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Summer Reading

May 30, 1999|ADAM HOCHSCHILD | Adam Hochschild is the author of "King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa" (Houghton Mifflin) and "Finding the Trapdoor: Essays, Portraits, Travels" (Syracuse University Press)

This fall, for the first time, some American high school and college students will be issued "electronic books" instead of textbooks. The arrival of these hand-held gadgets with computerized screens feels to me not like a milestone of technological progress but like the first notes of a death knell. In a society in which relatively few people read books for pleasure to begin with, still fewer will do so if they do not encounter books--real books--as students.

There are many reasons to love the old-fashioned paper book: the subtle differences in how different kinds of paper smell, for instance, and that promising, virginal crackle of the spine as you open a new hardcover for the first time; the sense of accomplishment as you look at the shelves of what you've read, and of humility as you look at the shelves of what you haven't.

I have been feeling sad about the possible death of the book for an additional reason: what books tell us about the person who owns and loves them. In this way, books give a small measure of immortality not just to writers but also to readers.

Each year my wife and I spend time in what was once the summer house of her late parents, and the room where I work is lined with her father's books. He was a career Foreign Service officer, a staunch Cold War liberal and a man who believed that the best of human virtues were incarnated in Puritan New England. His picture of the United States was far rosier than mine; particularly during the Vietnam War, we argued furiously, although he was a good man and we eventually made our peace. But whatever the limits of his world view, what strikes me now is how much of it I can still see, in the books on his shelves. They are a portrait of his mind.

There are books about the various places where he served as a diplomat--Ghana, New Zealand, Israel, Tunisia--for, each time he was sent to a new country, he read up on it enthusiastically, looking for upbeat parallels to the New England experience. There are books by the hundred about the United States, for the most part a country where everything works as smoothly and as wondrously as the Founding Fathers planned. Their titles alone tell the tale: "This Glorious Burden," "This Is the Challenge," "Chance or Destiny," "The First New Nation," "The Pilgrim Way," "The Discipline of Power." Sometimes a slip of paper marks a passage he particularly liked.

Some of his books are from a phase when he read biographies and memoirs of the famous--no dissidents or women but many presidents, great writers and Supreme Court justices. He was trying, he told me once, to figure out what were the early life experiences that made people into Great Men. But that interest must have been a resurfacing of an earlier one, for here in another section of the shelves I can see a row of dusty biographies in a series called American Statesmen, which he must have inherited from his parents, for they were published in the 1890s.

Another group of books reflects his ardent Unitarianism and the preaching of a minister, A. Powell Davies, he much admired. Other books clearly represent less what he actually read than what he would like to have read--for books also form portraits of our unfulfilled ambitions: an ancient leather-bound set of Blackstone's "Commentaries on the Laws of England" (perhaps a graduation present when he finished law school); a huge family Bible; Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" and Emerson's "Complete Writings."

Finally there is his beloved collection of books on New England, including the 795-page "Genealogical Dictionary of Maine and New Hampshire," which I pull out every summer to try to imagine the mysterious controversy alluded to in its preface. This acknowledges the contributions to the volume made by one Charles Thorton Libby, who "acted as a consultant in problems in which he was known to have a personal interest, but his deep-seated conviction that the book should not be published at all did not make for an entirely happy situation."

The point is this: I can look around the room and see a landscape of my father-in-law's interests, quirks and beliefs. His four grandchildren, one born after his death, will be able to do this for years to come. Collections of books, large and small, transcend time. Sometimes the collection is as carefully preserved as the library of the great 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys, which still sits at Magdalene College, Cambridge, on the shelves that the naval official Pepys had built for him by dockyard carpenters. Sometimes it is just the shelf of books over a bed: How many times, as a guest in someone else's house, staying in the room of a son or daughter no longer at home, have you looked through a book shelf for clues to the tastes and dreams of the person whose room this once was?

Such voyeurism is not a forbidden one but one to be celebrated. It is not just the writing of books that expresses who we are, but also the freedom to collect them, to arrange them and to enjoy the collections of others. Once a man who had recently been released from many years as a political prisoner in Pakistan was visiting our house. Sitting in our living room talking, at one point he paused, jumped up and began running his hands over the books on our shelves. "You must excuse me," he apologized. "I have not been able to do this for years."

Technology now lets us put an entire encyclopedia on a CD-ROM, with movies and music as well; eventually, I'm sure, we'll be able to get the contents of a Barnes & Noble superstore on a microchip. But when we're gone, will someone ever be able to look at the chips and disks we used and clearly see, as one can through a collection of books, some glimmer of the shapes of our souls?

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