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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

No Purer Love

You needn't be rich to collect books. These are from the Peter Pauper Press.
recent post and comments on Books in Northport (don't miss the comments!) focused on the effect of rising real estate values on urban bookstores, a topic raised by Andrew Laties. Everyone knows, however—and I mean everyone in this country, not just everyone in the business--that rent is only one of many concerns facing bricks-and-mortar booksellers, as those of us with a physical street presence are called. The rapidly changing environment of publishing and bookselling, including online publishing, online buying and selling, e-books, e-readers, “clouds” and all the rest, has got everyone guessing and no one knowing for sure which way to jump.

I’m not alone in my love for printed books, and I’m far from alone in having expressed the reasons I remain loyalty to the old form but today I want to take another look at e-books, from a different and narrower perspective, because while advocates for and defenders of their respective preferences have advanced arguments in the e-book vs. print book debate dealing with issues of convenience, cost (both personal and environmental), and readability, Tim Parks has turned the debate in a new direction. His claim, the one I want to examine, is that that e-book offers a purer 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. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.
Leatherbound Jane Austen with ribbon bookmark
This is a serious point of view, and it cannot be dismissed out of hand. As for the obvious counter-argument in favor of what Parks calls “fetishistic gratification,” he anticipates and meets it head-on.
Weren’t there perhaps specific pleasures when reading on parchment scroll that we know nothing of and have lived happily without? Certainly there were those who lamented the loss of calligraphy when the printing press made type impersonal. There were some who believed that serious readers would always prefer serious books to be copied by hand.
Indeed, says Parks, until e-books came along, every age--with each successive “word-delivery system,” if you will--offered different sorts of “fetishistic gratification” (the former phrase in quotation marks is not one Parks uses; the latter is), and only now can we free ourselves from these physical distractions to meet literature in pure form. As I say, this is a serious argument, deserving of serious consideration. If you have the time and inclination, follow the link and read his position in full. It’s worth the time.

Not surprisingly, there was immediate reaction. One bookstore owner, Bill Petrocelli, predictably (but is “predictably” always “wrongly”?) challenged the Parks view, reminding readers that the fact that e-books don’t burn (a point Parks had made) is not necessarily in their favor. He was quoted in the trade e-newsletter "Shelf Awareness" as follows:
The e-book burners of the future won't have to round up all of the copies and put on them on a big pyre. They could achieve the same thing with the push of a button.
I am more than sympathetic to Petrocelli’s concern. I certainly don’t want my books somewhere in a “cloud,” where they can be turned off by some remote master switch at any moment. He has much more to say, also, which you can read here. All of Petrocelli’s are serious concerns. He does not, however, provide a direct answer to the purity question posed by Tim Parks, so let’s go back to that and then afterward see whether the two concerns can be addressed together or whether they cancel each other out. 

First, I want to question the alleged “purity” of the e-book reading experience, and secondly I want to examine the general desirability of “pure” experience, divorced from sensual considerations.

The look of this shelf pleases my aesthetic sense, but there's more--.
Does reading a book on an electronic device, be it cell phone, tablet, or large computer screen, deliver an experience free of “fetishistic gratification”? After all, I can’t be trying to impress people by the dust jacket on my book if it isn’t a book I’m holding and they can’t see a title. There’s no way interior decorating can come into play, either: the books I read (were I to read on an e-reader, which I don’t) cannot be lined up on shelves to impress visitors to my home. So is Tim Parks correct in saying that we have left the distracting sensual element behind with with the "austerity" of e-readers?

