Most of us still think of books as physical things by default. This is in the process of changing, as anyone who’s taken a look at recent sales and consumption statistics for ebooks will know very well, but I think it still holds true most of the time. We think of “books” as things on shelves, possibly dusty, often dog-eared – or perhaps in carefully kept condition: hardback first editions, family heirlooms, or books that are simply old and kept mainly for the simple fact of possession more than the act of reading.”Book” to us does not yet mean – or necessarily even include – “ebook”. The fact that we linguistically differentiate between the former and the latter is significant. The physical, dead tree “book” is the default; the “ebook” is the upstart Other that is essentially defined by what it isn’t as much as by what it is.
The tension between those who stubbornly prefer the sensory experience of physical print books and those who rush to embrace the ease and convenience (and frequently the relative cheapness) of ebooks is ongoing and unlikely to wane anytime soon. That tension is correlated with less antagonistic tensions regarding the practicalities of storing, consuming, and lending books in digital form. But I want to highlight the former kind of tension, because it illuminates something important regarding the discontents inherent in navigating an augmented world, and the point at which those tensions make the transition from the individual to the social.
In order to discuss this, I’ll need to go back to a much earlier post that I wrote on how we experience time differently in abandoned physical and in digital spaces. Recall that my primary point in making that distinction was that both spaces are at once both temporally-laden and atemporal, but that we mark physical abandoned spaces by what time has done to them – by the process of ruin – while we mark abandoned digital spaces by what time hasn’t done – by the existence of staticity.
The implicit point there is that for us, physical spaces in all states of maintenance are by necessity temporal spaces; we orient ourselves within them and understand our relationship to them by virtue of at least a recognition that time is present and important, even if we don’t know a space’s exact age or history. Time is a background-level context that we assume is there. It makes sense to assume this, and indeed, a world where that couldn’t be assumed – where a physical space had no time – would be unintelligible to us. It would be too far removed from our experience of the world to make sense. We can – with a stretch – imagine an atemporal world: a world where past, present, and future are in a state of constant implosion. Indeed, it could be argued that this is exactly the world in which we live now. But we can’t imagine a world where there is no time at all. Trying to do so is uncomfortable, to put it lightly.
Additionally, in as much as we perceive every physical space in which we exist to be implicitly temporal, there are some spaces – and indeed, some object – that we perceive as more temporally-laden than others, regardless of whether or not those spaces and objects are in a state of ruin. This has to do with both ideas of relative permanence – or at least longevity – and with ideas of the tremendous amount of time that permanent or extremely long-lived things accumulate. Buildings, I would argue, tend to be one of the things we think about in this way. Old buildings of course are assumed to have accumulated a tremendous amount of time; that’s how we can call them “old”. But even new buildings, especially large or grand buildings, immediately take on the assumed weight of temporality in our minds. We see them as built, literally, to “stand the test of time”; they will last for a long while, and we can imagine a future in which we may be gone but the buildings themselves are still present (this is corollary to an “imagined future ruin”, only without the ruin part).
Books are another object that we tend to perceive as temporally-laden, moreso than other things – and I think it makes sense to talk about physical books along with physical space, given that we can also be said to exist with the “space” of a physical book when we hold it and read it. We share the occupation of physical space with it when we hold it in our hands; we share the occupation of cognitive space with it when we read its words and consume its ideas. So books have space. But even more, books have time, and the reasons for this have a tremendous amount to do with our cultural history of books and what books are.
We tend to think of books as physical by default. I want to argue that we also tend to think of books as old, even when they aren’t necessarily. “Libraries” are frequently depicted not as they’re experienced by most of us, but as a kind of Victorian (or older) Oxfordesque archetype: dimness, dark wood paneling, those really tall shelves that you need ladders on wheels to access, overstuffed armchairs, green desk lamps, fireplaces (I think it shouldn’t escape our attention that there’s also something implicitly masculine about this kind of library) . Books exist within these spaces; books are also of these spaces. Contemporary mass-market paperbacks aside, the default quintessential Book is old, hard-bound, possibly large and heavy, frequently dusty.
This is before we even speak about content, and there, too, our cultural understandings of what a Book is and does play a huge role. The earliest books in post-Roman Europe – where a lot of Western ideas of what books and literature are come from – were religious texts, ancient stories and histories meticulously copied and ornately illuminated. It took a lot of time to make books, and books themselves contained a lot of time within them as part of their content. Though none of the books we read now are produced in that way, the past of books still works to shape our present imagining of them.
We are accustomed to books being heavy with time. On some level, it’s unnerving when they aren’t – or at least not in the way that we’re used to. This is not to say that all people find ebooks unnerving but simply to account for some of why some people expressly prefer dead tree books on a visceral level. When we hold an ereader, we are aware – if only subconsciously – that time is not there in the same way that it is with a dead tree book. It doesn’t connect to all the temporally-laden ideas of Bookness that we carry around in our collective cultural memory.
But there are other tensions inherent in the mass transfer of literature into digital space. As Stephen Marche points out in a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books, literature itself is “terminally incomplete”:
You can record every baseball statistic. You can record every trade over the course of a year. You can work out the trillions of permutations and combinations available on a chessboard. You can even establish a complete database for all of the legislation and case law in the world. But you cannot know even most of literature, even English literature. Huge swaths of the tradition are absent or in ruins … Among the first Anglo-Saxon poems, from the eighth century, is “The Ruin,” a powerful testament to the brokenness inherent in civilization. Its opening lines:
The masonry is wondrous; fates broke it
The courtyard pavements were smashed; the work of giants is decaying.
The poem comes from the Exeter Book of Anglo-Saxon poetry and several key lines have been destroyed by damp. So, one of the original poems in the English lyric tradition contains, in its very physical existence, a comment on the fragility of the codex as a mode of transmission. The original poem about a ruin is itself a ruin.
Literature is in a state of ruin. It is even explicitly identified with ruin. It’s rich, vibrant, unquestionably alive to the people who love it, but it also crumbling and fragmentary. We can see the mark of time on it, just as we can with physical ruins. If the Book is temporally-laden, literature as a whole is even more so.
Digital information storage is also fragile. But again, that fragility is different and experienced differently; time in digital space is marked by the absence of change, not by its spectre. When the experience of books – and of literature – is mediated by digital technology, our experience of it alters, and in ways that are both subtle and, for some, profoundly discomfiting. The digital and the physical constitute the same reality, but are, as Nathan pointed out recently, still in possession of differing properties. In short, those differing properties can create tension when they don’t quite line up for us, and much of that tension has to do with how we understand and experience time.
For many people – especially younger generations – the experience of reading ebooks is becoming the primary way in which they experience books at all. As this number grows, perhaps our cultural ideas of what a Book is and does will change, and this particular tension between the digital and the physical will dissipate. Time, as usual, will tell.