My dad should probably be earning commission for his eager promotion of the Amazon Kindle as an optimal, nearly infallible reading device. A few weeks ago, as I listened attentively once more to the merits of the Kindle — free e-books, ease of travel, efficiency in delivering periodicals that are all-too-prone to pile up in the recycling bin — I remained unconvinced. I am not a Luddite. I am not even resistant to buying a Kindle for many of the reasons he mentioned. Yet the fact remains that I am a book person — a hard copy, hard-bound, tree-pulverizing book person. And I ever shall be.
Over the past several weeks I have become introspective on this point: Why am I so wholly loyal, wholly devoted to books? Not simply to the act of reading but to actual, tangible, physical books? Am I simply a creature of habit? This seems unlikely given how rarely I honor the simple routine of making my bed. Am I officially old and fuddy-duddy on this point? This is quite possible, as I have reached the ripe old age of 32 and my 11-month-old son is seemingly as proficient on the iPhone as I am.
No, my love of books persists despite their relative cumbersomeness regardless of ingrained habit or even aesthetics, though I would happily make a case for that. Instead, my loyalty derives from what their physicality represents autobiographically, relationally, and pedagogically.
I am a longtime John Cusack fan largely due to his quirky, dark, and dry sense of humor in movies like the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity. At one point in the film, Cusack’s melancholy, heartbroken character Rob, a vintage record store owner in Chicago, is reorganizing his voluminous record collection as a therapeutic act following a bad breakup. His co-worker comes into his apartment amid the chaos of sorting and asks what he is doing — the records do not make sense chronologically or alphabetically. Rob notes he is reorganizing them autobiographically. Here is the exchange:
Rob: I can tell you how I got from Deep Purple to Helen Wolf in just 25 moves. And, if I want to find the song “Landslide,” by Fleetwood Mac, I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the Fall of 1983 pile but didn’t give it to them for personal reasons.
Dick: That sounds . . .
Rob: Comforting? Yes.
This is, quite succinctly, how I feel about my books — they are autobiographical. When I glance at the bookshelf nearest my bed, even as I type this, I see the water-stained, tattered copy of Les Miserables that I read on the beach during my honeymoon nearly eight years ago. Next to it is the slim collection of poems Weather of the Heart, by Madeleine L’Engle, from which our dear friend read to us during the homily at our wedding. Surely it would have weighed less and been easier on my eyes to read a free copy of Victor Hugo’s tome on a Kindle (should they have been available at the time), but it is also true that I would have lost the physical reminder, the sweet memory, of reading side-by-side with my brand new bookish husband who to this day prefers uninterrupted reading to water sports when it comes to beach vacations.
As I walk around my house, I see books that have shaped and touched each of us over the years — marking new stages, interests, and milestones in our faith and lives and careers. I see the canon of Walker Percy, the man we named our first son after due to his faithful, long, and fruitful life in the face of a broken legacy. I see Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and am reminded of watching an excerpt of that film nearly 10 years ago in a class, recognizing that even as I understood the story on some level, I felt haunted by the knowledge that I was not yet able to fully understand it. And simultaneously flashing back to Christmastime two years ago when my dad called on the way to my grandmother’s funeral to tell me that the same book which I had given him months earlier had brought him to tears — a phenomenal event I have never myself observed. This book matters in my life. The story matters, yes. But the book itself — seeing it and passing it over as I casually glance for other titles — also matters. It is tangible evidence that helps me remember the people and things and events that matter.
In a similar way books represent relationships. Just last week I was in New York, and a new friend — an acquaintance is perhaps more accurate — urgently recommended that I read Joan Didion as soon as humanly possible. So I did. The title she recommended, less than a week old and barely creased from a quick, hungry read is now on my shelf as a permanent reminder of my chance meeting with this woman. I can’t imagine our lives will ever intersect in a way that we could be close friends, but having Joan Didion on my shelf will remind me of the dynamic art reviewer I met in New York — her work, her story — and it will remind me to pray for her, because though I know little about her, I like her. And I like that my $10 Amazon purchase has now given her a permanent position in my life, whether she knows it or not.
