1 Wake up, it’s the twenty-first century. We can’t afford to waste space on anything as obsolete as twenty-four volumes of William Makepeace Thackeray, the new librarian proclaimed in yet another message popping up on my screen. Why bother to read King Lear in a cumbersome book with tiny print, he asked, when you can have all of Shakespeare, not to mention the Bible, Koran, and Upanishads, on your hard drive? In his capacity as dean of instructional resources he’d been trying for weeks to e-mail me into submission. If people like you had their say, we’d still be chiseling words into stone. It was the kind of sarcasm one might expect from a forward-thinking caveman condescending to argue with his Cro-Magnon colleagues who are stupid enough to think fire the work of the devil. Finally the dean had to resort to something as old-fashioned as feet, and he tracked me down in my office, obviously disgusted to find so many books crammed into it, the untidiness of their pages. Do you have such a schoolgirl crush on Keats that you must hold him to your chest? Are you such an old maid you must have a cup of tea with your Jane Austen? Be a man of the times, the dean said. That’s when I punched him in the stomach with The Collected Verse of Edwin Arlington Robinson. See, I said, as The Wife of Bath chased him down the hall, as the Modern Library edition of Clarissa bounced off his back, books are good for something! 2 The Collected Letters of Millard Fillmore. Sara Teasdale: A Life. The Guilds in 14th Century Latvia. I like that there are volumes on the shelves that no one has signed out for years, their pages so important they don’t have to be read all the time, the words still free to take up space, to nod off for a few centuries till they find their way into the hands of a young man curious about the gift rituals of the Trobriand Islanders, or a girl eager to devour an obscure French symbolist; books so dusty everyone knows you’ve been reading them just by looking at your hands; tomes so heavy you can’t mistake their intentions; old encumbrances you’ve got to work to get down off the shelf. Sure, I am an obstructionist. But then, so are words. 3 Dear Subcommittee on the Gradual Devolution, Divestment, and Disposal of Printed Material in Favor of the Dematerialized, Decontaminated, and Electronically Deconstructed: Have none of you ever fallen so deeply in love with Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina or Moll Flanders you had to sweep her off to the bathroom and prove your ardor page by page, and not just with your eyes but with your hands? Every kid who beats off with a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover proves that one reads with more than one’s retinas. Do you realize that you are ruining the sex education of fifteen-year-olds? Once upon a time a kid could indulge any kind of perversion if he looked long and hard enough in the stacks, but now it’s not the librarian peering over his shoulder but the U.S. Attorney General keeping track of everyone’s alleged erections. Thanks to information technology, the Justice Department can maintain a record of every time a boy in Duluth cops a virtual feel. A kid used to be able to hide his porn beneath his mattress. You try to fit a computer under there. 4 If books are passé, what about writing with wood and graphite designed to break and wear down to a nub? Thanks to my first-grade teacher, even before I could write a sentence, I was worried about lead poisoning, what words could do if they got under your skin. But that made writing even more exciting. I’d already fallen in love with the way my thumb and its small platoon of fingers held the pencil up like a flag they were attempting to plant on a hill they’d just taken. I could feel the words forming, their letters growing softer as the point wore down, it being only natural that they give under so much weight. In college I refused to give up writing with graphite. I imagined the syllables crouching inside the pencil like actors waiting for their cues. I didn’t wash the smudges off my hands till I had to. That’d be like scrubbing away Keats or Virgil. Nothing smelled more inviting than pine cut away from pine, the shavings at the last moment curling as if they couldn’t help this little show of joy at being liberated. Old Number 2, comrade in arms, you’ve seen me more naked than my wife has. I’ve told you more than I’d ever say to a therapist. How many times have you saved my life, my thumb and first two fingers latching onto you like shipwrecked sailors, the rest of the hand pressing close, my whole body holding on as we ride out the tempest? 5 My second-grade teacher wouldn’t let us use erasers. She wanted us to get things right the first time. But that’s why I love pencils: everything you do with them, you can undo immediately. If there’s pleasure in putting something down on paper, there’s even more in rubbing it off the page. If in the fall the trees get to let go of a whole year of hard thinking, why can’t we erase just as much? On a computer, delete something and it’s gone for good, but with a pencil you still have the grit of your words, an entire alphabet of erasures. Pencils have outlived their use? Erasers outstayed their welcome? You might as well claim that leaves are outmoded. There’s something to be said for getting as close to words as you can, the hand guarding what it just gave birth to, even bearing down on a writing instrument till it breaks and then having to bring a point back again and again to the pencil, that familiar intimacy between graphite and finger, flesh and word, hunched over a sentence in a dimming light, eyes trying to figure out what the hand just wrote.