Last night, unable to sleep, I went looking for books at the library and then, when I failed to find anything of interest, bought a few from a bookstore. That I did this at two in the morning only struck me as wondrous about an hour into reading the book that finally grabbed my interest (Flapper, by Joshua Zeitz, and it’s awesome, if you too have been bitten by the 1920s bug).
Insomnia leads to rumination, so as I lay on the couch, my pondering of the thrill of instant gratification yielded to memories of other kinds of gratification. I believe it was Remembrance, by Jude Devereaux, that was my first hardcover purchase. (Can this be right?) It was 1994; I was fourteen years old and I had a bit of a cash flow problem, as fourteen year olds generally do, and I babysat with the specific intention of saving up for the momentous event of this book’s release. It seems to me, in my dim recollection, that this was the first book Devereaux had published in (what seemed to my fourteen year old self, at any rate) a very long time. I had planned ahead for it, carefully lining up income opportunities, and informing my parents, very seriously, that they would need to deliver me to the bookstore at 11AM (opening time) The Day Of. And because my parents are awesome, they did exactly that.
I walked out with that hardcover feeling so high, so triumphant, that I can still recall the walk with perfect clarity.
I had many such experiences in years following. Once I discovered AAR, their “Upcoming Releases” page became my first stop on the internet on those occasions when I mustered to the computer lab in my dorm to experiment with this thing called “The World Wide Web.” I had a little notebook in which I kept a list of books, sorted by date, that I needed to save for and buy. And oh, the anxiety of going into the bookstore, not knowing if the book would be there, if it had sold out already, if I was going to have to hop the subway (for I was in NYC by this time) to make the forty-five minute trek downtown when I had class in two and a half hours but who cares because I really *needed* this book, ASAP.
And then, the library visits! Seriously, I collected library memberships by the bushel. Oakland, Berkeley, West Contra Costa, Alameda and San Francisco: none of you were safe, in the summers. At my boarding school, I was the only student I knew with a membership to the town’s public library. At college, joining NYPL was my last stop of move-in day. In my head, I was an elite hunter, a sophisticated and merciless tracker of books; I entered these libraries like an assassin, intent on leaving no good book spared. I felt…ridiculously glamorous and self-important as I corralled the books that other library-goers had somehow, in their carelessness, missed or forgotten to check out. Again, my triumph, in exiting with a new release I’d had the unbelievable good luck to find on the shelf (no doubt two seconds after its return, or so I imagined) gave me the sort of giddy elation other people look for in shady drugs manufactured in basements.
For the most part, complaints about e-readers puzzle me. Don’t get me wrong: I understand the peculiar, sensual appeal of paper. I like to dog-ear and underline. Being brutal to my books was how I showed them love. As a kid I was so jealous of friends who loved their stuffed animals enough to wear away eyes and noses; I could never invest the time; feeling bad for my animals’ clear signs of neglect, I’d rub them over the gritty surface of the sidewalk to manufacture signs of wear and tear. But my books? Those required no extra treatment. Row upon row, shelf upon shelf, their spines were cracked, their pages bent, their covers creased, and I was proud of that. My friends whose books looked untouched roused my silent suspicion when they claimed to love to read.
In other words, I get the longing for paper. I understand intimately the pleasures of a physical interaction that registers one’s involvement with words.
But that alone is not enough to diminish my love of the miracle that is e-readers. Last summer, marooned at 12,000 feet above sea level, much nearer to the equator than my sunblock was apparently designed to handle, and much farther from English-language bookstores than I could like, I nevertheless read a book every thirty-six hours, thanks to the Sony Pocket Reader I’d stuffed to the gills before leaving home. To risk a really vulgar and possibly offensive analogy, for which I hope you’ll pardon me: my e-reader felt to me much as I imagine a stocked liquor cabinet feels to someone who’s developing a drinking problem: I felt safer, more comfortable, somehow *settled* in myself, knowing that I had a good supply of books to see me through my Peruvian summer. But I also felt anxious, uneasy, to know I had so many, many books available at the touch of a button. And in the course of the summer I came to understand this curious anxiety a little bit better, because I found that for me, e-reading is a very different game than reading in paper—and here is where my ambivalence about e-reading truly lies.
For a book addict, once the thrill of the hunt is removed, once the chase is no longer required, the experience of reading changes, somehow.
I find myself skipping from book to book like a madwoman.
I find myself ripping through the electronic pages at a pace that leaves me feeling at once glutted and vaguely nauseated.
I find my greed expanding exponentially, with no obstacles to regulate it.
And, of course, I find that I miss the signs and tokens—the bent pages, the cracked spine—that visually register the interior journey I took through a story.
My e-reader is my personal Xanax for travel: if I know I never will be without a book, I have no doubts about my journey. For the same reason, it also comforts me on sleepless nights. But I confess: I miss the chase. I miss the thrill of victory when books seemed objects that required careful planning, strategizing, and even a bit of luck to obtain. And I miss, above all, what I might call…the *friction* of paper books.
I mistrust myself with my e-reader. In its thrall, I’m becoming a different sort of reader. Sometimes, now, when I have a paper version in my hands, I forget to dog-ear.
This is useless romanticism. I’ll never give up my e-reader, and clinging to it does not mean that I must stop reading paper or that paper is dying. But such are the thoughts born of a sleepless night.