September 23, 2010

Books & Physicality

It occurred to me earlier when I was typing up my previous post, and re-reading some past thoughts on the subject that there a nagging discomfort that I still have with eBooks. It’s this discomfort that makes me tend to only choose digital formats for books that I consider frivolous or lightweight or... I don't know, secondary in some way.

Of course, the definition of these terms is personal and frankly arbitrary. I can tell you that the Suzanne Collins “Mockingjay” trilogy was a whim purchase expected to be light and easy to read while travelling and therefore was purchased for the Barnes & Noble reader on my iPad. On the other hand, even though it was kind of disappointing in the end, I couldn’t imagine having bought David Mitchell’s latest (“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet”) except in physical form, and I bought the paperback of The Year of the Flood because... well, again, it's not perfectly clear. Because it’s Margaret Atwood and therefore deserves it I guess.

A book as a physical object is of course more than the content within it, and I’ve written a lot (and talked even more) about the way the aesthetic of a paper book differs from that of an ebook. But aside from the immediate experience, there’s also the longer term factors to consider. A book is an artifact. It has meaning and presence in part because of it’s physicality. In one way a book is totemic as well… when I carry a book around, I certainly feel different than when I’m carrying a laptop or an iPad or a Kindle. Not intending to play a game of fashion, nonetheless I know too that I appear defferent to the kind of person (my kind of person, I should say) who would notice and care about the distinction. Or notice that I’m holding a book at all. So each book represents me in a way that I, at least, consider entirely real. Finally, a book is a trophy of sorts. When I complete a book and place it on my shelf, I like that it’s there as a reminder and a testament to completing it. Or having inhabited it. Like photographs, I can relive those experiences by connection to the physical object1.

I’ve spent every day of my live surrounded by books, and I can’t really imagine changing that. I know this is probably itself an artifact of my particular upbriniging at this particular time in history, and that young children today are likely to develop some other affection for their objects2. Still, for me, every time I buy an eBook, I think "Here’s a book I don’t get to put on my shelf…" A book that I may not see again and that now exists as pure (ugh) digital content. Given my misgivings about memory, I find that I’m discomfited by the notion of losing what is, again, really a part of what I consider my self. And so, up to now, I’ve only bought eBooks of things that I could bear to lose, essentially… books about which I might momentarily think, “Didn’t I once have a copy of that?” and then shrug and forget. I still don’t like this thought. In fact, I have for years now lived with a mild neurosis about all those books borrowed from libraries and friends and family that I’ve read and which now live in an unrecorded null state. If I can’t see, list, or rembember them, they sort of don’t exist3 and so whatever parts of me are associated with them are also empty spaces.

Of course, the current generation of electronic readers makes some effort to represent your eBooks to you as a library of sorts, some (like Apple’s iBooks) going as far as showing cover images on a virtual wooden shelf. Still, there’s so much fragmentation… each source has it’s own reader (I have no less than 5 on my iPad today) in order to channel you into their own stores. So, to me, it’s like having 5 bookshelves in 5 different opaque cabinets, only one of which can be opened at a time. On top of my concerns about DRM, loss of a digital file (much easier these days than a paper book) backing up, and so on, these general compatibility and visibility issues really do present an obstacle to my own uptake of eBooks. Soon enough I may have to sign up for one of those social sites that lets you input all the books you have in order to provide recommendations and discussions and so forth. Perhaps having a very complete digital bookshelf would allay some of my concern, or keeping a reading journal. I’ve tried both in the past and found that the overhead of managing them meant that I eventually would miss something. For someone with my specific kind of mild obsessive / compulsive streak, a supposed record that you know is incomplete is worse than no record at all. Ultimately, having an actual book on an actual shelf makes things just ever so much easier, and for the time being, I’ll keep buying the majority of my books that way. I like them better than my iPad at any rate.


1. I’ll note here in passing that photographs have always existed as a thing that you could touch, but which I always felt ginger and guilty doing so for fear of bending, smudging, etc. As such, they never inhabited that physical space as clearly, and so their tranistion to digital didn’t seem to discard much. Photographs in a book or a stack are not so different from a computer screen in terms of interactivity.

2. Or maybe they won't? Devices are so replaceable... an iPhone is an iPhone, and all the data lives in the cloud, so to what does that aesthetic or nostalgic emotion attach?

3. There’s one book in particular that I’ve spent 20 years searching for. Only I don’t know the title or author, and only have a vague recollection of the plot, other than that I enjoyed it and would love to reread it. In part, because it may actually be really good, but also because I feel a compulsion to do so. Like having a word on the tip of your tongue, there’s this mild annoyance that I’ve lived with for all this time, and I’d really like to get rid of it. I think probably this one book has taken on the status of placeholder for all the other forgotten books, and so is therefore a single solution for erasing much if not all of that (very mild, but present) anxiety.

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