Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I am the worst blogger! &, why ebooks certainly can burn.

Last week I did a brief interview for my friend & Hollins classmate Robin's blog in which she linked to my blog. Which made me go "Holy crap! How long has it been since I posted?" A shamefully long time. I never even finished my 50-something end-of-the-year book reviews & giveaways (although Kim will receive her books & it's likely she would've won them all anyway). My intentions were good, & I wish I could promise I'll be a diligent poster from here on out, but I can't. I can promise though that I am hard at work on my thesis. So yeah. Productivity.

But I am posting today partly out of shame & partly because the New York Review of Books made me mad enough to rant about something! It's this essay, "E-books Can't Burn" by Tim Parks, which made today's "Quote of the Day" in Shelf Awareness (if you're interested in keeping up with book industry news from a recreational &/or professional perspective, Shelf Awareness is a must-read).

Parks posits in this essay that e-books are a "medium for grown-ups," implying, then, that people who insist upon reading & owning paper books are whiny babies. It would be easy to write this whole essay off as asinine (as one commenter said, "what a silly attempt at an essay") but I'd prefer to pick Parks' essay apart because I got all riled up reading it & I like to get angry about things.

Parks' points on practicality & the environmental perks of ebooks are plenty valid. I love that I can take my Nook Tablet with me when I travel (though honestly I use it more for Netflix & still travel with paper books most of the time), but past the first paragraph, his essay falls apart.

The assertion I find most contentious is his opinion that the essence of a book is nothing more than the sequence of words & the words themselves. In Parks' view of the reading experience, nothing else matters. We don't take anything from a text other than the bare-bones words.

Unlike painting there is no physical image to contemplate, nothing that impresses itself on the eye in the same way, given equal eyesight. Unlike sculpture, there is no artifact you can walk around and touch. You don’t have to travel to look at literature. You don’t have to line up or stand in the crowd, or worry about getting a good seat.

I could try to sound scholarly & whatnot, but you know, this is just one of the dumbest things I've ever read. Does looking at a 14th-century manuscript of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight not inspire awe? What about a copy of the Gutenberg Bible? Lewis Carroll's scribbled & doodled notes? Thomas Hardy's handwritten manuscript of Tess of the d'Urbervilles? Philip Pullman's various incarnations of His Dark Materials? Shakespeare's first folio? Parks clearly hasn't had a chill creep up his spine when looking at Wordsworth's Prelude written in his own hand on paper he touched standing in the house he lived in.

I've done all those things, & I traveled a long way to do all those things. I don't say this to make myself sound important or privileged, just to show that "artifacts" do in fact mean a lot to some people. Many people, in fact, or else why preserve them? Why make people line up in a dimly lit room to squint at the Magna Carta through a layer of glass? Why do people whisper in that room? Because it's freaking amazing, that's why. Looking at a 600-year-old piece of paper with written words on it is a holy experience to those who love books.

In 600 years will people be crowding around an ancient tablet that died long ago but once held a bunch of ebooks? Or the computer that some famous author typed their work on but crashed eventually so now it's just a useless block? It's laughable. The digital format is transient; nothing digital lasts forever. You can burn an ebook. Computers crash. Paper books do not crash. Paper burns but ebooks do not last any more than than computers do. Funny what happens when you amend Parks' above statement to be talking about ebooks instead:

"Unlike paper books there is no physical image to contemplate, nothing that impresses itself on the eye in the same way, given equal eyesight. Unlike paper books, there is no artifact you can walk around and touch. You don’t have to travel to look at an ebook. You don’t have to line up or stand in the crowd, or worry about getting a good seat."

Now that is an accurate statement. 

Literature is made up of words. ... If written, the words can appear in this or that type-face on any material, with any impagination. Joyce is as much Joyce in Baskerville as in Times New Roman. ... Only the sequence of the words must remain inviolate. We can change everything about a text but the words themselves and the order they appear in. The literary experience does not lie in any one moment of perception, or any physical contact with a material object (even less in the “possession” of handsome masterpieces lined up on our bookshelves), but in the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end.