Reports from the e-reading public seem to suggest otherwise. A more “’paperlike’ reading experience” is touted as a plus for some models. People with e-readers are eager to talk about the quality of the lighted screen, the background color, the “smoothness” of use. Two owners of the devices have insisted on showing me "books I've read," which they did by showing me a a lineup of titled book icons on their electronic screens. (I'm not making that up. Somehow they seemed to think the icons provided more evidence than if they had simply told me, in spoken words, what they'd been reading.) E-readers do not dispense with fonts, either; they simply make it possible (as Parks admits) for the reader to adjust and alter the font at will.  And what about all those distracting extras like hyperlinks and such? Don’t those rather leave the “pure” text behind? Isn’t it a bit like watching a movie on DVD with the director’s voice talking over the dialogue in every scene as he explains how the scene was shot and how he got the actors to give the performances as they did? Is that a purer film experience? The question I’m asking here, in line with the argument made by Parks, isn’t whether or not you should want or enjoy the extras (because they're a bit like footnotes, after all, and you don't have to bother with them) but if the e-reading experience is “purer,” as he claims. 

Isn’t it obvious that the sensuous has not been eliminated from the e-reading experience but only homogenized so that each book’s reading “feel” is like the one before and the one to follow? Haven't a series and variety of objects simply been replaced with one sleek, modern one? What would it mean to eliminate all material objects from the reading experience? If you could somehow “download” a “book” (text, if you will) directly into your brain, would that be a “pure experience”? Maybe it would be. Maybe that is the dream that many hope will be realized in the future of reading. I wonder how many old-fashioned booklovers feel the desire for such an experience.

I’d like to change the subject slightly, for reasons of analogy. For many people, “meeting” strangers on the Internet is a freeing experience, precisely because they can meet mind to mind and leave distracting bodies out of the equation. One could, I suppose, make the argument that a relationship thus formed provides—or at least has the potential to provide--pure interpersonal experience. Individuals can exchange opinions without even knowing one another’s gender, much less their respective ages or other physical qualities. If an exchange of views is conducted in such a manner, does it constitute a relationship? A pure relationship? The literary experience, says Parks, is purely mental and exists “in the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end.” Nothing else. Is the experience of love or friendship, in its purest form, nothing more than the meeting of two minds?

More than decor--time travel and encounters with those no longer among us.
Denigration of the material world is at least as old as Plato, who divided existence into two realms and saw earthly objects as degraded versions of pure heavenly forms. To my way of thinking, such disdain for our material world, the only one we know and the one that is, therefore, the ground of our every experience, is nothing short of reprehensible ingratitude. I love to see a smile on a friend’s face or to take a friend’s hand in sympathy.

Beautiful new paperback
Okay, Tim, I gave it a whirl. I considered your position. But I’m not buying it. I don’t believe the e-reader experience is purer than the experience of reading from printed books. It’s just different. And pure experience isn’t what I’m looking for, anyway. What I want is real experience. I don’t need or desire the illusion of having left the earth. In fact, the books I love most, whether fiction or nonfiction, bind me more tightly to this earth and to those I love by evoking earthly experience. And for that I love them, the books, both what they say and for how they look and feel. I don't love books because I sell them. I am a reader and a bookseller because I love books--as literature and as objects.

Two new hardcover novels with dust jackets--beautiful in every way!

16 comments: said...

A brilliantly argued and moving tribute to books as objects and to the more "complete" experience a reader has when reading actual books rather than eBooks. I especially like your comparison to anonymous on-line friendships vs. personal ones.

Thank you, Pamela.

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you, Helen. Disclosure to the rest of you: Helen and I have known each other by phone, through e-mail and with occasional snail-mail, usually birthday greetings, since we share a birthday, and we will be meeting face-to-face for the first time in April. We have no worries about running out of topics of conversation! said...

All that you say is true, Pamela, but I want to clarify that it in no way implies that we have a "virtual" relationship like the ones described in your post. Ours is real and true and intimate--in part because we knew who we were "befriending" to begin with and made a specific choice to engage with one another because of what we already knew about one another.

P. J. Grath said...

Yes, of course, and that's important, isn't it? We knew each other to be women and to be booksellers, each with a very personal bookshop, those shops in different states but both in summer-fall tourist areas of the country. We compared business notes. We shared trials and tribulations, triumphs and successes. We compared personal notes. When we discovered that we shared a birthday, right down to the year, that clinched it! So no, our friendship has been largely conducted online but was never anonymous or impersonal. Far from it! I'm glad you brought that up, Helen. xxxooo!!!

dmarks said...

