Good? Good. All right, let’s talk about books.
I don’t like books. I am not the girl in that article. You will not find me in a coffee shop or on a train pouring over a paperback. Occasionally you may stumble over me on my couch wrapped up with an old favorite, but it’s a rare occasion and you would have to hunt hard to discover me in such a state.
But I do love stories.
The only difference between me and the idealized girl of that vision is the physical representation of the way that we respectively consume stories. I read long-form stories almost entirely on my phone right now; I am
5/6th of the way through Reamde and it’s killing me that I don’t know how it ends yet. Actually I’m amazing I’m still writing this post instead of reading Reamde right now. Seriously, it’s a struggle. done with Reamde, oh my yes.
When I’m on my phone in a coffee shop, I’m reading. On the train? Reading. Walking down the street on my way home? Reading. I actually get a lot more reading done these days because my phone screen lights up, which means I can read while walking after evening falls.
Why is it that a love of stories, which is vital to my entire existence and critical to the way that I engage with the world, remains bound up so tightly with the worship of this physical object? It bothers me that to communicate my love of reading and storytelling I must say that I love books. I don’t love books in and of themselves. For the most part I find them rather clumsy. I wish that this wasn’t true; I wish that my dislike of physical copies didn’t so neatly exclude me from the joyful display and adoration of literature.
Granted, I own books, and I treasure the physicality of books in a very particular way; I did grow up reading physical copies and I understand that the linking of a particularly nostalgic sensory experience with a pleasurable metal activity is powerful stuff.
For the moment I would like to lay aside issues of the accessibility and sharing properties of stories in physical book form versus stories in other forms. I understand that the physical book provides a different and vital type of accessibility to stories, especially in terms of income and age, and I understand that there is massive fuckuperry in the way that sharing and ownership are dealt with in digital properties. But let’s leave that be, for the moment.
So much of the intensity bound up with books as a story delivery method, it seems, is based on memory. I remember getting my library card as a small child. I remember sitting on the carpet in front of the Fairy Book section pulling out different candy colored volumes and building them into small towers that I would then carry, teetering, to the desk where Beth would check them out one by one and ask me how many times I’d read them before. I remember turning the pages of Herman The Helper as a toddler, and carrying books with me everywhere I went as a teenager, and hauling heavy bricks of novels around in my backpack in Australia. I have read each of these books so many times that I have had to buy at least one if not several replacement copies.
And in the preservation of the book as a physical object, so much is made of the passing on of that experience current adult generations to future hypothetical children. Of course I want my children to have similar experiences. But I also recognize that I experienced the discovery of stories through a very specific lens, and that my goal would not be, for a child of my own, to replicate that specific experience. It would be to replicate the opportunity to do that type of thinking and make those kinds of discoveries, regardless of delivery method.
Bookstores are a good example of this somewhat frustrated, out-of-my-element feeling. I find bookstores annoying. Occasionally they are suggested as possible destinations for social engagements, and I tend to feel a little guilty when I derail these suggestions, as I always do. I no longer have the transcendent experiences I had as a small child of jumping from book to book on the shelf always wanting to know what was in every single one. As my tastes have developed and my desires become more targeted I find the user interface of bookstores, so to speak, to be far too limited to make me happy.
I have been thinking a little about what sort of a place could serve up stories to me in a way that makes more sense. I imagine a warm, comfortable public space, maybe serving coffee. A space that recognizes the need to create a sense of separation from the rest of the world, that equally caters to the deeply private (curled in comfortable chairs in nooks and crannies) and the happily collaborative (sitting in circles on a rug or crammed around an open table top.) No physical books in sight; instead, there are screens everywhere. E-ink, perhaps, or something new. (Did you know there are translucent LED screens? I didn’t. Amazing.)
On those screens, a beautiful and extremely functional user interface.
Behind those screens, an extensive repository of stories of every possible genre, period and topic. Think of the storage possibilities. Text takes up so little hard drive space.
Layered on top of that, a richly powerful search function that is capable of not only targeted browsing and idle thumbing, but also intelligent free-association; something that understands that because I like Isabel Allende, I might also like other character-driven magical realist stories set in Latin America. Or that I might also like other generational, family-based narratives set within a larger historical backdrop. Or that I might also like other complicated love stories with an illicit angle written by award-winning contemporary novelists.
Add to all of that a staff with a love of stories as deep as my own, who could talk me through their favorites or suggest new works, adding that critical element of serendipity to my reading choices.
I can choose stories to read as I sit there and drink my coffee, and if there’s something I love and want to take away with me I can send it to my phone to keep reading on the train. Maybe I pay to take it away with me. I’d be happy with that.
I want that place. I want that kind of technology bent toward improving the discovery of stories. I want to carry hundreds of stories in my pocket everywhere I go. I care about having a home library of physical books only when dealing with issues of physical beauty (books as art objects) or current methods of sharing and discovery (how to replicate the open browsing experience of having a bookshelf in my living room that anyone can take a book from, whether to read or perhaps to open a conversation.)
I want to date people who give me stories as gifts, who will bring me tea when they find me curled up over my phone at 2am sobbing over something I’ve read, who take me to the rare books section of a shop because they understand my love of books as artifacts, but who let me plow right through all of the other sections because they also sympathize with my frustration with the poor experience involved in trying to discover a new story by looking at a wall of titles and reading carefully crafted ad copy.
People who don’t expect me to respect the cachet of hard copy.
People who understand that my resistance to the physical object, book, codex, in no way undermines my passion for the ideas, adventures, and language contained within; who share my respect for the history of the object but also share my desire to read, and don’t care so much about the difference between a page and a screen as long as the story is good.