‘I wish you way more than luck.’ I just read David Foster Wallace’s commencement address for the first time, after finding it by accident in the back of an anthology that I only opened because I noticed it was mis-shelved.
A small (though poignant) moment in my reading life, but it points to a crucial fact in the whole paper vs digital book debate: that the books we read have lives before and after the moment of reading, and this is an aspect of the wider reading experience that ebooks have yet to seriously engage with.
You should read, if you haven’t, Tim Parks’ eloquent pro-digital piece in the New York Review of Books ‘E-Books Can’t Burn’. Parks’ central argument is that “Only the sequence of the words must remain inviolate” – that is, when it comes down to it, the experience of literature is all about the act, in the moment, of reading the words on the page. Everything else is extraneous flim-flam or decoration.
I agree, up to a point, and the point is this: that we forget most of what we read, no matter how good or bad it was, and if we want our reading to make a more permanent mark on our consciousness than the pattering of synapses in the particular moment that we have the book in our hands, then we need those words to have some ongoing presence in our lives. We need the lines of communication to be left open.
You might jot down important bits in a notebook, you might tattoo them somewhere on your body, or you might put the book back on the shelf in the hope that, should you need to find it again, you’ll be able to.
Some books you read, and you know you’ll never look at it again. There it goes, happily or unhappily, onto the charity shop pile. Which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad book. Escapism or distraction reading – and all reading involves an element of these things – is as pure an experience, in Parks’ sense, as the deep connection with a piece of fiction that you know, as you read it, will leave your life somehow changed. But unfortunately our brains – or my brain, at least – don’t necessarily hold onto those connections. They slip, they go.
For an e-book to hold that potential mnemonic effect, it would have to have some function whereby you hover over its icon and a bits of text that you’d highlighted, and tags you’d added, float out in a cloud. It’s not just that you’ve got to be able to annotate digital books, but that there’s got to be some subtle, multi-sensory, non-intrusive way for the book to keep reminding you what it holds, or what it holds for you.
This function, in the physical book, is performed by covers, spines, bookmarks, bent pages and post-its, scribbles and exclamation marks, not to mention the things that you can do with the physical book: where you shelve it, how prominently and what next to. Has anyone worked out, for instance, what’s going to become of the ‘downstairs toilet book’ – it would a shame if that genre went extinct just because people don’t keep ereaders in their loos.
The paper books you own are, as I said in a previous post, quoting William Gaddis, the “graphic index of your mind”. And all the trivial, extraneous factors that live in and around the physical book do a real job of work: building up a subtle web of connectivity between the read book (or the unread book) and us, our minds.
Books do more than furnish a room, they work as an external hard drive, a back-up of who we are. The same goes for digital books, obviously, but a ‘desktop’ is not a wall of shelves. They’re not there, nagging away (a very low-key nagging), every day, reminding us of what we’ve read, and who we are.
My good friend Neil was around at the weekend and, wandering around the house, he exclaimed at the books on the shelves: ‘Oh, I’ve read that! I’d forgotten you lent me that.’
Later that night, working my way through William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, I came across this:
Esther liked books out where everyone could see them, a sort of graphic index to the intricate labyrinth of her mind arrayed to impress the most casual guest, a system of immediate introduction which she had found to obtain in a number of grimy intellectual households in the EastVillage.
The two moments converged in my mind to form a crucial (if hardly original) clause in the Future of the Book debate: books’ utility extends far beyond the reading of them. The fact is, at the point of reading, the actual decoding of their text, a dog-eared paperback and a Kindle are roughly equivalent, give or take the odd pencil inscription and the instinctual, tactile, even multi-sensory, interface the one gives that the other lacks.
But books are at work before and after this moment, and particularly on the shelves, though I don’t mean in the Powellian sense of merely furnishing the room. They do indeed, offer a “graphic index to the labyrinth of the mind” – a wonderful phrase, no matter that Gaddis seems to be sending poor Esther up, lumping her in with those East Villagers for whom all books are coffee table books, even when they’re correctly shelved.
