What If…..

What if a book leaves us unchanged?

People read books for all sorts of reasons: entertainment, information, because someone (or everyone) else is… but what if we read a book, and it makes an impact, reaches out and punches us right in the heart? And what if we cry, and swear that we will change the world that could hold such horrid truths as, oh, say, Grapes of Wrath. Or Tess of the D’urbervilles. Or even Hunger Games–which may not have the staying power of those first two, but still packs quite a wallop in the interesting metaphor and parable of social justice departments.

What if we say all that, and then we pick up the next book in the stack–or advertised on the side of the bus–and keep reading?

Does it still count, that we cried, that we felt what the characters felt, saw the injustice, the fear, the hurt? Or did it never happen? Because it really didn’t happen, did it, that thing that left us shaking until we looked up and realized we were just riding the subway, holding a paperback.

Unless it did happen. Inside us. I can count hundreds of books I’ve read in the last few years, but ask which ones changed me, and I can count them on my fingers. The Smallmart Revolution. The House of Sand and Fog. And the Band Played On. A book of short stories called Hunger by Lan Chang. Rory Stewart’s Prince of the Marshes.  Kite Runner. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Children’s Story by James Clavell. Rumer Godden’s translation of Prayers from the Ark.  I can also tell you exactly what they did, in order: changed where I shopped; sent me to volunteer at a refugee center; taught me to be embarrassed at some of the church rhetoric surrounding AIDS; made me a better Cultural Studies professor, x3; gave me my first naive understandings of white privilege; scared the shit out of me; and renewed my faith in innocence.

I can’t list such specifics for most of the books I’ve read. Every book we absorb lays a foundation, yes, puts another brick in the walls of our beliefs, anchors our approach to life. Every word is valuable–or at least being able to access it is valuable. But not every work changes us, does it? The ones that suddenly, before we can defend against it, turn us sideways, tilt our world’s axis–well, when I sit back and think about, I’m surprised at how small a list that is. I remember passages and themes from many books, but when I think about the ones that visibly affected the way I think, act, speak—–the list shrinks.

So, which book(s) shaped you, turned you into who you are now, or filed away the rough edges of what you used to think? Which books made you say “what if” and then stick with “if?”


So on Tuesday of this past week, Amazon lost (for less than six hours) its ability to sell Kindle editions in the United States because of a technical glitch. What caused it? Those On The Inside suspect it was Harry Potter’s fault. (The fact that he’s not a real person doesn’t matter. This is cyberspace we’re talking about.)

All 7 of the Potter Books became available on March 27 (Tuesday) through Potterworld, and the uploading…. well, it wasn’t  a straw that broke the cybercamel’s back so much as a magic wand.

About a million e-reading people–what is the collective noun for e-readers anyway? An exaltation of larks, a kindle of kittens…. okay, best collective noun response gets a free book from our bookstore, postage included. Title to be negotiated, but we’ll try to accommodate your request–

{Ahem} Back to the blog. About a million e-reading people in downloading frenzy crashed the Kindle sales. The breakdown occurred at 11:55 am PDT, and by 11:58 the news was going viral. How’s THAT for market share?

One of the ironies is that the crash may have been precipitated by Potter, but it was aided by a duel of duelers. The Hunger Games had hit the theatres just a few days before, and loads of people were trying to download that trilogy as well. (Hmm, I’m getting an idea for a plot. Teens dueling to the death over … oh, wait a minute.)

So, as people attempted to download the next teen megahit the previous wunderkind thrust Voldermort’s wand into the clockworks and KABLOOEY!

(Perhaps it was revenge?)

The big question in the industry is, in the six hours before it was fixed, how much money did not change hands?

But in all honesty, what I want to know is, did anyone, in desperation to lay hands to The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, or Mockingjay, call his or her local bookstore? Because then something very good could have come out of this silver e-cloud’s lining.

Perhaps Amazon’s breakdown can be measured not in market lost but in markets gained, reopened, rediscovered. Remember walking downtown to your local bookstore? Remember bookstores? Yeah, we’re still here, and oddly enough, when we “crash” it’s called closing. As in closing down. Which bookstores do when customers don’t come in.

Why visit a bookstore instead of Amazon? Well, aside from that little crashing thing, how about fresh coffee, pleasant and witty conversation, exercise (physical AND mental), a chance to see who’s reading what, a chance to see who’s written what, a chance to find out about other authors besides Patterson, Collins and Rowling (not that they’re not great; they’re just not everybody), a chance to pet the store cat or dog, and did I mention pleasant and witty conversation?

Bookstores, greenhouses, yarn stores, hobby shops run by independent people are fun. They are sweet. They are little watering holes where like calls to like and knows it will get an answer, rather than a “we are unable to assist you; please try your call again later” or even “you are order number 765843; thank you.”

I’m not against e-readers, but I am aware of the effect they have on bricks-and-mortar bookstores, and of the tertiary effects if all our third places–those tucked-away shops and pubs and gardens that are neither home nor work, where we sit and smile and be ourselves for fifteen minutes–go away. We need them for balance. We need them to be in right relation to each other.

I don’t hate Amazon; as a first-time author, I’m forced to use it as one of the ways I sell my own book. But Amazon is one of six ways one can order a book in America. Six. Count ’em: six. (To see the list, visit the section on pre-ordering my book. You can get any book via those methods. ANY book…..)

So huzzah to Amazon for crashing, and here’s hoping that six-hour window launched at least one reader on a voyage of discovery about the battles for life that really matter.