Print vs. Digital. The debate has been ongoing, though some might say it slowly becomes more and more obsolete as the digital world becomes more and more pervasive.
The rhetoric of this debate seems to revolve around losses and gains, particularly when it comes to books. From EBooks and Kindles we gain ease of access and portability, but we lose a level of focus and attention and apparently the ability to sleep. Book lovers everywhere defend the physicality of books—their touch, their smell, and their feel.
I always seem to land somewhere in the middle, using whichever format, print or digital, is presented to me, usually based on the length of hold lists at the library. However, a recent article in the New York Times, “Our (Bare) Shelves, Our Selves” by Teddy Wayne, adds a new facet to the argument for the physicality of print culture—that of history.
Wayne begins the article lamenting the switch from records and CDs to digital MP3s, remembering his own childhood spent rifling through his parent’s old vinyl records only to discover the enchantment of The Beatles. There’s an intellectual benefit to having print culture in the house he argues, with the support of several scientific studies, but, more concerning to me, is his suggestion that something is lost in terms of sentimentality:
“And what of sentiment? Jeff Bezos himself would have a hard time defending the nostalgic capacity of a Kindle .azw file over that of a tattered paperback. Data files can’t replicate the lived-in feel of a piece of beloved art. To a child, a parent’s dog-eared book is a sign of a mind at work and of the personal significance of that volume.”
There’s something to be said for the act of “perusing,” of looking through a person’s shelves, at their books or magazines or CDs, and trying to discern something about them. I remember reading Siddhartha in high school, awed and impressed by the impact of such a slender book, rearing to tell my mom (the one bookish ally in my family) all about it, but at the same time, afraid of her conservative southern baptist reaction. I raved about it to her anyways, only to be led to a whole shelf in my dad’s office dedicated to Hermann Hesse novels. Magister Ludi was her recommendation for what to read next and then, I knew: my mom was way cooler than I thought and was quite possibly, at one time in her life, a total hippie.
In the library world, we refer to it as “reading history,” and it comes with important qualifications about privacy because, as the recent debate over Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s teenage library check-outs shows, you can glean a lot about someone’s past and future plans from their reading history. For some of us, books are a large part of who we are; certain books have shaped us in complete and inexplicable ways.
So I have a little challenge for you. Can you tell I like challenges? Don’t worry, I did the challenge too:
Embrace the physical. Delve into your inner shelf. Think about the books that have shaped you as a human being. Not necessarily your favorite books or even the books you’ve read the most, but the books that have changed you. Find a copy of them in print. Got them? Okay, now line them up and take a picture of your shelfie. Now embrace the digital, give up a little bit of your privacy, and post the picture for all of us to see and peruse and feel a little more connected. If you are feeling extra brave, you can even explain why you chose the books you did.
See below for my shelfie, explained:
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: It’s not so much that it’s Little Women more that it’s this particular copy of Little Women; my grandmother’s copy, which she read aloud when my mother had the mumps; the same copy my mom then gave to me.
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly: I read this book at the exact right time. It’s about the struggle between selfishly chasing your dreams and remaining loyal to those you love. I read it in high school at a time when leaving my hometown, let alone the whole state, was exactly what I wanted, but also the scariest, most selfish thing I could do. The main character leaves her family to go to school and so did I.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: This book made me fall in love with language--how it can be fun and playful and twisted and heartbreaking all at the same time. That love of language, and especially language at its best, made me want to be an English major.
Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor: This is a placeholder for the St. Louis University City Public Library copy of Wise Blood, which I so devilishly defamed with pencil markings and the deepest hopes of my soul. Never before or since have I ever been so haunted by a book. I felt that I was Hazel Motes, and in identifying with him I was both inspired and terrified.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides: This book taught me that novels--and people--could be oh so many things at once.
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell: I was reading this book when I finally admitted to myself that I wanted to be a writer. It was something I always wanted, but a want I had never made explicit. And then there was Karen Russell, weird and dark and from Florida and I thought, I could do this too.