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Because The Incarnate Matters, E-Readers Can Never Replace Real Books


I feel about Kindle the way St. Augustine felt about chastity: someday, Lord, but please not yet. In the by-and-by I will get one, if only because books by Richard Fernandez can only be “auto-delivered wirelessly,” as Amazon puts it. Right now, though, the moment is just not in sight.

I love physical books: the look, feel, smell, and weight of them. When I hold an old book, I remember the story—a true one—of an elderly librarian who wandered his collection, stopping to stroke the books and muttering: “Don’t worry, my darlings. They’ll never turn you into microfiche.”

Raise a glass to that man. An archivist to the bone, he was a guardian of the tangible history of thought. Improbable as it might sound to digital natives, information is a tool but love of reading is a way of life. And like any love, it has a physical dimension. There is more to it than simply ingesting print. Love of reading begins with pleasure in the look, feel, and weight of a book. Even the smell of books—seasoned ones—carries an enchantment. Redolent with memory, they do more than conjure the past for us. They bind us to it.

Would Anyone Kiss a Kindle?

Digital literacy, that darling of techno-utopians, competes now with physical books and the solitary, contemplative print culture they nourish. Evangelists of screen reading predict that the paper book won’t be around much longer. Consider, then, a contrary possibility: that in this digital age, books and the book arts matter more than ever before.

Reading a book on a screen is a bit like walking a mechanical dog. The thing can follow commands (Highlight these lines! Fetch page 73! Get the index!), but it has no soul. It will never love you back. You cannot stroke the binding, finger the spine, feel the ribs of laid paper, or relish a deckled edge. Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb tells of growing up in a home where a book—any book, not just the Tanakh—was kissed in apology if it fell on the floor. Would anyone kiss a Kindle?

An e-book is wonderfully efficient—but it is a utilitarian, prosaic efficiency that comes at a price. The monotony of scrolling works against our attention span. Reading for the delight of it—however sober the topic—is a kind of play. To be lost in a book is a festivity pursued for its own sake. It never has to stop for an upgrade or a battery charge. The book on paper, the untrendy p-book, never blows up or has to be recalled like a Galaxy 7. Spill coffee on it, and it still works.

E-readers Distract More Than They Delight

E-readers proffer their books alongside an option-rich stream of distractions. A swarm of accumulated variables—email, news, videos, infographics—are only a swipe away. Algorithm wizard Donald Knuth explained his decision to give up email back in 1990 by saying he wanted “not to be on top of things but to be at the bottom of things.” At the bottom, away from wired stuffs, is silence and uninterrupted concentration. Interactivity, and the data burst that speeds along with it, tugs against the linear book’s invitation to stay awhile and dwell in solitude. Caught somewhere in that tension is the modern reader’s retention rate.

How much of a digital reader’s pleasure is in the gadgetry? Does the axis of appeal lie in technology more than in the words that ignite our sensibilities and excite us with ideas we did not have before? The paraphernalia of e-reading—Google Play apps, e-book management software, the sorcery of applied technique—advances its own language. It muscles in on the culture with a kind of knowingness that runs counter to the summons to reflection inherent in a physical book. While we can carry whole libraries in our pockets, it is not the device that ripens us or enriches life. It is the word itself.

Shaped by dissimilar stimuli, techno-readers and print readers come to books with radically different dispositions. Do they experience the same intimacy with a text? Digital pages do not let us graze the way paper does. We cannot thumb through them for those stars, checks, numbers, and whatnots (!!; cf. Pynchon; ???; Ha!) in the margins that register responses too fleeting to be recorded off the page. There is no marginalia, not your own or—if you rummage secondhand books—anyone else’s. There is only an app pretending to be a notepad, a dead thing that cannot welcome an HB pencil.

Physical Books Tie Us to Past and Future Readers

What I begrudge most about the Kindle is that there is no such thing as a used e-book. I treasure old used books, artifacts of historical time. Often inscribed or with a bookplate, they prompt us to imagine a world without us, the world our children will inherit. They tilt our attention toward the future by reminding us that the present passes, in Joseph Brodsky’s phrase, “at the speed of a turning page.”

Take my found copy of “On Liberty, Etc.” by John Stuart Mill. That “Etc.” stands for the full title, “On Liberty, Representative Government & the Subjection of Women,” which could not fit across the narrow spine. Reprinted in 1924 for Oxford’s series of world classics, it measures a scant three and half by six inches—a pocket-sized hardcover. On a pasted down endpaper is the faded hand of its owner: “Edmund Hoag, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, U.C.L.A.” He marked his place with a red ribbon, the kind that survives today in missals and bibles. Mill’s text is clean but Hoag took a lively pen to Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s 1912 introduction.

You shrug: so who was she? Fawcett (d. 1929) was an influential English suffragist, gifted organizer, and writer. She was also a politician’s wife with her own political career. In an age that expected little more of bluestocking women than proper bearing, some music, and a smattering of French, Fawcett co-founded Newnham College, Cambridge, for women. In her day, Dame Fawcett was a contender.

Edmund Hoag remains a blank. His sparse inscription tells merely that he belonged to the only Greek-letter fraternity founded in the antebellum South. It is the same one William Faulkner and Rudy Vallée belonged to. A little later, so did Walker Percy, Jeff and Beau Bridges, and Chet Huntley. He must have been promising, young Hoag. What did he do, how did he live all these decades since UCLA? Was he someone you might want to have over?

A century after Millicent Fawcett’s death, the world takes little note of her—and none at all of Edmund Hoag. Fawcett has slipped into oblivion; Hoag might never have risen out of it. Only Mills has earned an afterlife. The book that joins them testifies to the fragility of cultural memory, and of our own brevity.

In a post-Gutenberg world, communication is increasingly disembodied. A digital book is immaterial. Words flicker across a screen, fugitive and insubstantial. By contrast, words inked onto a page are still corporeal, however slight. They occupy space, have weight and texture. They are really there. So, too, the page that holds them: Every physical book is a concrete embodiment of mind, in its way an incarnation.