Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When is a Book not a Book?

Yesterday’s New York Times ran a photograph that made me stop and stare. It wasn’t, thankfully, an image of war’s horrors or a natural disaster. It was a photograph of the young Walter Cronkite, a pipe in his mouth, reading a book. I glanced at the picture, scanned the article, which explained that Cronkite had bequeathed his papers to his alma mater, and then began to turn the page. But Cronkite’s pose was so startling that I turned the paper back, and stared.

There was such contentment in the way he sat, legs propped up on a desk, holding the book loosely in his lap—a sense that his mind was firmly on the words written on the page before him. Now, when we see people reading in public, they are usually negotiating between competing information sources all contained on one screen. There are plenty of readers out there—even readers of actual physical books—but our image of what it looks like to be reading has changed. It’s the ready-for-anything one-handed hold on a smartphone.

Not so long ago, I decried this cultural slide into what I saw as a devaluing of literature. How can you immerse yourself in someone else’s imagination—and sink into your own imagination—if you can’t sit quietly with just the story in front of you, printed on actual paper? Surely there’s something about the technology of ink on paper that shapes the way our brains interact with stories. (See the Times' Room for Debate blog post on the subject.) Now I know that there are numerous reasons to see the explosion of electronic books—and, before them, audiobooks—as not a threat to literature but an expansion of it, a blossoming of the art form to embrace multiple technologies. And who better to spur my thoughts on all of this than Walter Cronkite, a man famous for his role in what was once the new and misunderstood technology of our time? (How many households had televisions in the first years of the Sixties? How many don’t have at least one now?)

Still, old habits die hard. Note that I was turning the actual page of a physical copy of the New York Times. And know that just last week, after finishing my fourth reading of Tom Drury’s fine novel The End of Vandalism, I held the book in my hands for a moment, and—I confess—caressed the cover before setting it carefully down in my pile. The book as loved object is a powerful thing. I suspect I am not alone in viewing my library as a treasured chronicle of my intellectual and emotional history.

And here is where things become complicated. Barnes & Noble has announced their new e-reader, the Nook, and it is a thing of beauty. On the Nook website today, I was dazzled by the object itself as much as by its abilities. I began to muster reasons why I should own one. The technology creates the use and then the need, doesn’t it? I even clicked on the accessories page to see which cover I might purchase for my very own Nook. Among the selections was one cover so meta that it would make post-structuralist theorists weep with joy: in “100% cotton canvas with painted polyurethane coating,” the cover is designed to look just like the first page of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (whose title they get wrong). It’s the equivalent of a brown-paper wrapper, giving the Nook the legitimacy of ink and paper.

The tongue-in-cheek of this cover appeals to me. It’s a kind of anti-Magritte. He painted a pipe and captioned it “ceci n’est pas une pipe”. Barnes & Noble makes an electronic device and effectively captions it with “yes this is a book”. But my bookstore-haunting, book-buying, book-hoarding self retorts: it isn’t a book. And it's name even says so (or else what's the N there for?) The Nook is the same object whether you’ve purchased and are reading Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next, G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, or Tuesdays with Morrie. The Nook doesn't know, doesn't care. Oh, sure, you can see the cover art in a kind of iTunes-y cover flow screen, but all three of these books will feel the same, smell the same, weigh the same. I think this a bad thing. Or is it?

I was just at the point of determining to resist the blandishments of the Nook and of electronic readers in general when a thought from the other part of my life—the rowing part of my life—rushed into my mind. Every February, Boston holds the World Indoor Rowing Championships, a regatta conducted entirely on rowing machines (ergometers). When I first saw the ranks upon ranks of ergometers at the 1996 CRASH-Bs, as they are called colloquially (for Charles River All Star Has-Beens), I knew I was witnessing a truly post-modern moment. But at no point did I worry that all this virtual rowing would damage the sport of actual rowing on actual water.

The inaugural CRASH-Bs took place in 1982, with ergometers made of bicycle wheels and odometers. The digital revolution that would bring in the Nook was already on its way.


  1. I suppose however you ingest a book, it's still a book, still words written by the author. I haven't jumped on the virtual book wagon yet, but reading content online is a healthy first step. Of course, nothing will ever replace browsing the stacks of your favorite bookstore.

    I've tried reading The End of Vandalism about as many times as you've finished it, and I still can't make it through. My copy remains in my bookshelf. I read Drury's The Black Brook the first time out, so I have hope.

  2. Re: The End of Vandalism: oh no! Now I'm very curious to know why you've not been able to get through it. I sense a blog post about Drury's book coming on. Maybe you can comment and elaborate then.

    Believe me, I never thought I would tolerate the notion of reading anything other than news on screen. And I have long bemoaned what's lost when you do research on line instead of trawling through the stacks of a library and stumbling on the Text Next To the One You Want. So many times, in my academic life, I ended up finding texts in that PR and PN section of the stacks that I had no plan to use, but that turned up being an important part of my research. Now, that would be much more difficult to replicate through online searching. At least I think so. What I've decided for the moment, though, when it comes to reading (fiction) is that the electronic and the analog forms of a book don't have to compete with each other. It's not--I believe? hope?--a zero-sum game. Or is it?