From some indeterminate point in May to an equally vague point in September, I drink cold brew coffee in the morning. I drink it from a lime green plastic glass — because something about that color appeals to me in a summer sort of way, and because I like the clicky sound made by the iced tea spoon when I stir it. In September — at the end of this week, in fact — I’ll shift back to hot coffee, which I drink in a brown metal insulated mug.
I could, of course, drink the coffee in any sort of container and it would taste as good, but I choose those two because they please me. They’re a part of my morning ritual. Greet the cat, check the perimeter (with the cat, of course), feed the cat, get my coffee, read the news. I live a fairly irregular and unscheduled life, so that morning ritual provides a sort of ground-level continuity — a semi-stable foundation to begin the day.
What does that have to do with digital books? Nothing, in a material way — but they’re related in a sort of philosophical way. Recently a friend mentioned they couldn’t bring themselves to buy an e-book reader, and asked me how I could bring myself to abandon physical books. This is my answer.
A lot of people have a relationship with books that’s similar to my relationship with my lime green plastic glass. The thing is, physical objects can develop a certain presence that stems from the object’s personal history with the user. We’ve all experienced this. Maybe you have a favorite shirt — something faded and worn and not suitable to wear in public, but imbued with memories and a weird sort of affection that makes it impossible to discard. Maybe you have a screwdriver or soup ladle inherited from a grandparent, or a some old work gloves loaned to you by a friend who moved away before you could return them, or an early Baywatch poster that’s sort of embarrassing now but still un-throw-awayable — something (some thing) that has a personal meaning to you and only you.
So, how could I abandon physical books? How could I give up that tactile experience of holding a book in my hand? How could I shift away from the sound and feel of turning a physical page? Didn’t I miss the particular smell of a book? How could I reduce a great novel to nothing more than a collection of digitized ones and zeros?
I get that notion. I totally do. There are absolutely some physical experiences that clearly lose something important when they’re de-objectified, when objects are turned into information. The ringing of a church-bell, for example; we can digitally reproduce that sound, but we can’t reproduce the experience, the physicality of a ringing bell, the way the sound waves impact our bodies.
But for me, the impact of a book — and especially of a novel — isn’t in the substance of the paper and the binding, it’s in the ideas generated by the story. It’s in the unique and intensely personal interpretation of what’s written. For me, it’s the writing that matters more than the way it’s presented; it doesn’t matter to me if the words are printed on a physical page or digitally reproduced on a screen.
Originally, I thought it would matter. In fact, I refused to buy an e-book reader because I was concerned it would degrade the experience of reading. But then, back in 2010, I was given a Nook, an e-reader developed by and for Barnes & Noble booksellers. It came with a couple of classic novels already loaded — both of which I’d read and re-read several times. Pride and Prejudice and The Three Musketeers. Because it was a gift, I felt obligated to at least try using the Nook. So I started to re-read the story of Charles de Batz de Castelmore d’Artagnan and his ridiculous quest to become a musketeer — and by the time I finished the third paragraph, I was caught up in the narrative.
Imagine to yourself a Don Quixote of eighteen; a Don Quixote without his corselet, without his coat of mail, without his cuisses; a Don Quixote clothed in a woolen doublet, the blue color of which had faded into a nameless shade between lees of wine and a heavenly azure; face long and brown; high cheek bones, a sign of sagacity; the maxillary muscles enormously developed, an infallible sign by which a Gascon may always be detected, even without his cap—and our young man wore a cap set off with a sort of feather; the eye open and intelligent; the nose hooked, but finely chiseled. Too big for a youth, too small for a grown man, an experienced eye might have taken him for a farmer’s son upon a journey had it not been for the long sword which, dangling from a leather baldric, hit against the calves of its owner as he walked, and against the rough side of his steed when he was on horseback.
That pair of sentences would make any modern editor have a seizure, but they set the tone for this particular novel. More importantly, they create an image in my mind of the character d’Artagnan. Reading it digitized — like it is here — creates the same image in my mind as reading it on a printed page. That mental image has nothing to do with the medium that created it, paper or digital. It’s unique to me; your mental image of young d’Artagnan is probably different, because…well, fuck. I have to go off on a tangent here. I’ve been trying to reduce the number of tangents in these blog posts, but damn it, here we go.
I think we can all agree that with very few exceptions, books are better than the movies made from those books. One reason for that is because the characters in movies rarely resemble the characters we create in our mind when we read a novel. But on occasion, a character is so perfectly cast that we impose that actor’s face on the character in the novel. And the 1973 film adaptation directed by Richard Lester has permanently imprinted the face of Michael York on my personal interpretation of d’Artagnan. Now and for the rest of my life, when I read The Three Musketeers, I see Michael York.
Right, tangent over, and back to my point, which is as follows: some physical objects, though routine contact with people, develop an almost mystical connection to the person who possesses them. I have a relationship with my lime green glass, for example. My cold brew coffee would taste as good in a ceramic mug, but the glass means something to me. But my relationship with books, and particularly novels, is different. That relationship is grounded in the ideas created through the writing, not in the device that contains them.
When it comes to books, my interest is in the cold brew, not the lime green plastic glass.