Many years ago — long before the Internet and delivery services that could find you anywhere — I did an internship in South Dakota.
I spent the summer in an old farmhouse ten miles north of the nearest wide place in the road, ten miles south of a town of enough size to have a real grocery store, and twenty-five miles from work at the legal services office on the Crow Creek Reservation in Fort Thompson.
For foolish reasons probably related to intellectual pretensions, I only took two books with me: Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Joyce’s Ulysses.
It probably goes without saying that I didn’t manage to finish either one.
I remain profoundly grateful that the grocery store in Highmore included several novels by Kurt Vonnegut among the mass market paperbacks featured on its racks. I’m not sure how Vonnegut ended up with that sort of distribution, but I read several of his novels that summer.
I also lacked a television — which I didn’t miss — and the only radio was in my car. For the first month or so, I lived alone.
Looking back, I really wish I had taken a large pile of books with me. I’m not sure any town (none of them, not even the state capital Pierre, came close to being a city) I went to over the summer had a bookstore.
The closest movie theater was fifty miles away. If there was a night club anywhere, I never saw it.
I’m not sure how I got by without a newspaper. Probably we got one at the office. And fortunately, at the end of the summer when the most important US news happened — Nixon’s resignation — I had a roommate and TV.
I mean, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss Nixon’s resignation.
But the real point of this story is that even when you don’t have anything to read or watch or anyplace to go, you will still not read that important book that you don’t really want to read.
So now my rule is to always take more books with me than I can possibly read, a task that is much easier with ebooks than it was back when the only option was print. If I’m traveling by car, I usually have a bag stuffed with books as well.
I also appreciate having newspapers on my phone. I am afflicted with a major case of FOMO when it comes to news, given my upbringing in a journalism household.
But books are more important than the news, when you come down to it. News is information, but books are another world.
And given the state of this world, spending time in another one is important.
These days, when I can order (or even borrow) ebooks online with immediate delivery as well as easily have something print shipped to my house, I live in a neighborhood awash in bookstores. I can think of six within easy walking distance, including my favorite, East Bay Booksellers.
I can also walk to three branches of the Oakland Public Library. That library also has a relationship with other libraries, so I can even get my hands on some hard-to-find books.
For that matter, there is no shortage of unread books in our place. I do my best to keep it that way.
I suspect there are still copies of Ulysses and Being and Nothingness around here.
I still haven’t read them.