Really? So if I took a poem of e. e. cummings, removed the formatting & had a seven-year-old copy it in crayon on a sheet of construction paper it would mean the same thing? If I took Jane Eyre & painted it in stories-high letters on a brick wall that wrapped around the world it would read the same as if you were curled up in a chair with a paper book? Would reading a Hemingway ebook written in comic sans feel the same as reading an old Hemingway paperback? I don't even like Hemingway & I still wouldn't do that to him. If the "literary experience does not lie in any one moment of perception" what the hell does it lie in? What do we do with words but perceive them? What is perception but "the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end"?  

It’s true that our owning the object—War and Peace or Moby Dick—and organizing these and other classics according to chronology and nation of origin will give us an illusion of control: as if we had now “acquired” and “digested” and “placed” a piece of culture. Perhaps that is what people are attached to. But in fact we all know that once the sequence of words is over and the book closed what actually remains in our possession is very difficult, wonderfully difficult to pin down, a richness (or sometimes irritation) that has nothing to do with the heavy block of paper on our shelves.

First, owning & organizing books does not give one the illusion of control. It builds an identity that is definitely not illusory. Want to know who I am? Look at my bookshelves. Being able to place a worn copy of one's favorite book on a special place on the shelf does indeed mean that you have "'acquired' & 'digested' & 'placed' a piece of culture." It is a highly personal act that every book lover does differently. I do not shelve my books to say that this is where the essence of the book belongs in the grand scheme of things; it's where the book belongs in my grand scheme of things. & to say that all we need to do to revisit a book is to close our eyes & experience the memory of that book is, again, ridiculous.

I suppose Parks doesn't keep a book of Romantic poems beside his bed in case he needs a little Wordsworth before he falls asleep. He must never walk past his bookshelf, glance at a forgotten title, & thumb through it just because. He must not own a book whose spine is broken & pages are softened from reread after reread. He must never have highlighted & underlined & jotted down notes in a book, only to pick it up 10 years later & laugh at himself because of how silly the notes were. Parks must not own a passed-down book that his grandfather scribbled his name in as a 6-year-old. He must not have a child to curl up in his lap & read a book with at night. (& if he does, & he's using ebooks to read bedtime stories to his kids, shame on him.)

"But are these old habits essential," he asks? Essential to what? Survival? Of course not. I could survive with nothing but digital books, but life would lose a lot of luster. The richness that physical, paper books add to life isn't an illusion. There is no pleasure for me like spending unhurried time perusing a used book store, or digging through piles of books at a library sale, or holding a brand-new hardcover you've spent months waiting for. Can you imagine a Harry Potter release party without stacks of those massive books to hand out to eager fans?

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.

I just keep getting angrier! The first sentence of this paragraph, again, is almost comical in its sheer wrongness. An ereader is as much a physical object as a book; it is just another "variation." How exactly does the disappearance of a read page bring one closer to the "essence of the literary experience" than turning the physical read page? What does austerity, or spareness of text or font or text size, have to do with bettering the literary experience? It is not better. It is different.

& calling the collection of books a "fetishistic gratification" makes me want to puke. If books covering my walls is fetishistic, I guess I should just live in an empty apartment. I guess owning DVDs is fetishistic too. Or artwork. Or photos. Should the objects that fill our lives be only utilitarian? Why is removing the aesthetic, personal aspect of a book a desirable thing? 

This is a medium for grown-ups.

My first typed response to this sentence was four words long. Two were "Tim Parks" & one was a certain four-letter word. You can probably guess. But I deleted it because I'm a classy lady or something. For the sake of being nice, I will treat Parks' statement as true (WHICH IT IS NOT) & respond with the words of C. S. Lewis: "Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. ... When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."

Lastly, I'll share this Opus comic, which is one of my favorites ever & sums up my retort nicely. I guess I could've just posted this comic, actually. It would've been a perfect response on its own. But it was fun to rant.


  1. i won?!? yaaaaaaaaaaaaay! i am so excited to receive cool books from you!

    that guy talking about ereaders is an ass.

    also (and on a totally un-bribing note), i noticed that the stockpile of little gifts i have bought for you in my travels around south america keep growing. i have just come across many things that remind me of you! so... you need to get here so i can shower you with little, random prezzies. and so that i can make you a drink. and introduce you to beach cheese.

  2. Great post! Perfect way to waken up my mind during a rather mindless day of copy editing ; )