On Books

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | October 19, 2009 12:15 pm

One of my favorite things to do is wander around used bookstores, filtering through the collections that have their own mysterious stories to tell. In the age of electronic literature, I’m beginning to feel as outdated as some of the centuries old memoirs in these shops. Students on campus purchase ebooks and ‘vooks,’ and yet I sense that all this new technology looses something in translation–or rather digitization. I love the smell of an old book, the way the corners of the pages crinkle, the feel of its weight in my hand. But paramount, it’s these tangible books that turn authors into old friends in a way I just cannot imagine an online text could. My oldest and dearest such friend is Kurt Vonnegut Jr. You probably know him too.

Now I only allow myself one of his stories a year. I will be terribly disappointed when I’ve read every one and will probably begin again when the time comes. He weaves a special magic between an otherwise ordinary jacket using simple words to convey something profound. He turns ideas over and creates characters that are both ordinary and extraordinary. Put simply, my love of Vonnegut will endure as long as I do. So it goes.

Together, we shared the past weekend on Cold Mountain (yes, there is such a place). It was my first time away from work in I don’t know how long. Under the October sky, he told me the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr. in Mother Night. There is perhaps no greater pleasure in the world than getting lost in the pages of a good book. Real pages. The kind that turn and bend, fold and tear. Those that envelop you into the story. I hope such books persist. For as long as they survive, the old friends who composed them live on as well.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Books, Culture, Education
MORE ABOUT: Books, kurt vonnegut j

Comments (13)

  1. Linda

    There’s nothing like a good book to transport you into a different reality for a time.

  2. John Kwok

    Agreed, though my favorite book of his was – and remains – “Slaughterhouse Five”. Have been utterly perplexed why he refused, even as he was dying, to admit that he had begun his career as a science fiction writer and, even as a celebrated “mainstream” writer, continued to write science fiction. His widow Jill Krementz is a noted NYC-based photographer who specializes in photographing writers. Still have somewhere an autographed calendar of writers containing her photographs with signatures from her, Vonnegut and Frank McCourt.

  3. I feel the exact same way (about books, I’ve only recently been introduced to Kurt Vonnegut). There’s something special about reading other people’s names scrawled across the front pages of a book, or seeing the tear stains in a particularly well-written section of a story. It’s a further connection to fellow readers, and more than that, there’s never any chance of a battery dying or power outage to stop you from getting to the end :)

  4. Sorbet

    Nothing like a real book to hold in your hand. My private library has about 5000 of them (5138 at the last count), so I can completely understand how you feel.

  5. I may be wrong, but there is something else about the tangible book that is different, namely it’s “convenience.” It can be taken with you without much effort. It does not require a power source which might not be available for various reasons. You can hand it to someone else. You can more conveniently glimpse a page or two, put it down, glimpse another page or two, put it down, and on and on. It can be passed on to your kids. Its cover can be artistic and attractive in and of itself.

  6. Michael D.

    I had not heard of “vooks”, but I really cannot imagine “reading” one. I want the images in my head while reading a book to be mine. I cannot stand it when a movie or image infiltrates (and contaminates) MY image of the characters and places in a good book. Also, I am happy (and comforted, frankly) with a pile of books by my bed and therefore am not interested in a Kindle or the like. Ditto (strongly) on the Vonnegut and the used book stores.

  7. Anthony McCarthy

    Got to say, if you can get a searchable copy on your computer it makes research a lot faster.

    I’ve got such bad cataracts that I’ve got to use very large magnification to read a book. For that computers are good.

  8. Catharine

    Don’t worry, you can always re-read Vonnegut (I do). You are right that nothing will ever replace the sensual pleasure of a book (for me, anyway). However, I do own a Kindle and find it very useful — especially for traveling or urgent literary needs. We have so many thousands of books that looking for a single volume can consume an entire day — a day which would have been better spent reading the book. There simply is no greater pleasure than reading a book.

  9. magistramorous

    Sorry, but I prefer electronic literature. I hate folding/unfolding newspapers to the right article. With regard to books, a hard copy has a big disadvantage: if you want to know more information or the definition of a word, you also have to carry with you a dictionary or two. Right now, I’m reading “On the Origin of Species” for the first time and it helps that I’m reading it as a PDF for the above mentioned reasons.

  10. Rick

    It was 40 years ago last month that I landed in Vietnam to spend a year thinking about why I and my country were there. Having accidentally and fortunately landed a job in the offices (S1) of 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment (I was actually trained to be in the infantry) I discovered early on the boxes of books sent from the US as reading material for members of my unit. Miraculously, this is where I was first introduced to Kurt Vonnegut and his novels such as Cat’s Cradle, Player Piano, The Sirens of Titans, and Mother Night. Since then, Slaughterhouse Five has become one of my all time favorite anti-war novels. Within the past five years I have re-read both Slaughterhouse Five and Mother Night, and have concluded that Kurt Vonnegut retains a special place in my heart and mind, and has played an important role in helping a young scared private in the US Army to formulate a strong humanistic anti-war world view. May he rest in peace.

  11. I had the pleasure of hearing Kurt Vonnegut Jr. lecture about his career in November of 1992 at LSU where I was beginning my graduate work. He was as fascinating to listen to as he was to read. For a southern curmudgeon, he did alright.

    As to books, papers, and the written word – my dad is a latin american history professor, who has done nearly all of his academic research in the archival collections in Spain. I remeber well, as a boy, going to the AGI in Seville, and being escorted by my dad back into the stacks. There, in book cases older then the U.S. were all the documents that the Spanish had saved from their attempts to conquor the “New World.” All were hand written, amy were fraglie, and while i could not touch them, the history was seeping out none the less. While warehousing all the paper we produce is a mighty logistical challenge, those pages spoke to me. I only hope that in the furture my great grandchildren can have the same pleasure with words I have written. If its all digital, I fear they will not.

  12. Vonnegut is excellent for his re-readability. Love Cat’s Cradle, Galapagos, and Slaughter-House Five, and many others are also fantastic!

    Kudos on both good taste and enjoying some of the best books out there.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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