My point is that the index is available not just to visiting hipsters, keen to get an angle on who I am by where I shelve my Snyder, but to me myself. My book shelves, to be obvious for a moment, carry those books that I’ve read (all or part of) and those that I haven’t. I should be able to find them when I need them, but their permanent presence, at an almost ambient, background level, continually reminds me that I have read them, helps me keep them in mind. They are the subtle mementos of themselves that Neil, having returned my books – good lad that he is – no longer had.
I haven’t used a Kindle enough to know what happens to the books once you’ve read them. Obviously they can stay on there, space is not an issue, but how is their continuing presence felt? If it is only as an verbal entry on a list of titles, then that is a poor index indeed to what I have read, learned and experienced in my encounters with them. By putting my finished and unfinished books on my shelves, rather than deleting or recycling them, I am building an external, physical mnemonic to my personal, private intellectual life, a machine to help me live and think. If they look nice too, well that’s just a bonus.
Two further posts following this line of thought:
January reading: Mann, Bolaño, Royle, Griffiths, ‘slow criticism’, the graphic index of your mind Part III (what happens when my kids want to go online to research their homework…)
Some houses have rats. We have books. I know I’m not alone in this, and I love my books, and I love the shelves we had built for them in the living room, and I’m quite happy with the IKEA shelves I put up myself in my ‘study’ for the rest of them (not to mention the shelves in the loo, and the unfeasible ‘to read’ pile by the bed).
‘The rest of them’: ah, there’s a joke. Having an extensive library is something I always aspired to, but now I’m getting there (and I don’t say I’m finished yet, dear wife) I’m having problems. Simply put – and again, I know I’m not alone in this – my house isn’t big enough for my books.
Here, then are four places in my house you’ll find books, where, according to any basic law of decency, books shouldn’t be.
1) Behind other books
Double-stacking: the great sin of book-ownership. Books breathe through their spines. To put a book in front of another book is to do something akin to what happens in ‘The Vanishing’. You know those priests that got walled up in country houses for reading the Eucharist wrong? That’s what it’s like for these books. They’re suffocating.
This sin, moreover, makes a nonsense of the excuse I give for the unending proliferation of books in the house – that, as someone who earns (some) money from writing about books, I need them on hand, all of them, because I might need any of them at any time, to… to… well, to refer to. And sometimes I do. But not the ones in the back row. They’re dead to me now.
(The shelf beneath is double-stacked, too, but these are the only two shelves in the house that are, honest.)
2. Shoved on top of cupboards
Ah, student life! The suitcase on top of the wardrobe! Post-university existence has two structurally essential elements: i) a wine rack (signification: bottles of wine that come into this house aren’t necessarily going to be drunk tonight. No sir, they’re going to sit in a cheap balsa-wood-and-stainless-steel assemblage under the kitchen counter and mature, like they’re in some goddam wine cellar) and ii) a cupboard big enough to hold your suitcase or rucksack.
Books stacked on top of shelving units or cupboards don’t collect dust, they are starting to become dust.
Also note the lateral stacking: another book-owning sin, though for a more heinous example, consider:
3. Shoved in cupboards
Roughly 100 books in a built-in cupboard in my children’s bedroom (I hate built-in cupboards). Not as vicious or sadistic as double-stacking the things, but nevertheless what a dull, airless existence they have. But hey! If I need to refer to any of them, all I need to do is open the cupboard doors, and there they are. And if I need to actually get at one them, I need only go downstairs and get a chair from the kitchen and bring it back upstairs. Easy!
And if it’s one of the books stuffed down at the bottom of the laterally stacked piles, gradually compressing to peat?
Well, maybe I don’t need to refer to that one, right now.
(There’s an equally crammed fitted cupboard in our own bedroom.)
4. In a crate
Perhaps the final ignominy. This is the crate in the sitting room that gets used as an ad hoc side table. The kids keep their Wii remotes in it – and why not? It stops them ending up dumped on the rug and the sofa. And hey! If I put a couple of layers of paperbacks, spine-up, at the bottom of the crate, then the poor dears won’t have to reach so far down to get at them, will they?
Still. No books in the loft. No books in the garage. No books in boxes in a paid-by-the-month storage facility. I’m not damned yet.
And please, people, join the self-flagellation. Post or send photos of your books in places books shouldn’t be.