And Then There Were Books

WereBooksRecently a correspondent wrote:

What do you think about E-books and readers (Kindle, I-pad, Nooks, etc.)? Have you tried any? And what, if any, effect do you think they have on the experience and impact of reading? I would love to read your thoughts on the subject.

So far, I pretty much regard Kindle and e-books as the anti-Christ but I regarded answering machines, computers, and cell phones as the anti-Christ, too, until I started using them.

I don't know if I will ever come around to reading a book on a screen though. I know you can highlight, search, and save, but the whole tactile experience of a book is so incarnational and I would hate to lose that. Also, I generally can't afford to buy books, so books are therefore inextricably connected for me with the library, which is a whole other beautiful link to humanity. The excitement of putting a book on reserve and having it delivered to my local branch; the small sense of civic pride at knowing I am trusted and wanting to live up to that trust by taking good care of the book and returning it on time; the knowledge that the book has passed through many hands before mine, and will pass through many hence.

Reading for me is a whole kinetic mind-body experience. If the book is mine, I turn down pages, underline, scrawl notes, arguments, insults. I spill coffee and crumbs. When I finish a book I like, it's often bristling with little neon Post-Its, at which point I sit down and copy out (i.e., type) the quotes and passages that have struck me. That alone is a rudimentary form of "communication" with the author, a kind of paying homage by way of the effort required to copy out his or her words, to re-experience and more deeply absorb and imprint them upon my memory/soul.

You can't rest an iPad in a comforting little tent on your chest as you lean back and muse. You can't use an iPad as a makeshift pillow when you're lying on the grass and decide to take a nap in the sun. You can't prop up the leg of a desk, or hold down the corner of your beach towel when you run in to take a dip, or press leaves or ferns or wild violets between the pages of a Kindle. You can't surround yourself with e-books and thereby help make a cozy den redolent of civilization, the wisdom of the ages, God.

And how are we to size up a potential friend if we can't scan his or her bookshelves?

When I moved out of my apartment of seventeen years last year, I put an ad on Craigslist for free books and in a single day gave away 90 percent of the books that I'd been accumulating and carrying around since childhood. I felt like my head had been shorn, and yet, just as people say, books multiply. People give you books, you pick up books. I kept two or three boxes and now I have a glass-fronted three-shelf bookcase filled with books, and then there are the reference books, the cookbooks, the books of sheet music, the three or four or five teetering piles of books on the Chinese chest, the books on my bedside table, the books on the bed. All the better, I say. Books are friends. Books are companions. To those who say, "We need to save the trees," I say, "We need to publish not fewer books, but less dreck."

The argument for e-books and against real books that leaves me truly cold is the one that says: You don't have to lug books around any more! You don't have to actually carry books or magazines. You don't have to pack them, move them, feel the burden of their pesky, undesirable weight.

This to me is emblematic of a very unfortunate cultural idea that the goal is to free ourselves from what are actually the right kind of burdens.

To wit, we have old people who don't want to be a "burden" to their children, children who don't want to be a burden to their work-obsessed parents, a government that sees the sick, the poor, the mentally ill as burdens. We bypass the "burden" of peeling and chopping the beautiful root vegetable known as a carrot in favor of a bag of fake, uniformly-sized, tasteless, faux carrot nubs. We have the "burden" of walking instead of driving. We have the burden of buying actual flowers instead of sending, I can hardly bear to type the word, an "e-flower."

We should burden each other. That is what we're here for. We should be willing to sweat and bleed a little for what we love, and for the writers who have laid down their lives in order to leave us their work.

Some of the happiest moments of my life have consisted in checking out books from the library, putting them in my little bag or pack, and walking them, rejoicing, home. The heavier the load, the more the prospective enjoyment, nourishment, delight, stimulation, companionship, connection with humanity, growth.

5/24/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Heather King
    About Heather King
    Heather King is an ex-lawyer, ex-drunk Catholic convert with three memoirs: Parched (the dark years); Redeemed (crawling toward the light); and Shirt of Flame (forthcoming - her year of wandering around Koreatown, L.A. "with" St. Thérèse of Lisieux). You can find Heather on Facebook. She blogs at