I Don’t Like Books: Confession Of An Anti-Codex Lit Geek

I read this a couple of days ago. And while it made me smile, as little love vignettes tend to do, it also made me a little sad. Before I launch into this, I suggest you read it. I should also add that I don’t mean what follows as a critique of the sentiment of the post; it is a very lovely sentiment.

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.

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4 Responses to I Don’t Like Books: Confession Of An Anti-Codex Lit Geek

  1. Emma says:

    I love books. And I love stories. And I think I agree that the two should not be conflated. I also love oral literature, and the invented-on-the-spot, tell-me-a-story stories that lose so much in being recorded in any form. I think that as we move into an age when more and more of our stories – and all of our media – comes to us digitally, we can do more with books than we could elsewhere.

    The wonderful Melissa Gira Grant has written about the important nature of physical books in the Occupy Movement. As literature becomes something that we can access again and again through different forms, physical books are freed from the duty of being, essentially, sacred: they were once the only way that we could store knowledge. To destroy one, or even to allow one into harms way, was wrong. Now, although I still find it heart-wrenching to see them ill-used, nothing is lost forever when a book is tossed in a dumpster and can’t be retrieved, so our books – and the information within them – can occupy alongside us.

    Books will be, I hope, more beautiful than ever before. Brighter and more three-dimensional.

    Because as far as I’m concerned, children’s books are here to stay. I doubt anybody is going to sit down with a bright glowing screen and scroll through pictures in front of a group of four-year-olds. At least, not any time soon.

    So let books become objects of rare sociability, for the groups that still need them, and for luddites like me who cling to what we know, and let stories become available for the traveller who doesn’t want to be so loaded down, and I hope someday to see your wonderful social space for people to come together over stories (I might sneak a book in, in my bag).

    • Sara Eileen says:

      Hello lady! Thank you for the reminder of Melissa Gira Grant; I am intensely curious about her take on this and will be hunting it down soon enough.

      I debated, when writing this, whether to try and talk about the book/text/image mix, in objects like children’s stories and art books and magazines. I ended up setting it aside, and speaking about books only as text-based works, though I could have been more clear on that. Children’s books are so wonderful precisely because of that blend of word and image. Art books and magazines, the same; I haven’t personally seen the same beautiful design and readability of those types of books duplicated in digital form yet. Likewise some very specified types of books, such as side-by-side text and annotations. (Ironically, just after I posted this I went off to a book store and bought a copy of the side-by-side annotated Flatland.)

      You’re right that children’s books won’t shift over any time soon. Perhaps not in our lifetimes. Though it may happen. Or who knows? By the time we’re fifty maybe they’ll be releasing physical volumes with flexible LED screens for bound together in a book-like format that play little animated images for children as they read aloud. Or something…

      You would be welcome in my bookstore with physical books. We could share tea.

  2. Liz says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I have always been a huge fan of reading, of books, of stories, of libraries. I generally say ‘I love reading’ rather than ‘I love books’. And although I don’t listen to stories as much as I would like to these days, I still have many audiobooks from my childhood which I pull out occasionally. Telling stories is also something I love – whether reading to children or relating some legend (urban or mythological) to a friend.
    I really want an e-reader, but I am still debating which type to get because I want it to do everything that I do with books (I want a Kindle but I get out e-books from my local libraries, on my phone with its tiny screen that hurts my eyes, which I wouldn’t be able to do on a Kindle… at least not yet).

    Your bookshop sounds wonderful, I wish it existed. It would be a huge task to digitise everything though. I like finding books that aren’t the bestsellers. Often the books I want to read have no electronic version. If they did, I would have them all on my potential e-reader (actually… any suggestions on what type I should get?). I agree that a standard bookshop can be frustrating and that the physical books don’t necessarily make it any better in most sections (I usually find what I want through the catalogue if they have one, and then go to the shelves).

    For useability, for accessibility, on a bus or a train especially, electronic versions of stories are better. Easier to carry. No bookmarks needed. You can switch between them so easily. And have so many in such a small space! I love it. And the fact that you can hold a phone or an e-reader without your arms feeling like they are going to fall off (I read ‘Name of the Wind’ on a Kindle. It was SO much easier than the hardback version, which I also tried..). And the idea of being told related titles and genres and being able to access a book immediately to download it. Perfect.

    But I do also love the physicality of a book. Perhaps because although I read so much, I own relatively few books that I have bought myself. The books in a series all have to match, they are not to be lent out except under strict conditions, they are books that I will read again and again. But if I want to read one on the bus, I’ll get another copy out of the library. I like the story in any form, whereas the nice purchased-when-new version is a precious object that I will hold carefully when I read it.
    Also, working with manuscripts is a dream job, and I adore books as historical or art objects. I am fascinated by the social impact they had. I want that physical connection to the past and to the craft of making the actual books. Personally I really like second hand bookshops, because you don’t know what you’ll find.. that’s most of the fun! It’s like rummaging around a second hand stall at a market, all sorts of treasures can turn up. I don’t get the same feeling of chance and discovery with electronic searches. But that’s really more to do with ‘finding’ than with the stories/books issue.

    So, when reading your post (and the one you linked to) I was really glad that you had separated books from stories, because although I hadn’t expressed it in such definite terms before, I agree that you don’t have to like one to like the other. I read your post before the one that you linked to, and so viewed the other one in a very different mindset than I would usually. It was a lovely idea expressed in an enthusiastic and nostalgic way.. which unwittingly has fallen into a deficit assumption (that someone can’t enjoy stories or reading without books). I think this assumption must be challenged more often.

    However, I personally do value physical books over other versions of the story in a lot of situations (for text-based books – I also agree that art/illustrated/etc books are important as you mentioned above). Especially when I am tired or reading a story with lots of convoluted plotlines. I like the ability to flick backwards and forwards easily from one part of the book to another. I like that I can read a book faster than using an e-reader or listening to a story (I read very fast at times). And then re-read the parts that I sort of skipped over the first time. I enjoy authors who make use of the physical nature of books by arranging parts of the story to give you a shock as you turn a page, or use things like footnotes to add to the story (thinking especially of Terry Pratchett here). And, mostly, I like that a book is not ‘technology’. It has no buttons, it has no screen. I don’t need to recharge it. I can drop it on the ground and it doesn’t matter. Or drop it in the bath (yes damage will be done, but leaving the book in the airing cupboard fixes most of the problem and it’s only one book not a super-expensive machine). I spend all day in front of a computer, I read books off my phone on the bus, and although I am sick of screens by the time I get home I would still curl up with an e-reader if I had one. But sometimes, I just want a book. I don’t want any of the fancy stuff. But while reading my books I would more than enjoy the company of someone sitting there reading off a screen, because it is the stories that count, no matter what our preferred method of absorbing them is.


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