Sometimes A Light Notion

The portable reader the Kindle, manufactured by Amazon, weighs 10 ounces. The new iPad, manufactured by Apple, weighs a pound a half. One fifth of Robert Caro's 1300-page The Power Broker, manufactured by me, weighs one pound, two ounces, according to my kitchen scale.

Okay, the Kindle has my product beat on lightness. But can the Kindle (or the iPad for that matter), be rolled up and put in your coat pocket? Can it be scuffed, and lain down without fear of being stolen? Can it be treated as a servant, and not a master? And then there's cost. And convenience.

It's on the subway that you are most likely to see me reading my version of The Power Broker. Whether slouched on a seat or standing by a pole, I hold and view my inch or so of duct-taped pages easily. Its form suits my function.

I was absurdly proud of myself when I first came up with, about a decade ago, this method of reading big books. The necessity that mothered my invention was reading Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, the similarly sized (1400 pages!) tome by Mike Wallace and Edwin Burrows. Even while lying in bed with back troubles, I had trouble maneuvering the many pounds of this book from one side of my supine body to another. If I allowed the book to rest on my chest or belly, I risked internal organ damage. What to do?

It was from this hard place that I came up with my remedy involving a book, a razor blade and tape. I don't remember the "Aha!" moment but I remember what I did first: go online to Amazon.com. There I found a cheap, used paperback edition of Gotham. After it had arrived in the mail a few days later, I used a box cutter to slice it into five pieces of two to three hundred pages each. Gotham became five books, corresponding to the major sections of the book. I wrapped the spine of each part with silver duct tape, so the pages would not fall out. Then I read them pleasantly in bed, or carried them around with me on the train once my back was better.

My nice hardback copy, which I did not dismember, could remain on my shelf, ready to be taken down as a reference when needed. For a while I kept the parts of the paperback copy too, but I think I gave them away to someone interested in reading it.

As a lover of books, as a writer of books, cutting a book into pieces is not the kind of behavior I indulge in much or hope to see in others. But sacrilege is fun, once in a while and for a good purpose.

Although carving up a book with a knife is primitive, it's basically Amazon and the Internet that allowed or encouraged me to pursue this method. It is what made it possible to easily find a cheap, used, paperback edition to cut up. I probably could have found one in a physical used book store, but that would have taken more effort.

The Power Broker, at some 1300 pages, was a worthy candidate for being sliced up. As most urban observers know, Caro's 1974 book tells the life story, in very opinionated prose, of Robert Moses, the master builder who constructed in the 20th century so many of the bridges, highways and parks that define our region. Caro the journalist tells the story not only of a life, but of a region and a time when things were different.

My big shame is that I had never really read The Power Broker, not completely. I had tackled it in graduate school, but petered out after a few hundred pages. I also read other chapters here and there over the years, but not every word or every chapter. My hardback copy stared down at me reproachfully from my bookshelf until I opted to take another shot at it.

As with Gotham, finding a paperback copy on Amazon for a few dollars was very easy. Because this is not a book review, I will not talk about what an astoundingly good book The Power Broker is, how much more I appreciate it after 22 years of writing about urban planning, what an excellent education it is on the history of New York State government, something I hadn't expected, or how one can admire Caro's work without swallowing his entire viewpoint whole.

I'll leave that for another day, after I have finished the whole thing. I'm on my fourth of five "books."