I strongly object to Tim Parks' claim that illustrated books are just for children. Where to begin? Books of the work of photographer Ann Leibovitz, just about any exhaustive book on Native American history I see (with vintage photos and maps, medieval illuminated books), Life Magazine (while not a book, was extensively illustrated and not for children).

more on the rest later...

P. J. Grath said...

Oh, my, dmarks--EXCELLENT POINT!!! That would deserve a whole 'nother post! But maybe my friend Helen is already on the job with that one?

dmarks said...

PJ, you make great points on the purity of the Ebook experience, and have convinced me by your arguments that the experience is no more pure than reading a paper book. It's just different. In fact, there's no question that reading some old hardcover novel from the 1950s, with no illustrations and the dust jacket has been lost, is a more "pure" experience than reading this book on an Ebook reader, where you have hyperlinks, automatically see what thousands of other readers have highlighted, can pop out and browse other books by the author and others right in the middle of reading, and other such "distractions". Only the oldest and most primitive ebook readers are "austere" at all.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks again, dmarks! I really did pick up only this point from Parks to argue against. It was something new to think about (so much has been gone over and over already) and intrigued me. But I also thank you again for your excellent point about illustrated books for grownups. Again, we are NOT PURELY MENTAL BEINGS! We are physical beings, as well, interacting with the world with all our senses. I suppose one could read with hands tied behind one's back, too, but what would be the point?

dmarks said...

It's also like those who assume and denigrate all science fiction and fantasy movies as being for children.

P. J. Grath said...

Diane Plumley makes an impassioned statement in response to an academic paper making lowball assumptions about the readers of mystery novels. Generalizations, people! Get over it!

dmarks said...

Did you make it down to my Sleestak post? More than the usual one, there's a link that is probably worth your while, and fits in with this tangent.

P. J. Grath said...

Here's the link that dmarks posted, which is worth following:

Michael Chabon--I love him! Plus, the best writers in any genre transcend their genre, and that is as true of "literary fiction" as of any other category.

dmarks said...

And it turns out that the writer who created the Sleestak is a winner of science fiction's most prestigious literary awards.. Still, it's not like Chabon having won a Pulitzer.

P. J. Grath said...

For a different look at books and illustration, take a look at a new blog by Newbery winner Lynne Rae Perkins:

I love the banner to her blog, showing a shelf in her studio.

Gerry said...

It occurs to me that I enjoy "fetishistic gratification." I love to carry a Petoskey stone around with me. Certain objects have powerful associations for me. And if books are fetishes, is that true as well of works of art? Well, so be it.

One of the great ironies of the whole discussion is that you, P.J., have a gift for meeting real people in virtual ways and becoming real friends! And what a joy it is to meet the real you.

What matters most is authentic experience, and that is a complicated matter that surely must be decided by each person. I don't even understand "purity" of experience. If I read a 16th century Spanish novel in English in a college textbook version, I am certainly not getting the experience the author envisioned for me, but I might well be deeply moved or wickedly amused.

I think Tim Parks makes the common mistake of confusing the medium and its content. You can fill up a paper book or an ebook or a movie screen or a blog with profoundly moving images or twaddle. And then there's the other common mistake of thinking that because he has discovered something he finds infinitely superior to something he used to do that he must disparage what he used to do. Spinach.

(And hi, d, you ol' imaginary friend you.)

P. J. Grath said...

"Spinach"? Is that a derogatory comment? Does it reflect negatively on spinach? You see how it is--a single word tangential to all the excellent points you make (and the lovely compliments you include, thank you very much) distracts me completely.

A stone in the pocket, yes! (Doesn't even have to be a Petoskey stone, as long as it feels right.) Literature in translation, yes! I will never be able to read Dante in Italian or Dostoevsky in Russian or any Chinese philosopher in Chinese.

Why are we humans so easily tempted to denigrate what we formerly loved, after we've left it behind? There's another whole important topic, which could focus on a specific religion or big city living or any of an infinite list of different people's former loves.

Thanks for visiting, Gerry. You always push me farther along in my thinking. Thank you for the very kind words, too.