Bidding Farewell to Accidental Books

Accidental books are books we might not have chosen given unlimited choice, but also don't mind reading when they fall in our path.
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Three women sat side-by-side in the first row of coach. The woman by the window read a Kindle. The woman on the aisle read an iPad. The woman in the middle read a plain old book.

Two out of three travelers prefer digital reading.

(Admittedly, my sample is small. But hang with me...)

One of travel's great pleasures is time to read -- long, luxurious stretches sitting in airports, on trains, airplanes, on the beach, if you're lucky. Reading is what makes flying tolerable, allowing you to check out of the whole claustrophobic scene around you and enter another world of your choosing. I consider reading a necessary component of travel.

I'm no Luddite. I have discovered the pleasure of podcasts on airplanes, and fervently hope that when WiFi becomes standard on flights I will have the strength of character to resist it.

But I'm no early adopter either. So while I'll probably succumb to the the digital reader eventually, for now, I'm still a book girl.

And yes, I am saddened by what appears to be the inevitable passing of analog books, for many reasons, including because it will mean the end of accidental books -- those books we find left behind in airports, take off the bookshelves of rented beach cottages, pick from the rack of second-hand English-language books in foreign shops. Accidental books are books we might not have chosen given unlimited choice, but also don't mind reading when they fall in our path.

I like leaving books and magazines behind on trips -- in airports, on park benches, in hotel rooms. On a trip through several Alpine nations, I left my copy of Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone in a park in Switzerland, found someone else's copy (or was it mine, traveling on a tighter schedule?) on a bench in Austria a few days later. I left Postcards by Annie Proulx in the Portland, Oregon airport, then felt guilty because it was such a depressing book. Would it spoil someone's holiday?

I reread Lolita because it was all that appealed to me among the yellowed collection on a rickety rack in a small grocery store on a Greek island. (I don't remember which; we were sailing with friends and one little yachters' port town looked a lot like the next.) I read Everyone Worth Knowing by Lauren Weisberger because a someone I met on a trip was done with it and passed it along. I preferred Weisberger's first book, Devil Wears Prada, which I found in a hotel library. And I liked Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress by Susan Jane Gilman more than I expected after taking a shot on it when I found it, and little else that appealed, in an airport newsstand.

I have tried to picture how this sort of serendipity could translate to the digital age, but I can't see it. Accidental books will fade away like so many things that are being eclipsed by new technology: happening upon interesting stories as you page through a newspaper, nostalgia for people in our past who now are eternally in our present via Facebook, the intimacy of handwritten letters.

Books are bulky. They're heavy. They take up a lot of space. With a digital reader, you can carry hundreds of books everywhere you go. But you have to choose all those books, one at a time -- no more surprises. And when you are done, your books become no more than useless bits and bytes. Unless, of course, you would like to leave your Kindle on an airplane seat for me to find.

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