I love reading, though if you visited my home you would not believe me. The bookshelves are threadbare. Most of them are occupied by family photos or the output of the Christmas tradition where my wife buys me one Lego set and a cheese box from the French fromaggerie in Campo de Ourique and I spend Christmas day sitting down and building something and eating cheese for six hours.
The empty shelves are even more odd because my wife burns through more than one book per week on average. The secret to her success? A few years ago she purchased a Kindle, which accounts for the velocity of books consumed and the absence of books in our home. We also left all of our books in Texas when we moved to Portugal (other than a few beloved cookbooks).
I held off on joining her in Kindle-land. I am both wary of Amazon generally and I adore the sensation of a physical book. I also like the thrill of the hunt. We have lived in Lisbon for the last four years and in that time I have become the Indiana Jones of local book stores, searching for English books behind the Portuguese translations of those English books.
I’ve had some success. And the books feel more valuable to me because of the work to track them down. Most bookstores in Portugal, a country with a very passionate literary tradition, have at least one shelf dedicated to English books. If they have two, one of them tends to be narrative fiction and the other a mix of crime dramas and science fiction.
They almost never have complete sets. You can always find a Harry Potter book, it just might only be the second or fifth in the series. I have found Second Foundation while looking for The Foundation. Again, this makes the pursuit genuienly joyful. I will stumble upon something and bring it home with me and then take it to the beach down the street. If you do visit my home, you’ll find these treasures.
I also augment this collection while I am abroad. Sweden, in particular, has extraordinary English-language collections in their bookshops. London does as well even if the Swedish speak better English than the English. Wherever I find the books, though, I still have to haul them back to Portugal. Since I typically buy just one at a time, I wind up reading them on the plane anyway.
What about online book shopping? Amazon does not exist in Portugal (you need to try and use Amazon Spain or Germany, and package delivery in this country has about a 40% success rate, so ordering physical books online is something I ruled out.
A few weeks ago in Stockholm I purchased a new-ish Jack Ryan novel from the bookstand in the Stockholm Central train station and read the entire thing on the train and plane back to Lisbon. An incredible and timely find! I know they are simple, I know they can be dated, and I know they are not high literature but I love these color-by-numbers stories about the American answer to James Bond.
When I finished it, I wanted to read the next one. I visited each of the bookshops near me in Lisbon and I found #7 in the series, #16, and nothing. So I purchased the next chapter on the Kindle app on my phone to try and start reading it. I couldn’t. I failed to make it past a single page. Repeatedly. I have lost all willpower to use my phone for anything other than attention-grabbing scrolling.
So I caved. I ordered a Kindle in the hopes that it could solve two problems: a supply of English-language books and a device absent from distraction. It worked. I don’t feel good about it, but I have made some real progress.