Although I certainly have little patience for the fetishization of books as decorative status symbols, I have a deep affection for the physical, dead-tree book as a medium. Unlike an electronic device, to see and hold a single volume is for me to feel the thoughts and ideas it contains seething within its closed pages, like there is a flow of energy that is eager for a conduit through which it can propagate. I love that. And I feel it both before and after having read a meaningful book.
As a consumer of books, however, I also find ebooks almost miraculous in their convenience and utility. In a single device I can have literally thousands of books at the ready, which expands to millions if my device is connected to the Internet. I can infinitely annotate these books, entirely nondestructively. The device even provides its own damn reading light. Books feel great, I adore them, but to dismiss the ebook and particularly ebook readers like the Kindle is absurd.
But in one crucial way, ebooks’ greatest strength also is their greatest weakness. And I mean weakness, not flaw, as I’ll explain.
I’m thinking about this because of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, a book that is all at once easy, enriching, and gut-wrenching to read. Among Snyder’s 20 lessons for avoiding life under some kind of Trumpian Reich are his recommendations that we a) support print journalism and b) read more books. Now, it’s fairly obvious why good journalism needs to be bolstered in times such as these, for it may very well be the last layer of defense we have from a media entirely made up of propaganda. He writes:
The better print journalists allow us to consider the meaning, for ourselves and our country, of what might otherwise seem to be isolated bits of information. But while anyone can repost an article, researching and writing is hard work that requires time and money.
That’s very clear. But by print journalism, does he merely mean deeply researched, sourced, and fact-checked reporting regardless of medium, or does he also mean that this quality journalism must be, by necessity, literally printed on paper? I’ll return to that in a bit.
Back to books. Right now, my 7-year-old son is enamored with a series of kids’ nature books in which one animal is pitted against another in a “who would win” scenario (like crab vs. lobster or wolverine vs. Tasmanian devil, for example). He’s collected eight or so of these slim little books, and he loves them so much, he’s taken to carrying them – all of them – around with him wherever he can.
“Daddy, I don’t know what it is,” he says, “but these books have just made me, well, love books!”
I’m delighted that he’s so attached to these books, that he has this affection for them. I know that wouldn’t be possible if he only had access to their contents on a tablet. The value of the content is no different, but he can show his enthusiasm in a real, physical way that a digital version wouldn’t allow. The objects, being self-contained with the words and pictures he loves, take on more meaning. And by assigning so much meaning to the objects, he imbues the content itself more meaning too.
What does a kids’ book with a tarantula fighting a scorpion have to do with resistance to tyranny? Let’s see what Snyder has to say about the contrast between books and digital/social media:
The effort [of propagandists] to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal. We have slowly fallen into it.
Snyder cites examples from dystopian literature in which the fascist state bans books and, as in 1984, the consumption of pre-approved electronic media is monitored in real time, and in which the public is constantly fed the state’s distortion and reduction of language, all “to starve the public of the concepts needed to think about the present, remember the past, and consider the future.“
What we need to do, what we owe it to ourselves to do, is to actively seek information and perspectives from well outside official channels, to fortify our consciousness from being co-opted and anesthetized, and to expand our understanding of the world beyond the daily feed. Snyder says:
When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.
But what if the screen is displaying the same concepts as those books? “Staring at a screen” when one is reading an ebook is a very different practice than staring at it for Facebook-feed-induced dopamine squirts. Even more so if the screen with the ebook is on a dedicated e-reader like a Kindle, which intentionally withholds many of the distractions immediately available on a phone or tablet. Heck, I read Snyder’s book on my Kindle.
You won’t see me arguing that ebooks are inferior to physical books when we’re talking about the usual day-to-day reading of books, hell no. But in the context of this discussion, think about how we get ebooks onto our devices. They exist digitally, of course, and in the vast majority of cases they come from a given corporation’s servers with the ebook files themselves armed with some kind of digital rights management in order to prevent anyone from accessing those files on a competitor’s device. (Not all ebook sales are done this way, but they are very much the exception.) When we buy an ebook, in most cases, we’re not really “buying” it, we’re licensing it to display on a selection of devices approved by the vendor. And so it is with most music and video purchases.
