Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Recently a correspondent wrote:

What do you think about E-books and readers (Kindle, I-pad, Nooks, etc?) Have you tried any? And what, if any, effect do you think they have on the experience and impact of reading? I would love to read your thoughts on the subject.

So far, I pretty much regard kindle and e-books as the anti-Christ but I regarded answering machines, computers, and cell phones as the anti-Christ, too, until I started using them.

I don't know if I will ever come around to reading a book on a screen though. I know you can highlight, search, and save, but the whole tactile experience is so incarnational and I would hate to lose that. Also, I generally can't afford to buy books and books are therefore inextricably connected for me with the library, which is a whole other beautiful link to humanity. The excitement of putting a book on reserve and having it delivered to my local branch, the small sense of civic pride at knowing I am trusted and wanting to live up to that trust by taking good care of the book and returning it on time, the knowledge that the book has passed through many hands before mine and will pass through many hence.

Reading for me is a whole kinetic mind-body experience. If the book is mine, I turn down pages, underline, scrawl notes, arguments, insults. I spill coffee and crumbs. When I finish a book I like, it’s often bristling with little neon Post-Its, at which point I sit down and copy out (i.e. type) the quotes and passages that have struck me. That alone is a rudimentary form of “communication” with the author, a kind of paying homage by way of the effort required to copy out his or her words, to re-experience and more deeply absorb and imprint them upon my memory/soul.

You can’t rest an ipad in a comforting little tent on your chest as you lean back and muse. You can’t use an ipad as a makeshift pillow when you’re lying on the grass and decide to take a nap in the sun. You can’t prop up the leg of a desk, or hold down the corner of your beach towel when you run in to take a dip, or press leaves or ferns or wild violets between the pages of a kindle. You can’t surround yourself with e-books and thereby help make a cozy den redolent of civilization, the wisdom of the ages, God. And how are we to size up a potential friend if we can’t scan his or her bookshelves?

When I moved out of my apartment of 17 years last year, I put an ad on craigslist for free books and in a single day gave away 90% of the books that I’d been accumulating and carrying around since childhood. I felt like my head had been shorn, and yet, just as people say, books multiply. People give you books, you pick up books. I kept two or three boxes and now I have a glass-fronted three-shelf bookcase filled with books, and then there are the reference books, the cookbooks, the books of sheet music, the three or four or five teetering piles of books on the Chinese chest, the books on my bedside table, the books on the bed. All the better, I say. Books are friends. Books are companions. To those who say “We need to save the trees” I say, “We need to publish not fewer books, but less dreck.”

But the argument for e-books and against real books that leaves me truly cold is the one that says: You don’t have to lug books around any more! You don’t have to actually carry books or magazines. You don’t have to pack them, move them, feel the burden of their pesky, undesirable weight.

This to me is emblematic of a very unfortunate cultural idea that the goal is to free ourselves from what are actually the right kind of burdens.

We have old people who don’t want to be a “burden” to their children, children who don’t want to be a burden to their work-obsessed parents, a government that sees the sick, the poor, the mentally ill as burdens. We bypass the “burden” of peeling and chopping the beautiful root vegetable known as a carrot in favor of a bag of fake, uniformly-sized, tasteless, faux carrot nubs.  We have the “burden” of walking instead of driving. We have the burden of buying actual flowers instead of sending, I can hardly bear to type the word, an “e-flower.”

We should burden each other. That is what we’re here for. We should be willing to sweat and bleed a little for what we love, and for the writers who have laid down their lives in order to leave us their work.

Some of the happiest moments of my life have consisted in checking out books from the library, putting them in my little bag or pack, and walking them, rejoicing, home. The heavier the load, the more the prospective enjoyment, nourishment, delight, stimulation, companionship, connection with humanity, growth.

I remember reading James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late in my brother’s sweltering bedroom in Bangkok. I remember reading War and Peace in a wretched little pensione on the island of Syros, Greece. I remember reading Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer in my room at a writer’s residency in Woodside, California. I remember because the books were great literature, and I had gone to some trouble to bring and/or find them, and because they awoke something in me that can never quite be similarly awakened by anything I read on a screen.

The weight of the books I have carried, toted, lugged, moved in my life would come to the tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds.  But no way, not now and I pray not ever, am I ready for a “kindle.” 

Because I have never carried the books. The books have carried me. 


