On a day late in December of 2007, I shipped all of my books across the Atlantic. The day previous had been spent considering each book, determining if it was necessary to my journey, if it was worth the effort and expense required to send it all the way to England - in retrospect a stupid thing to consider. Of course each book was necessary, worth the effort and expense; and so most of them were boxed up, and those that I left unceremoniously in a paper bag outside my apartment with a note that said "please take" I regret leaving. So when I read Alexander Chee's excellent essay on the e-reader, "I, Reader," when I read that he has filled his partner's New York City apartment with 22 boxes of books, I felt very sympathetic to the idea that "collectively, they’re the autobiography of my reading life."
I have a history with all of the books I shipped, and with all of the books I have subsequently obtained. I know how and where I acquired each of them, even though, if you could poll the books, who would give honest answers, you would discover I haven’t actually read each of them (often I will say I’ve “read” a book when what I mean is I’ve skimmed a few arbitrary paragraphs and think I know more or less what it's about because I read a review somewhere). I like knowing that each book has a story beyond what's contained between two covers.
I live with someone who understands my compulsion, who is also an accidental collector of books. Not rare or even very special books, mind, but paperbacks, mostly. For reading, not for display. Though neither of us could possibly have time to read so many books, as we’re nearly always busy acquiring more. And inevitably there are now so many of them that there is no space in the house for anything but books to be on display, apart from a little wooden rocking horse that does not belong to us but which we feel we can’t remove from its shelf without changing the whole feeling of the house. So we have run out of shelves but steadfastly continue to buy books, convinced that the piles we have made in each room add a sort of messy, erudite charm to our home.
So yes, our books are the autobiography of my reading life, and his reading life, and our reading life together. They're a record of something, and so, on an emotional level, they are priceless. They're a representation of the possibility of all the knowledge we could acquire, the thoughts we could have (and an account of the knowledge we've already acquired, the thoughts we've already had).
And yet I have resisted the the obvious attraction of the e-reader for some time. For someone like me, an iPad or a Kindle makes all the sense in the world. They're portable, so that when I travel, for instance, I don't have to worry about leaving behind a book I might need to refer to, or incur overweight baggage charges because I can't decide between Romantic Moderns and Landscape and Memory. And an e-reader would allow us to increase the number of books in our possession without necessitating new furniture.
But, equally, for someone like me, this is a terrifying prospect: books without their bodies? To what would I attach my memories, my notes; what object represents the awful weight and great joy of possibility, if there is no object?
I read Chee's account of his relationship with the e-book, and I was impressed by how steadily, how fairly, he represented several sides of himself: the lover (or hoarder) of books in their physical form as well as the blogger, the obsessive reader of online news, the open-minded adapter of technology. I thought, I see myself that way - split in a way by my devotion to both the book and the screen. But it was not until Chee picks up Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West that I really saw myself in his essay; or rather, that I really saw the potential for myself in his essay.
Perhaps it's because I, too, stole Black Lamb and Grey Falcon book from a family member to add to my growing collection of books I might someday read. I was 16, and I only moved it from my mother's study upstairs to my bedroom downstairs. It's been there ever since, unread, mostly untouched, never even selected to make the move first to Boston and then to England with me. It was one I knew I wouldn't read, and its heft made it an easy choice to leave behind.
Chee rediscovers his stolen copy lying underneath his iPad and falls into it unwittingly. "When I paused to make coffee," Chee writes, "I admitted to myself I had finally started reading the book. But also, I was reading again in the way I'd always known, previous to the internet, previous to the vigil. I wanted to cheer a little but I also didn't want to disturb it either, and so instead I kept reading, which was perhaps the only right way to celebrate this. If I had in fact remapped my brain with my e-reader, which I suspected, the map I'd found had led me back here."
The reason I have so steadfastly resisted even considering an e-reader, let alone actually buying one (because there are a million reasons to resist buying one, even if they sound illogical when you write them down: a lack of money, the ridiculousness of bringing another gadget into the house, the potential that you might not, after all that, actually use it) is because reading is sort of a physical sport for me. It requires equipment - I take a pen with me to the bookshelf like a fencer takes a rapier to a match, I carry a notebook with the book for extended reactions. I underline, I make notes. Halfway through a paragraph I realise that this reminds me of that, and I scurry off down the corridor to find it, whether it's in the kitchen stacked on top of the broken microwave, or in a place of honor on the desk in my study (where the books I refer most often to live).
An e-reader, I've always argued, doesn't allow me the same possibility: it requires me to simply sit and read, to not make my own contributions to the text. Worse, it doesn't then give me a record of having read the book! What are those notes I make, really, but markers of a journey, little bread-crumbs to help myself find my way back to the state of mind I was in when I read a particular book?
In fact, the way I read a book is the way I read an article online - pausing to make notes, to copy and paste quotes, to begin to formulate my own response, which I will then post on my blog, or else let languish in a folder called "to work on". And when Chee writes that he is reading in the way he'd always known - "previous to the internet" - I realise that this is not a bad thing. I am so hung up on defending the intellectual potential of the internet, so hung up on refuting those who suggest it has made us shallow, that I have forgotten to consider that the way I read is not necessarily, not always, the best - the most pleasurable - way to read.
The truth is, I make work for myself when I read. I paddle upstream, I kick and scream my way through every sentence. I argue in my head with authors who are long dead, formulate elaborate letters that will go unsent to those who are alive. I don't want to give this way of reading up entirely - part of it is pre-internet, after all, part of it is simply my way of reacting to a text. But suddenly I think that I, too, could benefit from remapping my brain with an e-reader - or at least, I think that remapping my brain with an e-reader would not be the worst thing, would not be detrimental to my ability as a reader and writer to understand and interact with things.
I don't think one way of reading is better than the other. In fact I think both are necessary to good thought (at least for me). And I'm not going to buy an iPad tomorrow (because it's expensive, because it seems unnecessary, because, because), even if I'd kind of like to. But I am also not going to sit around thinking that an e-reader is absolutely not for me anymore, because that just isn't true.
And maybe, once in awhile, I am going to try to just sit and read a book (passively, sans rapier and inquisitive attitude). No matter what format it's in.