Message in a Bottle
A Place to Visit and Something to Hold

This past summer I finally got around to reading Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin’s award-winning novel from the mid-’80s. It takes the form of an anthropological treatise on the civilization that will replace ours once we’ve finished screwing up the planet, and the book is pretty well unmatched in the way it fleshes out an entire culture—the society she depicts is as complete and convincing as any real one you could study in the here and now.

The Kesh people aren’t perfect, but Le Guin’s vision of them is certainly Utopian, and one of the most remarkable things about the book is how positive and productive their relationship is with the landscape in which they live. Despite the far-future setting, Always Coming Home is very much a novel of place, and it’s impossible to think of it without visualizing the valleys of northern California.

Thing is, I will always associate the book with the south of France. I was fortunate enough to read it on vacation, so for me the Kesh reside in what was once America and also exist on a Mediterranean beach. Lucky Kesh, I know. Somehow the act of carrying that book, taking it in and out of my bag, and squinting at it through the sun etched it permanently in my mind. I may forget the details of what happens in the narrative, but I know I’ll forever remember where and when I read it.

This is one of the unsung powers a book possesses, the way it can capture memories not only of the story that it tells, but of the circumstances experienced by the reader who turns its pages. It’s the physical aspect of the process that enables this, or so science suggests. I became convinced of this myself back when I was taking notes in class. It was helpful not because I had them to look at later, but because the very act of jotting them down made facts stick. What was true about writing is just as true about reading.

Scientific American ran an article last year that summarized several studies, quoting Abigail Sellen of Microsoft Research Cambridge in England and co-author of The Myth of the Paperless Office: "The implicit feel of where you are in a physical book turns out to be more important than we realized … I don’t think e-book manufacturers have thought enough about how you might visualize where you are in a book." Not to disparage e-reading, but I simply don’t have the same relationship with a text when I’m flicking a screen.

Whether it’s currently being read or not, there’s a tangibility to a book that establishes a presence. My Le Guin novel still gives off a whiff of sunscreen and has sand in the binding, for example. Even without that, though, having the spine in sight on a shelf, peripherally or otherwise, triggers something in me. Every time I glance at it, I’m transported back to the beach and relive my summer vacation in some small way.

I still remember my ninth birthday party, when I sat at my kitchen table and a classmate named Greg gave me a beautifully illustrated hardcover copy of Treasure Island. I leafed through it then, but the nineteenth-century language didn’t grab me at the time, and I didn’t read it until much later. I lived with it for years, though, boxing and unboxing it when my family moved to a new house. Turned out to be a great story, of course—I’m sure Long John Silver would live in my imagination whatever my book looked like or however I acquired it. But I guarantee that I wouldn’t remember the details of that party, and probably wouldn’t remember poor Greg at all, if my Treasure Island weren’t a real thing that existed in the real world.

I download ebooks from time to time and certainly will do so more and more often as the years go by, but for the most part I want to have the same connection to my reading as the Kesh do to their homeland. A book is even better when it’s held in the hand as well as in the mind.


A version of this piece was first published at

Books on a Plane

Warning: This post contains a few minor spoilers for The Art of Fielding and A Prayer for Owen Meany.

The Hunger GamesThe Hunger Games

On a recent cross-country flight, I looked around and realized that everyone was reading either The Hunger Games or Catching Fire. The phenomenon reminded me of a trip to Hawaii in 2010 when everyone and their mother by the pool had their nose in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or The Girl Who Played With Fire. Basically, the phenomenon confirmed something I already knew: we read like lemmings. There’s no better advertisement than the sight of fifteen noses in one place buried in the same book.

(A note on the images: 1) You can buy eBooks directly from Island Books, so don’t forget to support the little guys! and 2) that is not me in the photo. That’s teen celeb Miley Cyrus, who tweeted this picture of herself, thus influencing thousands of tweens to pick up the book.)

In the age of e-books, other people’s book choices are not always obvious. But I think it’s fair to assume that for every five copies of the same book on one flight, there’s at least one more of the same title on someone’s e-reader. Now to be fair, both at the pool and on a plane are places where many people who never have time or energy to read a book get their chance. So I knew I was looking at a different cross-section of readers than the regulars at Island Books. I suspect many of them bought their copy of The Hunger Games at the airport.

The Art of FieldingSince everyone was eagerly lapping up Katniss’s adventures, when I sat down and opened my copy of The Art of Fielding, I was surprised when the man next to me leaned over and asked what my book was about. “Well,” I said, “it’s sort of about baseball, but mainly about a young man’s coming-of-age at a small college in the Midwest and the relationships that define him.”

"Oh," said the man. "You’re reading a baseball book?"

"Maybe I oversimplified," I went on. "It’s not exactly about baseball. Everything basically revolves around this one scene. The protagonist, Henry, is the most promising baseball player the school has ever seen and is on his way to the major leagues. But one day he hits a ball that knocks his roommate, Owen, unconscious, and everything supposedly derails from there for all the major characters. I’m not that far into it yet, but supposedly the whole story pivots on one little event."

"That sounds like A Prayer for Owen Meany,” the man said. Of course in that book, a baseball hits someone hard enough to kill them, not just knock them unconscious, but nevertheless, in both stories that one swing of the bat changes everyone’s destiny.

"It does share that kind of a pivotal moment," I agreed. "And Harbach’s style reminds me of John Irving too. He makes literary references and approaches the meaning-of-life questions without being sappy."

"Maybe I’ll read it next," he said, "If I ever find time." He turned back to his copy of The Hunger Games.

"That’s a great book too."

"I’m reading it to keep up with my daughter. She’s obsessed."


We fell silent and drifted back to our books. Over the next three hours, I read deeper and deeper into The Art of Fielding, following the course of the characters’ lives after that one pivotal event. Henry loses his confidence and starts fumbling his games in front of the scouts, the president of the university falls in love with Owen after visiting him in the hospital and they embark on a dangerous affair, and the president’s daughter ends up in a love triangle with Henry and his mentor. Lives appear to crumble, but a new era begins, where each character is able to move forward from what they once were and find a new and better path in life.

We landed and I bent the page to save my place. I had almost finished, but not quite. I squeezed into the aisle feeling as if I’d eaten a satisfying, but lonely, literary meal. It seemed like everyone around me was comparing notes on The Hunger Games. Then, just a few aisles before first class, I saw it. The blue cover with thick white letters, nestled under the arm of an older man with distinguished gray hair and bifocals hanging from a chain around his neck.

"You’re reading The Art of Fielding?” I asked, perhaps a little to excitedly. I held up my copy.

"Indeed," he said, breaking out in a grin. "I’m almost finished. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? I haven’t enjoyed a first novel so much since The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.”

"Oh, I like this one better than Edgar. And I never read books about baseball. I really like it so far. I already read The Hunger Games and was feeling left out until I saw your book.”

We beamed at each other like long-lost friends. There is nothing quite like discovering a kindred spirit enjoying a book at the same time as you’re reading it.

I walked into the terminal feeling like I liked The Art of Fielding even more than when I was enjoying it alone.


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