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Imaginary Activities

In the August 11, 2013 New York Times, there ran a little opinion piece called “Books to Have and to Hold” by a dude named Verlyn Klinkenborg that I think was the most eloquent & poignant “analysis” (if you can call it that) of the ebook versus paperbound debate that I have yet to see. It’s more of a personal assessment of where Klinkenborg stands amongst all the books he’s read. It was pretty short, so I’m gonna steal it from the Times and repost it right here:

I finish reading a book on my iPad – one by Ed McBain, for instance – and I shelve it in the cloud. It vanishes from my “device” and from my consciousness too. It’s very odd. 

When I read a physical book, I remember the text and the book — its shape, jacket, heft and typography. When I read an e-book, I remember the text alone. The bookness of the book simply disappears, or rather it never really existed. Amazon reminds me that I’ve already bought the e-book I’m about to order. In bookstores, I find myself discovering, as if for the first time, books I’ve already read on my iPad.

All of this makes me think differently about the books in my physical library. They used to be simply there, arranged on the shelves, a gathering of books I’d already read. But now, when I look up from my e-reading, I realize that the physical books are serving a new purpose — as constant reminders of what I’ve read. They say, “We’re still here,” or “Remember us?” These are the very things that e-books cannot say, hidden under layers of software, tucked away in the cloud, utterly absent when the iPad goes dark. 

This may seem like a trivial difference, but that’s not how it feels. Reading is inherently ephemeral, but it feels less so when you’re making your way through a physical book, which persists when you’ve finished it. It is a monument to the activity of reading. It makes this imaginary activity entirely substantial. But the quiddity of e-reading is that it effaces itself. 

In the past several years, I’ve read nearly 800 books on my iPad. They’ve changed me and changed my understanding of the world, distracted me and entertained me. Yet I’m still pondering the nature of e-reading, which somehow refuses to become completely familiar. But then, readers are always thinking about the nature of reading, and have done so since Gutenberg and long before. 

There is a disproportionate magic in the way black marks on white paper – or their pixilated facsimiles – stir us into reverie and revise our consciousness. Still, we require proof that it has happened. And that proof is what the books on my shelves continue to offer. 

We all know that I’m firmly in the paperbound camp on this. I’ve been trying to read a manuscript of a friend’s novel (let’s call him “Sebastian”) on my iPad over the last week or so and I’ve been struggling mightily – not because of the content, seriously, but because of the delivery method. iPad cramps my style. I can’t read it while I walk to work, like I would if I was reading a regular book. (I have a mile-long walk every morning from where I park to the bookstore, which affords me 15-20 minutes of strolling and reading. Try it sometime.) Besides the fact that the iPad is made of heavy metal and glass, I’d look like an asshole walking around reading on it in public. I normally get a bit of reading done in bed at night and I kind of hate holding that glowing monstrosity in front of my face after a long day. First world problem. (I started this post by telling you that Klinkenborg’s editorial was the most eloquent piece on this, so you can’t have really been expecting more from me. Jeez.)

More than any of that – more than the physical anguish an eReader might cause me – it’s the impermanence of the eBook that has always bothered me. Whether it’s Amazon ironically yanking 1984 off everyone’s Kindle or the inability to judge someone by their home library (c’mon, you know you’ve done it) the fact that there is no physical object to the content of e-reading seems problematic. Like Klinkenborg writes, maybe this “may seem like a trivial difference, but that’s how it feels.” The book is indeed a “monument to the act of reading” – an entirely ephemeral thing which exists in that strange place between your eyes and your brain. Reading is intangible in and of itself, but it has always been the physical book that lent that activity a bit of gravity. It may sound stupid, but there’s something weighty and permanent to physically closing a good book you’ve just finished and placing it on the shelf beside the ones that have come before it. It’s way more poignant than pushing a power switch.

Hell, maybe this doesn’t matter to you – maybe you don’t care if you can see the books you’ve read or “require proof” of the stories you’ve experienced. God knows my wife thinks I have several thousand too many books to cast my gaze upon in our library. She may be right. But in this increasingly digital age, where I spend a disconcertingly large portion of my days staring at a screen of some sort, I find myself needing those stacks of books more than ever before. Without those monuments to reading, all of those experiences are lost in a “cloud” somewhere – and this can’t be good our sense of permanence or even our sense of self. And that’s really it for me, I think, that the books I read become – one at a time – a part of who I am, informing my experiences one page at a time. And I much prefer to see, smell, and feel them – to have that “bookness of the book” – as a part of my home and my life, than to not.

But that’s just me. And Klinkenborg, no matter how plugged in his reading gets. This is where we are in this digital reading age – weighing the two formats to see which fits into our lives more precisely. It’s up to you to decide.


5 comments on “Imaginary Activities

  1. Anonymous
    August 24, 2013

    You know I stand on the same side, but I have other reasons to add. I am forever taking note of something, some little fact and because I seek to be sure I am correct; that yes I did read this somewhere, I search my library for the source of the knowledge I seek. Somewhere on the internet I might find what I am looking for. If, however, that book is lost in the cloud I have no assurance that I can find what I desire. But having read what I seek in a real book, my fingers can brush across the spines until the title jumps out and I will find what I need.

  2. Seth Marko
    August 24, 2013

    Absolutely, T – I do the same thing all the time. “What was the name of that place in that one book by that guy? I know I have it here somewhere…” And when the power goes out forever from the electromagnetic pulse attack, everyone's gonna be knockin' on our doors looking for the answers. 🙂

  3. warwickian
    August 29, 2013

    oooooo just think of how much power we will have. we could rule the world.
    miss you both. 😉

  4. Scott Ehrig-Burgess
    August 30, 2013


    The digicenti would argue one of the strengths of e-reading is the flexibility of note taking- multiple users can read the same file and add their own sets of notations, the notes and the book's text is much easier to search, etc.,etc. You could even use an app like Evernote to organize the notes from your digital library. I'm sure in fact that we are Luddites for even thinking a physical book would do anything better than it's digital counterpart, BUT I completely agree with you. I wonder if it's to do with the way our brains learned to wire themselves when we were becoming readers early in life. I do ALL my writing & editing on a digital screen, but for some reason I really struggle the way Seth does when I try to read on a device. The example I've used for awhile is reading an old classic on the ereader then picking it up in physical form halfway through. I was convinced the physical book was a different (and better) translation than the e version but they were identical texts. My brain was more engaged with the physical copy. Very weird. Sadly, the brains of the future will not have this 'bias'. I also agree with Seth that iPad reading in bed is a no-go- yes you can turn the light out, but then it is like reading with a flashlight pointed in your face no matter how dim you make the backlight. I also remember fondly walking to college while reading. Though dangerous, especially with headphones on, I remember well several books I read in the year I lived off campus without a car.

  5. Kathleen
    September 3, 2013

    I bought a Kindle DX (the really big one) so I could read PDFs of journal articles on it. It works…ok. Paper is better, but I felt guilty about the 18-inch high stack of printing I had after just a year of grad school, hence the Kindle. The two other things I use it for: books I find slightly embarrassing, because no one can see what I'm reading, and fantasy books. Now when those new doorstoppers come out, I don't have to carry them around with me anymore.

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This entry was posted on August 24, 2013 by in http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post.
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