About e-reading: a kind of Standard Model has emerged among book-lovers. For example:

One of the most imperishable notions ever set down about a personal library can be found inside Sven Birkerts’s essay “Notes from a Confession.” Birkerts speaks of “that kind of reading which is just looking at books,” of the “expectant tranquility” of sitting before his library: “Just to see my books, to note their presence, their proximity to other books, fills me with a sense of futurity.” Expectant tranquility and sense of futurity — those are what the noncollector and what the downloader of e-books does not experience, because only an enveloping presence permits them.

I’m sorry but your Nook has no presence.

That’s William Giraldi, who, despite what he says, is definitely not sorry. And here’s Dustin Illingworth:

As an unabashed sensualist, the most obvious deficiency of the digital book, to me, is the scarcity of its satisfactions: its lack of spine and alarming weightlessness, its abstract and odorless pages, the tactile sterility of the entire enterprise. It seems to me that a book’s physicality is part and parcel of its ability to convey an intimate and lasting experience. Books are meant to be handled and smelled, fingers run along worn cloth, words underlined in good black ink, dog-eared corners folded and refolded. Indeed, the materiality of books — pages, fonts, marginalia, previous owners, stains — channel, for me, a kind of literary magic, an aura of lived memory that the eBook cannot aspire to. The drops of blood in my copy of Dune (nosebleed, age 14), the wilted spots in Jude the Obscure, the profound and funny notes in Confederacy of Dunces written by a mystery reader I’ll never meet — this is where the physical book and the vitality of the reader come together, thickening with every encounter. Yes, the ideas within books, their collections of consciousness, are the important things; however, a physical book makes the conveyance itself an essential part of the endless enrichment: a monument to our relationship with the living, growing text.

I don’t disagree with any of this … well, actually, I … Okay, let me put it this way: You have two choices.

One: You have as many beautiful books as you want. You get the worn cloth, the underlined words, the dog-eared corners — if you so desire. You can have them pristine, if that’s your preference. Even the coffee stains and, um, drops of blood that connect the materiality of your existence with the materiality of the book’s existence. All this can be yours. But you have no control over what books you get: titles, authors, text — all random. Maybe you get Tolstoy, maybe you get Danielle Steele, maybe you get Dr. Oz.

Two: You can only read on e-readers, with all the features (changeable font size, backups of annotations, etc.) such devices typically have. No codexes for you. But you get to choose the books you read.

Which way do you go?


  1. I mean, it's obvious, isn't it? You take the Path of E-Reading. You do it grumblingly, resentfully, bitterly — but you do it. Because ultimately, however appealing and interesting codexes are, however much information and meaning their material forms contain, what matters more (far more) is the mental encounter with stories and knowledge and other minds. So praise the physical book, by all means — I do so myself, often, and in many ways — but let's not forget that the particular embodiment of a given text is primarily a means to a greater end.

  2. Or how about both?

    I love physical books, the smell, the proximity to other books on my shelf, etc… all of the nostalgic reasons to love books.

    I have an extensive library of them, mostly my "more dense" reading.

    But I love digital books as well, the e-reader serves a purpose for what I call my "shallow" reading. Shorter books, lighter fiction reading, the ability to highlight and share digitally etc…

    So, both. Choosing between digital and physical books is too binary of a choice.

  3. Given the bogus choice you offer, I would still opt to live in the world rather than live in my head. Sure, the randomness of selection of physical books would lead to results both serendipitous and degraded, but even the degraded results are superior to the fundamental flight from reality expressed by the notion that ideas are at once and always more important than anything else.

    Your thought experiment points to the mind-body problem. Although modern culture is increasingly pointed away from the sensorium and toward pure ideation, there is no denying that we're embodied creatures and all experience is therefore grounded in the body — even mental experience.

  4. "the fundamental flight from reality expressed by the notion that ideas are at once and always more important than anything else" — Do you know anyone who holds that view?

    If you think I do, you're not paying sufficiently close attention. I say that the transmission of ideas is what books are primarily for.

  5. Do I know anyone? Sure, lots, from all across the social spectrum. Ideation trumps actuality in many arenas, including religion, politics, and finance. Its intersection in politics and finance is perhaps best expressed as market fundamentalism, which holds (erroneously) to, among other things, the doctrine that private, for-profit solutions to intractable social issues are always superior to government intervention (socialism). Kansas and Wisconsin are currently the thought leaders here (arch Republican governors leading the charge), but they have lots of company.

    More specific to the book, what ideas are transmitted and the motivations behind them are so various that it's difficult to make one-size-fits all arguments. However, I daresay that in a culture of declining literacy and decreased attention paid to print (or pixels in the case of e-readers) vs. soft-serve video, a healthy majority those who still bother to pick up a book read pulp fiction, not other genres such as nonfiction, biography (or is that merely another form of fiction?), and high litrachah. So when one gets into considerations of quality of content, as distinguished from mode of transmission, it appears obvious (to me at least) that quality is not much at issue.

    For you and me (and others in the minority), that might differ somewhat, since we prize the quality of our mental diet highly. Again, there is no one size for all needs. But as a thoughtful consumer of ideas, I cannot overlook how omnimedia is saturating our minds with useless, pointless, twit-chat ephemera and marketing that has the effect of alienating us from each other and the natural world. It is my belief that as social animals, our engagement with each other and with physical artifacts, even when their content is questionable, is an increasingly important awareness to forestall the effect of "instrumental reality," where notions and ideas that deny reality with vehemence find refuge.

  6. I answered "both". 😉

    I simply explained choosing "both" by using the criteria of reading experience, rather than content received. So, it wouldn't matter what physical books I received, if they met my criteria of reading experience, I would keep them. Otherwise, off to donate the physical book to the library.

    Digital, the same thing, but I would get to pick the content anyhow, so…

    Either library still gets larger by my choice, because to me, the reading experience matters more, when having to select the containers (physical or digital) for said content.

  7. I'm sorry (not really), but it is the WORDS, not the paper or the binding or the smell. The WORDS. The information or the story. Staring at my books instead of reading them is something I have never, ever done.

  8. Readers, a couple of requests. First, read the post again. Note what it's doing: this is called a thought experiment. Note also what it's not talking about. And then maybe look around this blog — you could by clicking on the "e-reading" tag.

  9. When I see books (codexes) on the shelves of restaurants or furniture stores, volumes chosen as decorative objects because of their physical beauty and suitability in those settings, I try to make a point of looking at what the books are. I suppose this is as close as we get in everyday life to the first option in your thought experiment, AJ. And wow, the titles that get selected for the role of pretty prop books tend to be ones that even someone with omnivorous reading habits would find unpalatable. Given the parameters of the thought experiment, I'd definitely take the Path of E-Reading.

  10. It is interesting to see that several readers have gone to the same choice as the author, namely, that the intellectual property (the text) is preferred over its form or embodiment. So in high distinction from the teaching of one foundational media theorist, the medium is in fact not the message.

  11. I wish I could star Adam Keiper's comment above. It makes me think also of the books you find at vacation rentals; they're not quite as bad as the restaurant trompe-l'œil libraries, but there's that same sense of "don't look too closely."

    Libraries deprived of order and attention — are they even libraries? A senseless library, or a forgotten one… it might as well be a trash heap. (Exceptions are of course granted for the ancient and well-preserved. But then, we're interested in ancient, well-preserved trash heaps, too.)

    Anyway, needless to say: when headed for a vacation rental, I pack my Kindle.

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