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Ode to the Emergency Book

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Anna Gooding-Call

Staff Writer

Anna Gooding-Call is a librarian and writer originally from rural central New York. She got her BA in the city that inspired "The Twilight Zone" and confirms that the hitchhikers really are weird there. Today, she lives in Massachusetts with her wife and two cats.

It has been a long time since we have needed the humble emergency book. Back before our phones could provide reading material in a pinch, before Kindles had literal weeks of battery life (or even existed), when there was no option to get a text when your car was repaired, there was the waiting room, and therefore, the emergency book. Readers of a certain age understand me: the emergency book came with you everywhere but was not read. It was aspirational. You’d never choose it over your potboiler or space opera, but you’d always intended to tackle it at some point. And when you accidentally finished your preferred novel while a tailor completed your alterations, it was there for you, making sure that you were never, ever caught out without fresh literature.

How The Emergency Book Did Its Thing

Emergency books could exist solo or in packs, depending on the circumstances. It was a fine idea to always keep a loner in your day bag, purse, or coat pocket, especially if that work was particularly hefty or grueling. Philosophy was a good pick, as was ancient literature. The trick to a solo emergency book was its size to substance ratio. You really wanted something you’d need to sink your teeth into, but which wouldn’t weigh you down too much. Short, but concentrated. It wouldn’t do to finish your emergency book, but nor did you want to find it so cumbersome that you unconsciously abandoned it in the doctor’s office. What would you resort to then? Reader’s Digest?

Solo emergency books were ideal for shorter jaunts. You knew you weren’t going to be waiting for your therapist for more than ten minutes or so. (Or, if you were me, 45 minutes because you showed up early so you could read.) You could be reasonably sure that you wouldn’t finish your primary book before your wait was done, and thus the emergency book could continue to exist unbothered in your handbag forever. However, long trips changed all the rules.

Vacation Danger

The risk of a vacation is multifaceted. First, whether you’re going alone or with a group, you’re going to have too much time on your hands. Alone, you’re going to joyously plunge into your reading life for stretches of time normally gobbled up by your day job. Inevitably, you will read more than you expected to. In a group, you’ll read even more than that as you desperately find ways to avoid the people whose presence started to grate on you 15 minutes into the car ride. Either way, your likelihood of finishing your primary book was almost a certainty. Emergency books weren’t an option anymore. There was no longer a question of What would I do if I got stranded? You were already there by default, having for some reason chosen this fate.

Packing a series was one option. I knew readers who chose to jam an entire bag full of books, hedging that they would be enough to get them through the flight and its sandy, sunshiney, margarita-washed aftermath. In a large group of readers, however, a pact could be reached: everyone read as freely and as much as desired, then passed their finished books on to the next person. If each person in a group of five brought just three books, then they could effectively be emergency books for each other.

Emergency Book Cooperation

Obviously, the success of this type of scheme depended a lot on mutual literary tastes, but I used to have arrangements like this one with my siblings that worked fairly well, arguments over preferred emergency books notwithstanding. There was a certain camaraderie in the fact that we were all facing booklessness together rather than trying in vain to hedge against the moment when we turned the last page and were faced with the void.

Now that I own a Kindle containing literally hundreds of books, I often think back to those days with nostalgia. Whether I shared in the cooperative experience of emergency book sharing or took the route of the rugged individualist, I encountered an existential threat to my ability to read books every time I left the house. I needed to be sharp, prepared, forethought, independent. I needed to be canny and calculating as well as insightful and compassionate. There were social and even political considerations involved. I may not need the emergency book anymore, but I needed it then. It made me the prepared reader that I am today.

Emergency Books Forever

I carry my emergency books with me in multitudes now. My devices are chock full of them. I will never again resort to reading travel brochures due to sudden catastrophic lack of book. There are no more book emergencies, and therefore no emergency books. Am I better off for it? I don’t know. Grateful as I am for the abundance of our modern technological vista, I find myself hoarding an old copy of The Satyricon in the lining of my motorcycle jacket. Maybe there will be a moment when my phone dies as I wait for the vet. Maybe I’ll forget my Kindle next to the bed on the very day that I break down by the side of the road. I bet I’ll be happy to have an emergency book then.

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