In just a dozen or so paragraphs, Tim Parks’s short piece in praise of ebooks — titled “E-Books Can’t Burn” — on the NYRB blog is one of the more eloquent defenses I’ve read of digital reading from the side of literature, rather than, say, convenience or democracy. Some of his more offhand remarks don’t hold up to much scrutiny (ebooks are indestructible? Their version of permanence is different than that of printed books, but no less vulnerable.), but the idea at the core of his piece is a fascinating one, and relatively underplayed in the ongoing conversation about our new ways of reading: that the ebook, by clearing away the physical and even fetishistic trappings of the printed book, strips reading down to its essence, “the words themselves and the order they appear in:”
The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.
Now, I don’t find that idea fascinating only because it was my own first reaction to the Kindle when I got to test drive one a few days before it debuted back in 2007 (second reaction, actually; my first was, “Gee, a book in 20 seconds!”). There is also a great deal of truth in it, and I still think the ebook is an ideal medium for evaluating literature: a neutral playing field like the orchestra auditions that now take place behind a curtain. Ideally, prize juries should read blind (both of authors’ names as well as the works’ physical attributes).
But we don’t only read to evaluate. We read to experience, to know, and to remember, and printed books are an aid, not a hindrance, toward those ends. One commenter on Parks’s piece, before he goes off the deep end and ropes digital reading in with the soulless sexual promiscuity that’s destroying our civilization, likens a relationship with a book to love:
If this ‘logic’ is indeed true, then by extension, why commit to any woman or man? After all, strip away the aesthetic, the ‘fetishistic’, and leave us ‘to more austere, direct engagement’ with, well, any and every being.
I’m not sure this “extension” entirely works (I’m certainly not a monogamist when it comes to reading.) but the comparison to an object of love is useful. However we might try to purify our love for someone down to its abstract essentials, that love is irretrievably (and wonderfully) contaminated by more quotidian, physical associations: a timbre of voice, a smell, an ear or a toe, a piece of clothing. Even a book your beloved once read. Those details might be said to merely evoke the love, but they also come to embody it, flesh it out. Your love has a body.
Parks argues that it’s a “core characteristic” of literature as an art form that it can exist as “pure mental material, as close as one can get to thought itself. Memorized, a poem is as surely a piece of literature in our minds as it is on the page.” But if a memorized poem is the purest manifestation of literature, memory itself has a rather impure relationship to the wantonly associative materials that decorate our lives and thoughts. How do we best remember poems (and why are poems easier to memorize than prose, and song lyrics easier to remember than either)? Through details like rhythm and rhyme that bear only an apparently tangential relationship to the “pure mental material” that the words express. These sorts of secondary features of language, like alliteration and puns, sometimes feel like vestigial embarrassments to the austere quest for meaning, but they are the warp and woof of language, reminders that meaning is never separate from physical embodiment.
And memory doesn’t restrict its associative hunger to language. Memories survive longer, and are easier to access, when they are connected to other senses, to images, sounds, smells, tastes, and especially, as memory artists — Joshua Foer and Tony Judt most recently among them— have known for centuries, to spaces, to “memory palaces” that can house and organize them. Memory, in other words, thrives on fetishes, on objects that carry meaning less by essence than association. It covers the walls of its palaces with them.
And so does reading. We make sensory associations — arbitrary but meaningful — to our reading that house the mental images it creates. This would hardly be a respectable literary essay if I didn’t declare here that literature without its fetishes is like Proust without his memory-triggering madeleine — a passage, by the way, that I first read in the 1989 Vintage International edition of Swann’s Way, a book, by the way, that I associate with the warm springtime of my senior year in college, with standing in my kitchen, a place I’m sure I didn’t actually read the book, but rather held on to it as an inward symbol of my control over my reading now that my last finals were done, and as an outward badge of what I thought of as the casual sophistication of my post-college self-education (yes, it’s true that readers’ “fetishistic gratifications” are often as shamefully self-serving and impure as Parks says — that’s part of what makes them so memorable).
A physical book makes a house for its content, with pages like rooms we can pass through — and return to — in sequence, or jump among, taking shortcuts we can easily retrace because we hold the whole structure in our hands. It’s true that a vivid piece of writing, read physically or digitally, creates its own mental spaces — I have, for instance, a pretty extensive and durable image in my mind of Copper Canyon, the mine town ripe for the picking in Richard Stark’s The Score, which I read last year on my phone — but, perhaps because of its very tendency toward abstraction and austerity, reading thrives in the paper houses we build for it.
These houses don’t have to be lovely, by the way, although it helps. This isn’t really an argument about beauty, about “quality paper” or “handsome masterpieces,” in Parks’s words. A beautiful, well-designed book is a good thing, and I am sure the pleasure of holding my smooth and nearly weightless little Avon paperback edition of The Moviegoer enhanced my headlong love affair with that novel when I read it a couple of decades ago, just as it still enhances my memory of it (at this point, I remember the cover better than the book; or, rather, my pleasure in the cover, easily recalled, has now become the repository for all the pleasure I took in the book, the specifics of which await a more thorough rereading). But I first read and loved Moby-Dick in an ugly Norton Critical Edition, and The Confidence-Man in an even uglier Meridian paperback, each of which has nevertheless proved an equally sturdy physical structure for my memories of reading.
That’s not to say that the works don’t survive and transcend their material substrate. I could have read Melville anywhere — even a Kindle — and it would still have been Melville, though I’m not sure with quite as full a character in my mind as it has now. I’ve owned one of my favorite books, Housekeeping, in at least three editions (as well as on audio), and read it closely in all of them — and it was, more or less, the same book each time, but the various editions gave it, and still give it, a place in my mind. When I recall Sylvie and Ruth burning their house — and how breathtaking it was to read the first time — I have an image in my mind of their wet, cluttered yard and the flaming curtains, but alongside I have an image of a page, and of an elongated, almost sprightly font that carried the good humor of the book even through its darker scenes.
Can you get that from an ebook? I think in some ways you can, though not in the austere, neutral form that Parks celebrates. I don’t mean to make a fetish out of printed books, and I’m not asking to burn (or delete) ebooks, or their devices. Maybe all I ask is that digital books be designed in ways that give them character, that help them live and survive individually in your mind, rather than being translated into a common, anonymous display that passes through your memory as quickly as you scroll. Or maybe I suggest that you read your digital books in a way that embeds them in your life and in your sensory memory: on a newly mown lawn, or in the stale surroundings of a passenger train, or with a cup of tea and a small cake for dipping, or while sitting with someone you love. Any way, really, that keeps your books from being entirely pure, gets them a little dirty and adulterated.
And as for physical books: I’d just like them to survive, or at least be remembered, and not just as the playthings of a child.
Image Credit: Flickr/Kodomut