Collecting material possessions fills me with ambivalence. If anything, the accumulation of objects causes stress, and the old adage “the things you own end up owning you” rings true for me.
However, I’m inconsistent in applying this principle. The most noticeable exception is my attitude towards books.
I love them.
I love owning them; I love holding them; I love reading them; I love thinking about them; I love leafing through them; I love putting them on my bookshelf; I love looking at them on my bookshelf; and I love taking them off my bookshelf.
I don’t like reading books that I don’t own, and I don’t like lending the books I do own to other people. We are all allowed our own idiosyncrasies.
Given this attachment to the written word in its physical form, imagine how the recent e-reader craze makes me feel. Reducing great works of fiction (or non-fiction) to an ephemeral ones and zeros horrifies me.
Part of this horror is selfish. My bookshelf provides me with a biographical record of my life. For example, whenever I see Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins, I am immediately whisked back to the summer of 2003, when I worked at the Yukon Transportation Museum.
As someone who is given to fits of nostalgia, these reminders are important.
But my horror is entirely selfish, either. I think part of the meaningfulness of literature is the unique relationship that the reader builds with the actual object she is reading.
The great Canadian philosopher, Jan Zwicky, once said, “Ontological attention is a form of love.” By this, she means that really paying attention to the way something exists in the world is one way of loving that thing. Reading a real book affords you the opportunity to love that book — to love the tangible thing you hold in your hand.
For me, there is no better example of this than Infinite Jest.
Twelve years before he hung himself in his suburban California home, David Foster Wallace published Infinite Jest, a 1079-page novel about addiction and madness in America. The book weighs as much as a small child and is widely considered to be a masterpiece.
I read it over two-and-a-half months in the summer of 2009.
The thing about reading Infinite Jest is that you always have to account for it. For example, when I went on a camping trip that summer I had to think to myself, Okay, I need to leave enough room in my bag to pack Infinite Jest. This type of calculation is part of what it meant to read that book.
I also found that I couldn’t read it in bed at night because my arms would get too tired. That experience was also part of what gave Infinite Jest its meaning for me.
To read such a book on an e-reader is to deprive oneself of a meaningful physical relationship.
Are they convenient?
Do they save space?
Are they slowly killing the literary experience?
Not if I can help it.