My shelf of charity shop British novels, bought at about a-pound-a-piece when our family was living in England, similarly ushers in happy memories of rainy nights on Observatory Street, sipping decaf Earl Grey and eating pans of chocolate-coated oat bars called “flapjacks.” (They cannot be effectively recreated in America due to a lack of a certain type of “golden” syrup — a tragedy except for the fact that it keeps me from becoming obese.) All of this with the British book club I began on a whim in an effort to constructively pass my time and make new friends while living on a student budget without access to reliable internet or cable. The women I got to know through that monthly gathering, especially Henrietta who periodically keeps in touch from her charming village house in West Oxfordshire, reside on those shelves alongside Dorothy Sayers, Virginia Woolf, Wilkie Collins, and Jane Austen.
However, aside from my own nostalgic hard copy affections, as a mother I find it nearly impossible to escape the pedagogical consequence of a book’s physicality. I watch my small children use chubby hands to pry open or chew on a board book, I read and reread the same favorite stories ad infinitum until the bindings are loose, I see bookmarks saving a special page or picture for a future note — all of these underscore the participatory nature of learning. Unlike our common tendency to value information and technology as ends unto themselves, engaging a story or narrative is not purely an act of efficiency or “intake,” but rather an experience, a memory, a relationship to the text that draws out the reader and makes them think, explore — perhaps even to create. Surely this can happen electronically to some extent, but if indeed “the medium is the message” there is something lacking, something too sterile and quick about holding hard plastic instead of bending a dog ear, penciling a note, or marking a beautiful scene or character to trace as my daughter likes to do. Indeed, a well-worn storybook is perhaps the most compelling evidence that our best reading — our best learning — is not primarily compelled by will but by love.
What is more, the physicality of books reminds us — teaches us — that we are, each of us, physical beings. As Wendell Berry notes in a brief reflection about his own writing habits in his broader essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine”:
"The text on the computer screen, and the computer printout too, has a sterile, untouched, factory-made look, like that of a plastic whistle or new car. The body does not work like that. The body characterizes everything it touches. What it makes it traces over with the marks of its pulses and breathings, its excitements, hesitations, flaws and mistakes."
And while every published book shares the same clean-text, polished format Berry speaks against when it comes to writing his own text by hand, his point still carries weight in that our books can show the characteristic tracings of those who have read them. My husband’s left-handed chicken scratch, for instance, is always made with a characteristic blue ballpoint pen and, if I’m lucky, may also have a corresponding stick person sketched in the margins for reasons I rarely understand. When my best friend lends me a book, I can count on tidy penciled notes, very consistent, and often reconstructed into a bullet or outline-style order. Books we read on vacation inevitably have water stains or bent covers from being jammed in carry-ons or toted to a pool. A book I recently picked up had Cheetos fingerprints on a few pages — a sure sign I read that one while I was pregnant. By the same token, the weight of a book tells something of the measure of its undertaking. Or, by contrast, a book’s smallness may correlate to a small idea or perhaps transform it into a treasure tucked in among giants.
So as I think about my life as a prospective Kindle owner, I have come to a conclusion. Our lives are increasingly characterized by virtual realities and efficiencies and relationships — by better, sleeker, quicker goods of every shape and size including, yes, reading devices. Yet when it comes to reading we can still choose to decide we are but mere mortals, flesh and blood, cold and cozied up against a fire to keep warm. We are not islands unto ourselves, as Thomas Merton tells us — we are relational beings, living one day at a time in order to build a life for ourselves and those who belong to us. We have countless opportunities to save time, save money, save paper, save energy, but in the midst of all the saving, what I want most is to be sure I have a few simple things to hold on to — tangibly — to remind me what is real and true and humble. Like a few good books.
Kate Harris is Executive Director of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture. She is a wife to a very good man and mother to their three young children. She resides outside of Washington, D.C. in Falls Church, Virginia.