Dispatches | August 16, 2010

I’m not the kind of person that tends to remember dreams. I had one a few weeks back, however, that has really stuck. In the dream I was reading an old book (the kind with heavy, leather binding and yellowed pages that smell a little musty) in the library, and the book began to fall apart in my hands. Holes appeared in the cover, and the pages blackened at the edges and crumbled off wherever I touched them. The dream wasn’t frightening, but I woke up with that creepy, post-nightmare feeling and couldn’t, for a while, go back to sleep.

It took me several days to realize that the dream might have been a visual representation of an anxiety. The evening before the dream I had been listening to an interview on NPR with Bob Stein, a director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, in which Stein claimed that not far down the road, the print book would be obsolete. We’re in a moment of transition, he said, “from the book to whatever is going to become more important than it.” (My emphasis).

With the release of the iPad in April and with improvements to the Kindle appearing later this month, there’s been a good bit of discussion out there lately about the move from print publishing to electronic formats—though I don’t think I had heard that transition described in such absolute terms before listening to this interview. Perhaps it’s the assumption behind Stein’s claims that disturb me the most. I understand, of course, the benefits of going paperless: it’s more economical for publishers, it’s better for the environment, it’s more portable, yada yada. The reasons are all very practical. But since when do practicality and higher profit margins add up to “more important?”

Call me a traditionalist, but to me the loss of the book would be more than the loss of a cumbersome, costly, “wasteful” object. Isn’t the book-as-object, its heft and smell, the tooth and weight of its pages, an important part of the experience of reading? Yes, the book delivers content—information—but to the book lover, reading is also an aesthetic experience. The Kindle and its like are essentially invisible media, designed to perform a function without calling attention to themselves. Many books, on the other hand, are designed to be noticed. As a poet, I appreciate the fact that the way the poem looks on the page is just as integral to the poem as the music of the words or the rhythms of its stresses and syllables. The pleasure of the poem is an experience of the eyes, just as it is an experience of the ear and the imagination. There’s an element of this to prose, as well.

Additionally, the book-as-object is an artifact. As a kid, I used to love to explore the books my parents had stacked around the house. Sometimes I’d find funny marginalia, inscriptions from old high school sweethearts, newspaper articles or photographs stuck between the pages as temporary bookmarks and then forgotten. I’ve learned quite a lot about my parents from the books they’ve kept. Just a few weeks ago, on a visit home, I came across a copy of Leaves of Grass that had belonged to my great-grandfather. I’d had no idea my great-grandfather read poetry. That book is a treasure to me. I highly doubt that three generations from now someone will find my Kindle and treasure it. Technology is disposable. Technology is sterile, impersonal.

I have a tendency, perhaps unfairly, to connect a lot of American cultural strangeness to our Puritan roots. Why, for instance, are we uniquely obsessed with sanitation: bleach-based cleaners, disinfectants, odorlessness? Undoubtedly because some of our earliest settlers believed that cleanliness was next to godliness. The infatuation with the electronic book is another one I’m adding to the list. The Puritans forbade embellishment and imagery in their places of worship because they feared that churchgoers would venerate the object as holy, forgetting that it was merely a symbol of the divine. In American culture, when it comes to a contest of function and form, function seems to win out nearly every time. The Kindle is economical and efficient. It is not beautiful. If you see the book as a mere medium to convey information, then obviously this doesn’t matter.