When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing—that’s reassuring.
Recently, novelist Jonathan Franzen said that e-books lack a sense of permanence. That with a screen, we can delete, revise, and move things around. And from what I gather from his words in the quote above, he cherishes that intersection between the physical and the mental—the relationship between the book itself, the words it contains, and the moments one shares with them. As a reader, I love each unique experience with a book, not just with the story but the physical object, which I take along on journeys, thumb through when I seek inspiration or long to revisit something I’d felt before, or simply admire on my shelf.
But there’s another view on e-books that I find intriguing and exciting, one beautifully expressed in “E-books Can’t Burn” in the New York Review of Books (which I came upon thanks to Alexis Madrigal’s Atlantic post). The piece, in favor of the e-book, enters a whimsical realm—yet muses deeply, seriously—and has created wonderful images in my head. In it, Tim Parks says things far more inspiring than anything Franzen has uttered on the subject.
Parks ponders literature as a medium, comparing it to other art forms:
Unlike sculpture, there is no artifact you can walk around and touch. You don’t have to travel to look at literature. You don’t have to line up or stand in the crowd, or worry about getting a good seat. Unlike music you don’t have to respect its timing, accepting an experience of a fixed duration. You can’t dance to it or sing along or take a photo or make a video with your phone.
Literature, he writes, is made up of words—spoken or written—at any speed, and in any font. Only the order of the words are fixed, but everything else about the experience can be changed:
The literary experience does not lie in any one moment of perception, or any physical contact with a material object (even less in the “possession” of handsome masterpieces lined up on our bookshelves), but in the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end.
Parks says the literary experience is “pure mental material, as close as one can get to thought itself.” The e-book, then, pushes us even closer to the text; it creates an even purer experience, stripping words from the tangible. And so, I visualize letters pulled apart in mid-air, twirling and entwining, engaged in a dance. I sense new life in these letters, and the words the letters create, and the sentences the words create, and feel myself waltzing on the same plane as the ideas themselves because that static, one-dimensional barrier between us is now broken. The pieces of paper are dissolved, and I see letters everywhere. I see words, freed, which—for the time we live in—feels more intellectually vigorous, and appealing, than “permanence.”
Franzen seems to scoff at this freeing of words, or maybe he fears it: a surfaceless world where his prose merely swirls, no longer obedient, no longer tied to its maker. I am reminded of the idea expressed by technology bloggers that once you post your work online to be consumed, shared, retweeted, and churned through the Internet, it no longer belongs to you.
Yet even though I embrace this idea that an e-book may create a different, perhaps more vivid literary experience, I don’t think any less about the book itself.
* * * * *
This week, I also came upon a lovely piece by Emily Keeler in the Toronto Standard about the redesigning of books. She discusses re-releases of classic literature with fancy new covers, like The Secret Garden and Emma and the works of Fitzgerald, with pretty embroidery and gold leaf and deco design and all. But while these collectible and gift editions are aesthetically pleasing additions to a home library, are they necessary?
Keeler writes that these elaborately redesigned covers are “a perversion of design’s ability to occasionally pull something from the past into the present”—that the repackaging relegates these novels into “static and easily consumable images.” She continues:
Basically, it sucks to produce new books without making them part of the time we actually live in, it sucks to trap these stories in physical nostalgia, even if they were written in the past.
I hadn’t thought about book redesign in this way.
I think about the novels that have moved me deeply in the past, and recall where I was, or how I was, at the time I read them. But I leave that literary experience where I found it, and if I read the story again, I create a whole new experience, given the context of my life, and given the person I have become. It is the same piece of literature, but my response will be different.
So the book as “physical nostalgia” seems strange, and almost wrong—why bottle up a literary experience? Or, is that really possible seeing that much of the experience is shaped by who we are at a specific moment? An attempt to redesign and revitalize produces, instead, a stagnant pool of ideas and emotions. There is something backwards about it all. It may be comfortable, but too safe.
And I think about Franzen again, and the reassurance that the book brings. The beauty and intimacy of the object, the moments and sensations tied to it. The book is a symbol of power and timelessness, but also longing. I love the bond I can create with a story, or how a book means so much because it is exactly what I needed to read at a particular moment in my life. Books are, and will always be, special in this way.
But an e-book is unfamiliar. Wild. And thus, exciting. How can you surf a website like The Atavist, for example—which publishes nonfiction stories for digital devices like the iPad, the Kindle, and the Nook—and not be intrigued by these new ways of telling and reading stories?
Books. E-books. Pages. Screens. I am open to everything: to turning and swiping, to revisiting and longing. But also to experimenting and, yes, dancing with words.
A wonderful time to be writing and reading, it is.