Walking the Dog: How My Dog Taught Me to Read

My dog Bailey doesn’t read. He’s like that dog on the commercial for bacon bits, sniffing, panting that “you know I can’t read.” Bailey, like all dogs, is all nose, or so he let’s me believe.

I think he reads, in his own way.

I read books, newspapers, magazines, advertisements, novels, short stories, poems, sentences, blogs, and fragments of words. My office could pass for a used bookstore. As a reader, I worry. I read signs of change as if they were omens, portents, signs, predictors of a bookless, wordless future. As a writer, I worry about the deterioration of the English language — of any language at all.

Bailey reads the wind, the grass, the sides of trees, the flashes of sunlight, and the cracks in the sidewalks, and he perceives all sorts of things: the arrival of new puppies, the sore bones of a tall shepherd of advancing years (Bailey commiserates.), the small yapping poem left by a teacup poodle, the echoes of which lie like sparkly dust in the growing leaves. The scents are full of news of his world and beyond.

He reminds me a little of the dog called Mr. Bones in Paul Aster’s novel “Timbuktu”, about a homeless, mad, lost writer, who at some point tries to appraise Mr. Bones of the arts through smells. But while Mr. Bones enjoys his efforts — what fun! — he knew he was already blessed: “For once Mr. Bones was glad he was not endowed with the power of human speech. If he had, he would have been forced to tell Willy the truth, and that would have caused him much pain. For a dog, he would have said, for a dog, dear master, the fact is that the whole world is a symphony of smells. Every hour, every minute, every second of his waking life is at once a physical and spiritual experience.”

Just so, and in the same way, dogs read and spread the news and take in gossip and heartbreak from earth and wind, if not fire.

On the other hand, we, who write words, who take them in like elixir and drugs and the sweetest alcohol, who use stories and poems and biographies to inspire us and make us whole or get through the day, who love the feel and weight of books, the heft of a fall Vanity Fair issue, the rows upon rows of words in the New Yorker, or the black and white drama of a really big headline, who, when we’re lucky, can make sentences dance, worry.

Newspapers are shrinking. Magazines are disappearing. Daily, the evidence mounts up. The New York Times publisher gives an interview in London, in which he says that the print edition of the world’s most venerated paper might not exist for very long. Here, a Border’s, of all things, closes up shop downtown with a great big remainder sale. One of the city’s more original bookstores, Bartleby’s in Georgetown, is said to be closing in the near future, and a few days past, Carla Cohen, the founder and former owner of Politics and Prose on Connecticut Avenue, passed away from a rare form of cancer.

Bartleby’s is awash with old books, very old books, and books nobody’s read in a while — books about Waterloo, the Civil War, Wagner, and the early editions of state histories. Usually, there’s only one copy of each book in the hundreds to thousands that stack the shelves or the outdoor racks on sale. Not too much of James Patterson here, the mystery writer who seems to write a book every night except Sundays. Bailey would be right at home here, sensing, scenting the odor of old pages, the silky sigh of “Nevermore”, the thunderous thick words describing battle, the delicate quality of fragile pages from 1839 or some such lost year, the leaf and gold.

Patterson would have probably been on one shelf or another at Politics and Prose, out of necessity and the good graces and the New York Times Bestseller List, but there were always books on politics — some esoteric and some written by people in the neighborhood, this being Washington. Often, the authors would show up in the flesh, and every time you went to a book reading at the store, it made you feel hope for the future of well-made books, articulate writers, and the charms of the written word spoken out loud.

Like Indian summer, these portents of hope are somehow sad for their infrequency. Used book shops seem to do quite well actually, but newer bookshops have their problems of price and volume so that they resemble more and more a supermarket with books, toys, records, videos, accessories, and digital dandy stuff. Of course, this includes books on your telephone and Kindles — a different version of the same thing — for which little slips resembling book covers are provided at an extra cost.

Riding a connector bus the other day, I saw a young woman reading one of those things. I look over her shoulder and asked her what it was and why she was using it. It was the very same digital book in a cover. “I have a huge bunch of books,” she said. “The last time I moved I had to get them up to a third story walk up. I am never. Doing. That. Again.”

She extolled the virtue of the digital book. It’s easy to carry in your pocket, unlike a hardback of “War and Peace” or even James Patterson’s latest. “You can control the type-size, make it bigger. Better than needing glasses.”

A young woman on my block showed me a Kindle — John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” right in your pocket, in big type. I looked at the comfy little cover of the digital book the young woman had. I thought of advancing age. I thought about the coming Christmas, and for a minute I was tempted. But a voice said, “Not yet, not yet,” if not, “Nevermore.”

I picked up my copy of the latest Reacher novel and left. Somehow I remained unbowed and unblemished but fretting about what texting and blogging are doing to words and sentences. I came home. I walked Bailey. He did his business. He sniffed all through the walk: the poodle’s poem, the song in the wind, the news of a stiff paw on a blade of grass, the telling of the tale of the new basset puppy, the songs straight out of the sun, and the scent of drying leaves. What he reads will come to him every day, the same way.

Tomorrow, I’m pretty sure The Post will come and The Shopper, but I’m not always sure about either one of the Times.

Bailey sniffs the tree for news and stories. I worry. It’s probably like Mr. Bones said — that it’s a good thing they can’t talk.

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Wed, 17 Sep 2014 11:34:51 -0400

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