  1. Beautiful tribute to books. An excellent apologia for the old-fashioned blocks of paper!

    I carry my bookbag with me wherever I go. There are usually no fewer than five books in it at any given time (because one never knows exactly what one wants to read for the train ride or the dentist's waiting room, does one?). I have, however, lately acquired the habit of calling my bookbag "the poor man's Kindle."

    Add to your excellent arguments this one point: What if the books you like to read aren't available on Kindle or Nook? Old out-of-print Sheed & Ward titles? Carlo Carretto or Caryll Houselander? Anthologies of verse from the 1950s? Obscure Welsh poets? (Surely, Dylan Thomas exists in e-book form, but Vernon Watkins?) What of prose pieces by poets? Could one find, say, the complete prose or the selected letters of Marianne Moore on an e-reader?

    And so on. It might seem intractably luddite to some, but I'm with you -- definitely prefer real books!

  2. I am so with you, Heather. There's something, well, for lack of a better word, Gnostic about the e-book readers -- anti-material, shunning matter and heft and physicality. Instead of owning a text, all one purchases is access to a text, a very different thing altogether.

  3. Beautiful post, Heather. But I do like to read books on my iPad. Many books are not available in digital format yet, but most classics are. And they're free. Yes, most books in public domain have been digitally published and are free to download, unabridged. Also, an author friend pointed out last night that she writes and sells words, she's not in the business of bookbinding and paper-milling. So if her words are published electronically, as your beautiful words are here, they're still hers, and if they have substance, the format in which they are received by the reader is not really that important. I do love my old books with all their underlinings and tired old spines though.

  4. I will save and share this post for some time. Beautiful thoughts beautifully written!

    We live in an age where even persons, when they become a burden, are thrown away and replaced. God help us!

  5. "And how are we to size up a potential friend if we can’t scan his or her bookshelves?".

    Truer words, never spoken.

  6. Wonderful post, Heather, and a very thought-provoking topic. On the one hand, I cannot imagine a world without "real" books. The smell of books (new and old) is reason enough to resist to the death the movement to eliminate them. On the other hand, knowing the Pope's embrace of the new media, I feel that as a Catholic I can and should recognize the digitization of books, in and of itself, as a salutary development in the incarnation of the word (small "i" and small "w"). Still, I think that a world without tree-bred books would be a veritable dystopia.


  7. Yes, interesting that in the beginning was The Word...enfleshed. Interesting, too, that we are always having to balance the desire to cling to the old versus the obligation of at least considering the new. I have many friends who love their kindle and if I ever got one, it may well be I would love my own as well...Also, I'm hardly rising up and protesting the selling of my own books as e-books...but I still shudder at the thought of a world without physical books. Boston without books? Cities, small towns, countries, a world without libraries?...

    Yes, we write words but the words, it's to be hoped, are driven by, spring from, are suffused with love. And to love is to agree to shoulder certain kinds of burdens for each other. So I do think there is something very much deeper here than words printed on paper versus words on a screen, and that is leading me, for one, to think about what it means to be a writer, and what it means to be human...

  8. Two things occurred to me as I read this: on Star Trek, Captain Picard and Captain Kirk reading books and the Twilight Zone episode "Enough Time at Last"--all those books, heartbreaking. Then I checked my email (sorry) and there was a 50% off coupon for a bookstore! Yay!

  9. Just in from Rozann at Fr. Barron's Word on Fire:

    Marginalia - Billy Collins

    Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
    skirmishes against the author
    raging along the borders of every page
    in tiny black script.
    If I could just get my hands on you,
    Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
    they seem to say,
    I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

    Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
    "Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
    that kind of thing.
    I remember once looking up from my reading,
    my thumb as a bookmark,
    trying to imagine what the person must look like
    why wrote "Don't be a ninny"
    alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

    Students are more modest
    needing to leave only their splayed footprints
    along the shore of the page.
    One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
    Another notes the presence of "Irony"
    fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

    Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
    Hands cupped around their mouths.
    "Absolutely," they shout
    to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
    "Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
    Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
    rain down along the sidelines.

    And if you have managed to graduate from college
    without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
    in a margin, perhaps now
    is the time to take one step forward.

    We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
    and reached for a pen if only to show
    we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
    we pressed a thought into the wayside,
    planted an impression along the verge.

    Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
    jotted along the borders of the Gospels
    brief asides about the pains of copying,
    a bird signing near their window,
    or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
    anonymous men catching a ride into the future
    on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

    And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
    they say, until you have read him
    enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

    Yet the one I think of most often,
    the one that dangles from me like a locket,
    was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
    I borrowed from the local library
    one slow, hot summer.
    I was just beginning high school then,
    reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
    and I cannot tell you
    how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
    how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
    when I found on one page

    A few greasy looking smears
    and next to them, written in soft pencil-
    by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
    whom I would never meet-
    "Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."

