Towards the beginning of Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Dissident Gardens, Miriam, a teenager in the 1960s, considers how reverentially her mother handles vinyl records – easing the disk from the sleeve, balancing the disk between thumb and index finger, making sure not to touch the grooves. Her attitude evokes Jewish ritual actions:
…the slipping of scrolls from a cabinet, her grandfather’s tender sheathing of the afikomen within its napkin at Passover, really anywhere Miriam had ever witnessed a Jew handling papers of importance or turning the pages of a book as if unworthy, grateful, ennobled…
The passage jumped out at me because it brings together three motifs — old records, books, and the handling of Torah scrolls — that figure prominently in the novel I just finished revising. It also perfectly describes my own attitude.
I liked the passage so much that I did something I never do. I highlighted it.
Big deal, you might be thinking. But the thing is, I never write in books, for the same reason that I also never dog-ear pages, use books to prop open windows (although a character in my book does just that, and with a book that turns out to be very important), or leave books lying open on their stomachs, lest their spines break. If I want to remember a passage, I either copy it down somewhere or mark the page with a scrap of paper. Like Lethem’s generic Jew, I treat books with reverence.
And by books, I mean the physical thing made from dead trees, with paper pages stitched and glued between covers. The designed artifact, in which the style of the letters is called a typeface, rather than a font. The analog medium that lets you gauge your progress by watching your bookmark migrate through the strata of pages. That elegant object that looks so promising in wrapping paper, so welcoming on your bedtime table, so satisfying standing on your shelf with all the other books you have read. Or maybe started. Or at least meant to get to. And if not that, might one day consider reading.
Needless to say, I wasn’t much interested when the first electronic reading gadgets came out. It’s not bad enough that I have long abandoned spiral notebooks and a typewriter and do all my writing at the computer – I should also forego the tactile intimacy of my beloved books to stare at yet another screen? No way.
But then we gave our son-in-law a Kindle for Christmas, and I realized that I felt a little jealous.
And then I started spending a lot of time sitting around in doctors’ offices, and I got sick of always doing crossword puzzles while I waited, and started looking for books I could easily carry in my purse.
And then we took a couple of trips, and when I shopped for books to take along, I realized I would only have room in my carry-on for two paperbacks, each of which was no more than one inch thick.
And then I visited the main branch of my town library, and discovered that e-books are available for borrowing. And if you don’t have an e-reader, you can borrow that, too.
So I did. They come pre-loaded with titles. I thought I was borrowing one with Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings on it, but I was wrong. In fact, there wasn’t a single book on the machine that I had the slightest interest in reading. Even so, playing with the machine for a few weeks, I realized that reading a Kindle was just as easy on the eyes as reading a dead-tree book, and a lot easier on the wrists, because the thing is just so small and light.
I also realized that I really, really, really wanted one. Now. Because we’re about to take another trip, and I want bring along a whole library. Just in case the first and second and third books I choose turn out not to interest me.
My Kindle arrived three days ago. The first book I downloaded was Dissident Gardens. I was thinking of it as a book to read on the plane. But I also thought I’d better start it now, so I could iron out any kinks with the machine while I was still home. So I did, and discovered no kinks. Also, this book is awesome. So awesome that I can’t put it down. I would call it a page-turner, except there are no pages. Last time I looked, I was 28% into it.
I’ve been reading it in bed, and I don’t have to balance my smart phone under my chin and use the flashlight app to see the words. I had two doctor’s appointments today plus one stop at a pharmacy. All told, that meant about an hour of waiting. But I hardly cared, because it gave me more time to read.
And that passage I mentioned when I began this post? The one that speaks so eloquently to the reverence some of us have for the physical artifacts through which we experience stories and music? No paper was damaged when I highlighted those words. I did it electronically.