiting my elderly parents, who live in a retirement community. I visit them every few months and I always stay in a Hilton Homewood Suites down the street from their little attached house. On this trip I woke at about four a.m. on a Sunday, with a stomachache. I moaned and groaned and tossed and turned and finally switched on the light to read–for comfort and distraction. All I had was my e-reader. It was four a.m. and I had no book.


Longing for comfort and having to hold an e-reader was like wanting a cozy stuffed animal to snuggle up to and getting a frying pan instead. Unlike Barry, I’m single: no stuffed-animal-analog (sorry, Janie) to grab. I wanted a real book! Actually, I wanted one of my four favorite comfort books, and none of them was with me, and even though two out of the four actually could have been downloaded right that moment, the point was that I wanted a real book.  All the real-book delights that Barry describes above were exactly what I wanted if I had to be ill in a hotel room in a strange city, alone.

Gradually the mountains in the distance beyond my window grew light, I dozed off, spent the day in bed, and emerged from my bookless cocoon to resume normal life. But I will never again take a long trip without a paperback. E-reader plus paperback, that’s the travel ticket for me from now on.


SIDEBAR: If you’re wondering what my four main comfort books are, I’ll tell you. But try not to be disappointed; best not to argue with another person’s choice of comfort.

1. In This House of Bredeby Rumor Godden

2. The Eighth Day, by Thornton Wilder

3. And Now Miguela YA by Joseph Krumgold

4. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spyby John le Carré


 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

A Great Good Place for Books, Oakland, CA

Prince Books, Norfolk, VA

Octavia Books, New Orleans, LA




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