Friday, February 26, 2010

Public Reading/Digital Reading

One of the many things I’m dreading about the relentless march of digital books is the lost ability to actually see what people are reading.

Forget about scanning the seats across from you on the subway and noticing who is reading what. Soon everyone will be staring into an ugly sheet of plastic and there will be no telling what (or even if) they are reading. Imagine all the current long-term friendships that got their start with a chat about a book someone was reading or carrying. Imagine those conversations never starting.

For all the talk about the wonders of “social media,” it seems to me that digital books are a big retreat into the private self. And since serious readers tend to be a self-conscious and shy lot to begin with, the new technologies are only giving us a safer place to hide in public.

It’s not just losing the joy of spotting a random stranger reading your favorite novel. There are other implications.

I’ve been thinking a lot about book collections lately- how they are constructed, what they say about us, how attached we get to our books as objects. When I’m in the home of someone who owns a lot of books, I can’t resist the impulse to scan the spines. I’m always surprised when people who come to my house don’t show more interest in my books. Alberto Manguel has a wonderful book about this, called The Library at Night.

Last winter, some friends allowed us to spend a week at their Arizona home. I knew that they were both readers, but I was happy and surprised by their wonderful book collections. Roger had an enormous and fascinating library of photography books (one with a 1992 receipt stuck in it from Schwartz Bookshop, showing that I rang him up!); Mary’s excellent collection of feminist, civil rights and socially conscious fiction acquired over a lifetime, gave me a fresh insight into her strong convictions.

The old books we keep are the most interesting and revealing. When a book purchased in the early seventies- well-thumbed, full of notes and underlining- survives periodic book purging and is still on the shelf 35 years later, it’s meaningful.

I’m not a Luddite and there’s a lot to love about the coming digital book world, but there are some aspects of the shared book experience which won’t make the transition in any way I can imagine. Sharing a book is more than just sharing a text. Though I suppose our smart phones may be able to tell us what text other smart phones on the subway are currently processing, it won’t be the same.

There’s one other kind of public book experience that I will miss. As I write this, I’m sitting in a rented cabin near Joshua Tree National Park. My partner and I really love this kind of one week getaway, and we especially love renting cottages. More often than not, a haphazard collection of games, music and sometimes DVDs from previous guests will be left for us. And surprisingly often, there’s a shelf of books.

These cottage book collections are in some ways the opposite of the highly personal, idiosyncratic library, which reflects one person’s tastes. The piles of (usually) paperbacks are the random, layered literary leavings of all sorts of people. Even though it doesn’t quite make sense, they sometimes coalesce into what seems like a distinct personality.

For awhile, I thought it must be illegal to rent out a cabin without at least one Sue Grafton or John LeCarre, though this seems to be fading a bit. (In Scotland a few years ago, I lugged a dozen Ian Rankin mysteries to our self-catered rental, only to find it well stocked with many of the same titles left by prior visitors.)

Here are a few of the orphans on this week’s cabin shelf:

Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver; Homeport by Nora Roberts; A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley; In Search of Love & Beauty by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; B is for Burglar by Sue Grafton (told you!); The Hours by Michael Cunningham; Shoot the Moon by Billie Letts; Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton; Blackwood Farm by Anne Rice; How Stella Got her Groove Back by Terry McMillan; and The Prize by Brenda Joyce.

I’d read a couple of these. I would consider reading a few more if I suddenly ran out of books (unlikely, I always bring way too many). And sure, there are a couple I wouldn’t touch even if I had nothing to read.

But before we sacrifice the ability to see what strangers are reading on the altar of digitization, we should at least acknowledge that we're doing so. I don’t know how the cottage renters of the future will leave their electronic texts strewn about for future guests to enjoy; maybe they'll find a way.

One of the books I brought to read this week was the excellent novel The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher, just out in paperback. It was a very satisfying read but in the end I decided 700 pages was unnecessarily long, so instead of bringing it home I’m leaving it on the shelf. I hope someone discovers it, and wonders about who left it.


  1. Exactly, John. With digital reading, we lose the many connections that just seeing a cover can bring. We lose a sense of what others are reading - three people with Harry Potter, one with the new Jodi Picoult, one with Howard Zinn, one with Sarah Palin (sadly). We pick up so much information from what we see peripherally - hmmm, gray denim this year, shorter hair, not so many Hummers, not so many smokers, lotta iPods. It's horrible to lose that knowledge about books, or newspapers and magazines.

  2. This reminded me of a favorite New Yorker cover (scroll down a bit):