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The Beauty of Books

When we read, we take journeys—into a new world, back in time. We re-meet old selves, uncover new places and horizons. Books are often as much about our pasts as about the stories of the books themselves. They’re also about the relationships they remind us of, the people we loan them to, the readers who came before us.

There are a lot of old children’s books on my shelves: some old family heirlooms, some bought in used bookstores. Each tells a story. There’s a late 19th-century illustrated paperback of The Gingerbread Man: the cover is sewn together with thread, the edges are tattered, a child’s signature is scrawled across the first page. The pictures bear riveting poppy reds and mustard yellows. On the bookshelf beside it is a 1960s copy of Now We Are Six, a collection of nursery rhymes from A.A. Milne that used to belong to my cousins. Beside that sits a pop-up version of The Little Prince: newer, but already laced with memories. I read it aloud to my little brother and fiancé (now husband) one Christmas eve as we drove home in a snowstorm, navigating perilous roads. The book kept us awake, aware, and cheerful.

It’s amazing how the old hardback novels on the shelf blend so beautifully together: their covers were often moss green, navy, cinnamon brown—the letters gilded in rich metallic. The older typography was often simple and scholarly, traditional serif fonts with delicate forms. The Victorian-era books have greater title flourishes, more feminine scripts. But if you stack them side-by-side on a shelf, they all blend in lovely harmony. There’s a stately grace to them.

Books today have a different character: rather than complementing each other, they often seem to be at war with each other, a clashing and clamoring of colors, fonts, and styles. There’s often a great creativity and artistry to their covers, but they can also seem as riotous and mentally-assaulting as a bunch of tv commercials. Their diversity—one of the beauties of the print book—can also be their greatest aesthetic turn-off.

Yet e-books are in an entirely separate world: they all have covers, certainly, but they’re glimpsed rarely by the reader, as the book automatically saves its place and opens to the last page you left. The pages’ fonts are particular to the tablet and its owner, not the book: ones you pick and customize according to your taste. Even the font size will change according to your preferences. E-books aren’t things you buy “used”—each is a new digital edition, particular to you, stripped of history. All of these things make the reading experience easier—but do they make it memorable, endearing?

Reading Craig Mod’s recent piece in Aeon Magazine about the future of reading makes all these questions come to mind. He writes about his embrace of digital reading, and then his abdication of it—an abdication spurred on largely by aesthetics and the limits of the digital vs. the physical (as backwards as that may at first sound):

As a consumer of digital books I feel delighted, but as a reader, I feel crestfallen. All of the consumption parts of the Kindle experience are pitch-perfect: a boundless catalogue, instant distribution, reasonable prices (perhaps once too reasonable, now less so with recently updated contracts). … But after a book has made its way through the plumbing and onto the devices, the once-fresh experience now feels neglected.

… [When] opening a Kindle book … there is no procession, and often no cover. You are sometimes thrown into the first chapter, sometimes into the middle of the front matter. … Often, you have to swipe or tap back a dozen pages to be sure you haven’t missed anything. … Titles that fall off the first-page listing on a Kindle cease to exist. Compare that with standing in front of a physical bookshelf: the eye takes in hundreds of spines or covers at once, all equally at arm’s length. I’ve found that it’s much more effortless to dip back into my physical library – for inspiration or reference – than my digital library. The books are there. They’re obvious. They welcome me back.

The pile of unread books we have on our bedside tables is often referred to as a graveyard of good intentions. The list of unread books on our Kindles is more of a black hole of fleeting intentions.

He thinks innovation could solve many of these problems, however:

Kindles could remind us of past purchases – books either bought but left unread, or books we read passionately and should reread. And, in doing so, trump the unnetworked isolation of physical books. Thanks to our in-app reading statistics, Kindle knows when we can’t put a book down, when we plunge ourselves into an author’s world far too late into the night, on a weeknight, when the next day is most definitely not a holiday. Kindle knows when we are hypnotised, possessed, gluttonous; knows when we consume an entire feast of words in a single sitting. Knows that others haven’t been so ravenous with a particular story, but we were, and so Kindle can intuit our special relationship with the text. It certainly knows enough to meaningfully resurface books of that ilk. It could be as simple as an email. Kindle could help foster that act of returning, of rereading. It could bring a book back from the periphery of our working library into the core, ‘into the bloodstream’, as Susan Sontag put it. And yet it doesn’t.

… The potential power of digital is that it can take the ponderous and isolated nature of physical things and make them light and movable. Physical things are difficult to copy at scale, while digital things in open environments can replicate effortlessly. Physical is largely immutable, digital can be malleable. Physical is isolated, digital is networked. This is where digital rights management (DRM) – a closed, proprietary layer of many digital reading stacks – hurts books most and undermines almost all that latent value proposition in digital. It artificially imposes the heaviness and isolation of physical books on their digital counterparts, which should be loose, networked objects. DRM constraints over our rights as readers make it feel like we’re renting our digital books, not owning them.

To overcome the digital book’s drawbacks in the way Mod describes, however, would require an intervention into the life of the reader that is akin to a nanny’s meddling interventions. To have a Kindle or iPad reminding me of past purchases, prodding me to read old books over again, or collecting data on my preferences would not be a welcome feature. It would be an intrusion. The relationship between reader and book is not one that should be controlled by digital algorithms. To describe the unmonitored relationship between reader and physical book as “unnetworked isolation” is to miss the whole point: that the closest relationships, even between a reader and book, often involve intimacy and privacy, a sense of aloneness in space with the other, an undistracted focus.

Neither does the mutability of e-books seem to be a boon, necessarily. Their mobility is most definitely useful—but it’s a limited usefulness for the reader. They’re about efficiency and ease: making your bag lighter as you travel and commute, perhaps, or eliminating the need for a night light when you want to read a couple chapters before bed.

But in this way, e-books remind me a lot of smoothies: they’re an efficient way to get sustenance. They often taste good and are enjoyable. They’re especially nice when you’re on a tight schedule and need to eat on the run. But to live on smoothies is to turn away from the multitudinous pleasures of the edible world: to neglect the delights of French or Thai cuisine, wine-soaked dishes, freshly-baked bread, steaming stews. To live on smoothies is possible, and definitely efficient. But it’s a rather sorry way to eat.

To neglect the world of physical books is to miss out on a constant adventure and journey: to discover the beauties that come from the relationship between reader and book—as well as the fascinating tales of readers past, to miss the mark they left on their copies, the journeys they may tell in old and tattered pages. It’s to miss out on the beauties of shifting design, the fascinating progress of the written word through time and space, trends and innovations. It’s to take your relationship with a beloved work, and tie it forever to the all-knowing algorithms of the internet—while also abandoning any potential for sharing the book with your friends or family.

For example: I recently loaned my copy of The World Beyond Your Head to a friend. Because I’d reviewed it for TAC, the pages were dog-eared and underlined, little notes were in the margin. My friend actually loved this (thankfully). When he asked me whether he could also borrow my copy of Shop Class as Soul Craft, I realized with dismay that I had purchased the book on my iPad, and couldn’t loan it to him. Regardless, the book had been read with greater swiftness and less care, without those dog-eared pages and slowly thought-through comments. What did I lose by buying that book online? More than losing a deep connection to the book itself, I lost the opportunity to be generous to a friend.

None of this means digital books can’t be enjoyed. But it means that they are, as Mod writes, limited by their medium, and limited in a way physical books are not. It means that as much as we should enjoy the former, we shouldn’t forsake the latter. Unless you really do prefer drinking literary smoothies all the time.

 

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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