Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Betraying My Oldest Friend

Every now and then, you say or do something that you can't take back, and it changes your life forever.  Sometimes it's a good thing, like having a child.  But when it's a betrayal of something you love, you will carry the regret to your grave.

For me the archetype of such betrayal is Winston Smith, in Orwell's 1984. Imprisoned by the all-powerful government, he has already endured countless tortures, but clings to the notion that he has never betrayed Julia, the love of his life.  To break this last shred of autonomy, his torturers confront him with his deepest fear, being eaten alive by rats.  Facing this horror he begs, "Don't do it to me, do it to Julia."   As his torturers understand, those nine words can never be taken back, and when he is reunited with Julia -- who has had a similar experience -- the knowledge of their mutual betrayal dooms their relationship.

I  have twice in my life been conscious of such a life-changing betrayal.  I regret them both, but would still repeat them if I could.  Both may sound trivial to many readers, but my regret is painfully real and deep.

The first was over a quarter century in the past.  I have always been a baseball fan, a fanatic partisan of the New York Mets, who I fell in love with as the perennial doormats of the National League.  In the American League, however, I found a second favorite, the team of all my relatives, the accursed Boston Red Sox.  For two decades, I rooted for both, confident -- in the era before interleague play --  that they would never face each other, which could only happen if both somehow met in the World Series.

In 1986, as any baseball fan can tell you, that actually happened.  I was over the moon, saying (and believing) that I would love every minute of the Series, no matter which of my two favorite teams won.   I held onto that belief until the final inning of the sixth game, with the Red Sox an out away from breaking their famous curse, when Bill Buckner committed perhaps the most famous error in baseball history.  At the very worst moment in nearly a century of suffering for Red Sox fans, I jumped to my feet and cheered myself hoarse.

I can say that it was inevitable, and that anyone would cheer their favorite team over their second favorite.  But I found I could never call myself a Red Sox fan again.  I had betrayed them as surely as Winston betrayed Julia.

My second great betrayal happened just this week.  To understand it, you should know that I was a bit of a prodigy as a child.  I was reading adult books at the age of 2, and had more or less finished high school by the end of third grade.  Books have always been my best friend.  For 53 of my 55 years, I don't think there has been a single day when I haven't spent at least an hour reading; even hiking the Appalachian Trail, I endured considerable extra weight rather than do without books.

The emergence of e-books has left me wary and conflicted.  The logic of e-books is obvious, especially to someone like me, who is away from home travelling more often than not.   Depending on the length of my trip, I typically carry 10 to 30 pounds of reading material, and I have a bad back, so switching to e-books would appear a no-brainer.

But I couldn't do it.  Books have been my most faithful friends since about the time I was toilet trained.  To cast them aside for the hottest, sleekest new model seemed unthinkable, and as shallow and faithless as casting aside my wife of 35 years for a similarly hot, sleek new model.  (Of course, Amazon doesn't sell the latter for under $100, but I digress.)

But every time I travelled, I found myself gazing at the lightly-loaded and paper-free modern travellers with more envy than when I gazed at... ok, that's enough of that analogy.  I even experimented with reading a couple of books on my smartphone, where the tiny screen allowed me to pretend I'd tried e-books and found them wanting.

Then, a few weeks ago, I got an iPad for work purposes, and, after some dithering, decided to give e-books "one more try."  I was only a few chapters into my first e-book, Walter Isaacson's magnificent biography of Steve Jobs,  when I realized there was no going back.  

Then, within a day or so of that realization, I went out to lunch at an Ann Arbor deli that happened to be a few doors down  from Nicola's Books, one of our last remaining independent book stores.  Walking towards the deli, I saw Nicola's and instantly found myself struggling to fight off tears.  I love independent bookstores almost as much as I love books themselves, and I felt like I'd put a knife into Nicola's heart.

I doubt I can ever go back.  Carrying so much less baggage when I travel, buying each book the moment I decide to start reading it, and beginning to reduce the miles of bookshelves that fill my house -- these are unarguably good things, and I can no more regret this decision than I can regret cheering for the Mets in 1986, or than Winston Smith could regret betraying Julia to avoid the worst death he could imagine.  

But we can regret the consequences even if we can't regret the choice.   Winston Smith didn't want to lose Julia, and I didn't want the Red Sox to lose, or the independent bookstores to vanish.  Sometimes, betraying something you love is the unavoidable cost of a greater good.  But I don't expect ever to get over it; 26 years later, I still feel guilty every time I look a Red Sox fan in the eye.