    - Billy Collins

    Go to http://www.billy-collins.com/2005/06/marginalia.html to listen to this poem free at Download.com, for more poems, and to buy Collins' books.

    Included on the CD The Best Cigarette.

    Included in the book, Sailing Around the Room: New and Selected Poems.

  10. Heather, I think that you are right on about the social, cultural, and moral implications of, not so much eBooks themselves, but the desire to relieve ourselves of the "burden" of books.

  11. I cannot bring myself to write in a book. Finding scribbles in a book will invariably dissuade me from purchasing or even borrowing it. Clearly there is something wrong with me. Seriously. I think that it says something about my inability in fully embrace my own humanity. And yet, the inability to scribble in a Kindle does nothing to attract me to it. How odd.


  12. Was going to quote your sentence about sizing up potential friends, but JMB beat me to it. I certainly acknowledge the benefits of e-readers. I bought a Kobo (a Canadian version that's specific to a Canadian mega-bookstore chain) for my wife for Christmas. She's a supply teacher, and having an e-reader simplifies her daily trek to a new school and gives her a virtual library to draw on in case of need in every new classroom. For myself, though, I wholeheartedly prefer the "dead-tree editions" as they're beginning to be known.

    Wheat4paradise's comment about the smell of books reminds me of an early episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the computer science teacher was trying to encourage the librarian (and Buffy's "watcher") to digitise all the books in the library. He comes off as something of a luddite himself for the whole episode, and at the end, the comp. teacher asks her what he dislikes so much about computers, to which he replies, "The smell." "Computers don't smell, Rupert." "That's precisely my point..." and he launches into a lecture about how smell is the sense most connected to memory, and that the dusty, dewy old pages of books evoke memories and a tactile connection with the words that are simply lost in digital media. For myself, I know that I have more difficulty retaining information from the Computer, even blogs as wonderfully written as yours, Heather.

    My wife bought me six books for my birthday (which was Mother's Day), one of which was Fr. Barron's "Heaven in Stone and Glass." As a sad sign of my inability to retain anything, I'd completely forgotten that you'd mentioned Fr. Barron here, and even quoted from that particular gem, until I found myself reading those same words, and pausing, and saying--"Where have I read that before?!" It took several minutes before it dawned on me that it was here, so I thought I'd swing by and mention that :)

    God bless

  13. There are two aspects to e-books:

    1 Built in obsolescence. At some stage your book will be incompatible with new readers, and/or the seller will go bust, and you lose access to it.

    2 For governments and the politically correct mind-watchers, the greatest thing about e-books (embodied in the visions of Microsoft and Google) is that you can perform a global 'e-burning' of anything simply by removing it from the server, so absolutely everyone who bought the book can no longer access it, especially as, in most cases, printing is disabled, too.

  14. And how are we to size up a potential friend if we can’t scan his or her bookshelves?

    "Heather's coming over. Quick - hide the carrot nubs!"

  15. Yes, yes, yes. Vivent les livres!

  16. Heather, go on YouTube and check out Billy Collins animated poems. The Best Cigarette is really great. They all are.

  17. I want a book to be a book. Its as simple as that.

  18. Isn't there a certain irony in denouncing e-literature on a blog?

  19. Oh, Chip, some words would never be read without blogs. Nevertheless, if you prefer to read Heather's words in print...buy her books.

  20. Ha ha, Chip, good one--I'm sure there is some irony there, although a blog is not a book and a computer screen/laptop is not a kindle. And though I post online, I myself actually don't READ very much online...Anyway, I'm not "denouncing" e-literature, I'm saying these are some of the things I feel I'd lose with a kindle and some of the reasons I haven't yet gotten on board.

    More to the point, I've been reflecting on the whole arena of the writing life, the publishing world, literature, blogs, books, money/marketing vis-a-vis all of the above, most especially from the Catholic p.o.v., and hope to post more about those many subjects in the coming weeks.

    For years, for example, I was virulently anti-blog and felt professionals should be PAID for their writing, and that blogging brought the whole bar of literature down, etc. etc., so starting my own blog was a surprise, even, especially, to me. And that it's become a huge part of....okay, I'll stop now and just write a post or two about it. Suffice it to say I am grateful...


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