Those ebooks are then transmitted over wires and/or wireless frequencies that are owned by another corporation, access to which we are once again leasing. So even if you are getting DRM-free, public domain ebooks in an open format like ePub that is readable on a wide variety of devices, you probably can’t acquire it unless you use a means of digital transfer that someone else controls.
You see what I’m getting at. Ebooks come with several points of failure, points at which one’s access to them can be cut off for any number of reasons. Remember a few years back when, because of a copyright dispute over the ebook version of 1984 (of all things), Amazon zapped purchased copies of the book from many of its customers’ Kindles. It didn’t just halt new sales, or even just cut off access to the files it had stored on its cloud servers. It went into its customers’ physical devices and deleted the ebooks – again, ebooks they had paid for. Customers had no say in the matter.
This was more or less a benign screwup on Amazon’s part. Presumably it had no authoritarian motives, but it makes plain how astoundingly easy it is for a company to determine the fate of the digital media we pretend we own.
This is about permanence. A physical book, once produced, cannot be remotely zapped out of existence. While some fascist regime could indeed close all the libraries, shut down all the book stores, and even go house to house rounding up books and setting them ablaze, physical books remain corporeal objects that can be held, passed along, hidden, smuggled, and even copied with pen and paper by candlelight. If the bad guys can’t get their actual hands on it, they can’t destroy it. And it can still be read.
But for ebooks, all it would take would be a little bit of acquiescence from the vendor (or the network service provider, or the device manufacturer) and your choice to read what you want could be revoked in an instant. Obviously, the same goes for video, music and other audio, and of course, journalism. The ones and zeroes that our screens and speakers convert to media can be erased, altered, or replaced and we wouldn’t even know it was happening until it was too late.
Physical books, along with print journalism (literal print), come with real limitations and inconveniences that electronic media obviate. But those same limitations also make them more immutable. It fortifies them and the ideas contained within them. Though constrained by their physical properties, they also offer the surest path to an expanded, enriched, and unrestricted consciousness. One that, say, an authoritarian state can’t touch.
Here’s an example of what I mean, once again from Snyder, with my emphasis added:
A brilliant mind like Victor Klemperer, much admired today, is remembered only because he stubbornly kept a hidden diary under Nazi rule. For him it was sustenance: “My diary was my balancing pole, without which I would have fallen down a thousand times.” Václav Havel, the most important thinker among the communist dissidents of the 1970s, dedicated his most important essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” to a philosopher who died shortly after interrogation by the Czechoslovak communist secret police. In communist Czechoslovakia, this pamphlet had to be circulated illegally, in a few copies, as what east Europeans at the time, following the Russian dissidents, called “samizdat.”
If those had been the equivalent of online articles, they’d have been deleted before they ever reached anyone else’s screens.
There’s one additional step to this, one more layer of intellectual “fortification.” It’s about the act of reading as something more than a diversion, more than pleasure. Because if we only read the digital content that’s been algorithmically determined to hold our attention, or even if it’s one of our treasured print books that we read for sheer amusement, we’re still missing something.
Today I happened to see Maria Popova of Brain Pickings share a snippet from a letter written by Franz Kafka to a friend, in which he explains what he thinks reading books is for (emphasis mine):
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.
We don’t need books to achieve mere happiness. To expand our intellectual and moral horizons; to give our minds the armor they need to withstand the assaults of misinformation and stupification; to be made wiser, more empathetic, and more creative than we are, we need to read those books that affect us, “like a disaster” or otherwise.
To fully ensure that we have those books, that they can be seen and held and smelled and shared and recited and experienced outside the authority of a state or corporation, they need to be present, corporeal objects. They need to exist in the real world.
So, please, do use that Kindle for all it’s worth; use it to read all the books that wake you up, blow your mind, and change your life.
But also, if you can, surround yourself with books. In a very real way, they might just save us all.