[It being a three-day weekend and the official End of Summer, I’m reposting a blog I wrote awhile back. Hope you enjoy it and let me know in comments about your thoughts on Paper Things. Back next Sunday.]
I love my Kindle. And I love my iPad even more. In particular, I like Reading Stuff on my little electronic gizmos. I picked up the Kindle habit while doing a job that required three or four trips to China every year, since it’s really difficult to stay under 22 kilos if you start by packing your suitcase with seven kilos of books. There’s also that whole Chinese government not liking to let a long list of books into their country anyway. Thus the great utility of my Kindle quickly became manifest. And in general Kindle books are cheaper, which is Not a Bad Thing.
Regardless of my ecstatic—near erotic, my wife Kay-Kay might claim—attachment to my digital thingamajigs, I still love Real Books Made From Trees. Or rags. Or cows, sheep and goats—keeping in mind I’m a legal historian. (Any PETA types reading this can unclench the pearls now.) I love rustling, inky newspapers, too. And handwritten letters, restaurant placemats with misspelled Chinese “Year of the” animals, and crossword puzzles requiring an ink pen to complete. (Yep. I said it. Pencils are for crossword wusses.) It’s because they Just Feel Right.
I must confess I’ve moved over partially to digital newspapers. There is a not insignificant difference between the price of the home-delivered and the online New York Times. It also provided me an excuse to buy an iPad, since I really can’t abide reading the NYT on a phone. However, our local paper, at 281 years old, almost demands to be read on old-school newsprint, especially if it’s been lying at the end of the driveway soaking up rain despite its future-dog-poop-bag covering. For the hometown rag, I just gotta be able to touch it.
Because I have a law school education (“Three more years of adulthood postponement? Count me in!”) and many years of experience as an attorney, (“Wait, what? I have to actually practice law?”) much of my life has been bound up with books. I’ve written before of my instant and highly visceral response to the smell of law libraries. It’s beyond that, though. So much of my education and professional life has revolved around the weight, the heft, the texture, even the subtle sounds of real books.
Keep in mind The Law was one of the first professions that went the whole hog into digitized content, searchable databases, etc., etc. The two behemoths in the digital law game, Lexis and Westlaw, have been in business since 1973 and 1975 respectively. Within the Grand Sweep of Tech Evolution, that places them somewhere between “Pangaea” and “first organism with lungs” in relative age. So it’s not like I wasn’t exposed to digital research and reading law from a screen early on. (For you smart alecks, I did in fact go to law school within the last 44 years.)
The problem is I just never got comfortable with doing legal research or reading cases online. Sure, Westlaw is good on the front and back end. It’s great for doing an initial subject-matter search for the 10 or 12 cases I need to read and it’s fantastic for checking to see if my cited cases are still good law, the heretofore soul-crushing process of “Shepardizing.” (Don’t. even. ask.) I just can’t get my head around exclusively reading cases and statutes and regulations on a computer screen.
I’ve pondered this for some time and believe it may be because my brain has hard-wired into it a particular set of things I need in order to deeply engage with something dense and difficult. On a subconscious level, I have to feel the weight and texture, to smell that tinge of mustiness or printer’s ink, to hear the crispness of pages turning. So if that makes me a dinosaur, I say pass me some leafy plants to nibble.
This of course begs the Why Question. I never really had the intellectual curiosity to drill into it until my grandson Goober was born a couple of years ago. He’s already a voracious reader—and by “reader” I mean Turner of Pages, Pointer at Things and Complainer about Lack of Firetrucks. But still. His mother (my daughter, Peanut) and her husband are big boosters of real books. This makes me both very happy and very relieved, given that Li’l Goob’s father is a bona fide Silicon Valley tech guy.
My grandson’s love of Real Books has reminded me that my earliest memories of my mother, still kicking at 89, revolve around books and reading. I haven’t any memories of sitting in her lap without a book in hand. When I was old enough to read solo, books were both my shield and my escape hatch. Being the youngest of four kids of which two were—ahem <cough>—problematic older brothers, books were the original Safe Space for me. And they let me escape my little hometown of Hicksville, county of Nowhere, state of Fly-Over, USA. I was never what anyone would call a great athlete or chick magnet, so the power contained in books was what shielded me a little from the vicissitudes of The High School Years. Make that those difficult grammar school, junior high, high school and college years.
Mom remains a devourer of books, even near the end of her ninth decade. Her world is shrinking—she’s in assisted living, doesn’t drive, has limited chances to get out now—but all that’s to be expected. Failing hearing, knees wearing out, bad back. Maybe the cruelest part of her shrinking world, however, is that she has macular degeneration. She moved many years ago from regular books to big print with a strong reading lamp, but even that hasn’t kept pace with her failing eyesight. She can still read, albeit slowly and with a lot of effort, with a video camera enlarger apparatus she has, but sitting at a desk is too painful for her after awhile. And she won’t even consider audio books, at least not yet. She’s toughing it out so she can read my first novel, None of Us the Same, which came out last month [May 2017].
So I might be onto an answer, or at least the start of one. In the end, it seems to me that e-books and real books may not even be substitutes. They’re each sui generis, different things entirely. I know for me there’s a world of difference between falling asleep reading a book and staring at a screen before sleeping. Kay-Kay and I years ago banished television from our bedroom for this reason. Maybe there’s a scientific basis for my intuition, maybe not. Still, I don’t think real books, or a lot of other Paper Things, are going away any time soon. They’re just too ingrained in our social consciousness, our private memories, our sense of Who We Are.
And there are a few real-book characteristics that e-books can’t match. They smell interesting. You can slam them shut with indignation. They make great sleep masks on the beach. Endless numbers of airport conversations between complete strangers begin “Is that book any good?” And they’re deep in my best memories, like e-books can never be.
Are real books doomed? Have I over-romanticized the sensory experience of reading? Is there anything more to reading than passing information?