What exactly is a book fetish, other than a clichéd excuse to hold onto sentimental texts?
In preparation for teaching this past summer, I pursued a relentless quest to find either museum publications or books on digital technologies in museums. What I found led me to the painfully personal conclusion that the “printed book versus e-book” debate circumvents a possibility to fetishize both formats.
Why I have craved the original text as an analog book when I can also own it digitally? Are there ways in which the analog book fulfills desire where an e-book falls short? And are there possibilities for e-books that can also elicit the same passionate, irrational commitments to printed books shared by devotees to the medium?
Definition of a Book Fetish
Seeking a book is a ritualistic act. In the Age of Amazon it begins with the desire to order a printed book—to engage with a text “in the flesh”—followed by awaiting its arrival, until the moment it’s delivered. Even when I am in my favorite bookstore I often need to order my books from the counter—rarely is what I need actually stocked on analog shelves. The same behavior applies at a favorite museum bookstore, where often the heft of an art book makes it too large to carry home.
The book’s arrival is announced by a package, often from Amazon, but occasionally from Abebooks or the ABAA, offering a moment to further ignore or engage with that particular subject.
Even neighbors will know if I am in deep-research mode because the boxes will stack, encased in overkill packaging. Once unwrapped, the book may sit on my desk on its spine—physical, present, its cover beckoning and sometimes even intimidating. The mere presence of a new book on my desk acts like a signifier—a constant physical reminder that I must engage with whatever rationale I had in those days prior to its arrival, and a social reminder to others around me that I still need to read. At some point, I had to have it, and I had to have it now—an Amazon Prime account rationalized in that single click.
Soon, those books start arriving in waves, and then they begin to stack. They become tall, totemic and haunting—now a constant reminder that I am not only behind in reading them, but that they are heavy. They exert pressure, in every sense and even by metaphor.
Books have heft and weight that prevent scooping them all up on one’s way out to read them. Even just two or three extra books carried from the library are often a load too heavy to bear, and rare is the day that anyone can read multiple books from cover to cover carefully. Am I carrying those heavy books as a sign of my commitment?
The books that I buy digitally, on the other hand, end up in their own forgotten place, a digital under-the-bed that never sees the light of day. I may buy them in a frenzy of good intentions, only to be distracted and not return to them. Often they are repurchased. It was a good idea to buy it once, but I have no memory of the cover, the unwrapping, the weight of the pages. Those things help me lodge the book into my memory. A digital copy possesses a pause as it downloads, but maybe it’s not long and agonizing enough, and I’ve since moved on to other things on my screen. As the download completes, I’ve already forgotten to return to check on its progress. Perhaps I only meant to buy it before. When I commit to hard copy, I am buying it for real this time.
I turn the pages in an analog book, and as the pile grows thicker under my hand on the left, while the pages on the right grow thinner, I always have a general sense of how far I am from the end. In a digital book, I never know that unless I check the tiny scroll counter. I don’t feel the same urgency to keep reading. Rarely do I flip ahead or return to past pages to cure fatigue or boredom in a digital book.
Not my apartment, but could be. A little place discovered in Gatehouse of Fleet, Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland (source: http://bit.ly/1bC6Wsw)
Those analog piles of books on my desk can become oppressive, especially in notoriously small apartments. They carry weight. While the argument for digital texts are plentiful—they are instantaneous, portable, and movable across all kinds of devices—they are also nearly weightless. I can carry that book and that text with me on my phone, my Nook, my Kindle (and yes, over the years, in various acts of questionable judgment, I have owned all three). The problem is just that sometimes I forget that it’s there.
Fascinatingly and perversely, printed books are prone to excessive stresses and fractures in ways that digital text are not. A book existing in the analog world possesses a spine that can be cracked, pages that can be chewed or warped or torn, covers that can dislodge or dislocate. One study recently revealed even more horrifying mutilations, in the form of illegal substances in books out on library loan. So what else can an e-book do that an analog book cannot, besides escape tactile disfigurement?
The Best of Both Worlds
My favorite e-book feature is how I can see comments and highlights within texts contained on my Kindle, and the ease in which I can highlight or extract passages myself. Contributed comments co-exist as a more updated format of marginalia contained in used books. The act of engaging within a text, and in conversations with others, is how a book will become not merely memorable, but formative, and a way to connect to the outside world.
Bundling analog books with an e-book version could end once and for all the debate of “either/or” format. Why should we have to choose? Sometimes a busy trip means that a book I’ve desired from the museum bookstore becomes too heavy to carry. Maybe I’d commit if I could buy the digital copy on-site as easily as I could buy a postcard. Museums could then promise to snail-mail the hard copy to my home at some time in the future. (Or offer a free download of the e-book if I purchase the analog copy.)
To push this suggestion even further: what if the purchase of an e-book in the future contained a tacit agreement to engage with the text, to discuss and debate and argue about the text with other readers? What if an expectation to engage with text became part of the e-book experience over time?
In this scenario, I want to reach back to a meta-book from 1940, called How To Read A Book. “Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author,” Mortimer Adler wrote in his timeless 1940 meditation on marginalia as the yin-yang of reading and writing, declaring some daring words on how to entwine oneself in the text:
When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it — which comes to the same thing — is by writing in it.
Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.
Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him. (courtesy: Popova)
If the above acts of fervent marginalia from the past could become even more prevalent in the future, what questions would we start asking about analog books if they did not also exist digitally? Would we soon need to have both in possession, in order to separate notes in the marginalia from the original text? Maybe, eons from now, analog books on their own would become magic talismans that were “uncoupled” from their digital pairs. Books will always be mysterious objects to be collected, stacked, and even hoarded. They will always possess magical powers in their pages. How can some of that magic become re-introduced on the digital page unless we can own both?
In many ways, the future of collaborative reading and digital marginalia is already here. Devotees of Medium can leave notes directly for the author, or they can chose to leave them in the margins for the entire world to read. That kind of marginalia often grows into spin-off conversations and heated debate—but I am always struck by the generally positive tone that seems to be so encouraging and supportive of the writers themselves. Acts of bravery in writing are actually rewarded on Medium, and they are a far cry from the icky tear-downs on other platforms like the comments section of YouTube.
In the future, I must also hope that reading will no longer also have to be a solitary act. Once I was worrying about just how many books I was assigning students in my personal teaching, and a colleague said to me, “but reading alongside others is such a privilege. When else do you get to do that, except in school?” That’s when it struck me: I miss that feeling of reading alongside others, and that feeling of readiness for debate and engagement with the text. It’s why I still crave that analog book and I also want the digital version to stay on-the-go: I want to be ready to have it at my fingertips, and to have that text with me at all times. Future modalities for reading and engaging with text in collaborative ways may just open up further possibilities for debate in any format to be owned, possessed, loved, and shared—in private acts and in public ways—all at once.