“Books have particular qualities that are lost in translation into code. A book isn’t just its text, it’s also a material object with a particular history, written in stains and stamps and underlining.…The body of the book is part of what it says.”
—Shelley Jackson, from her interview in the first issue of 12th Street
I’ve been getting hand cramps from reading. Sometimes I read sitting at a table, sometimes in a comfortable chair, other times I read lying down in bed, waiting for sleep to overtake me. No matter the position, the cramps in my hands continue. A part of my struggle can be blamed on the book that I am reading. 2666, by Roberto Bolaño, is an immense book, at 898 pages. It weighs three pounds, which is not a weight I would normally struggle with, but when holding the pages open in my lap or above my head, those three pounds begin to feel more like 30, and after a few hours of reading, 300. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
The pain in holding a book open is a part of the delight of reading—the weight, the feeling of the gentle pages, the smell of fresh ink, watching as, with time, the pages move from one side to the other as you drift your way through the story. The physical act of reading, of holding a book, is just as much a part of the act as the words on the page.
Can electronic media replace the pages of a book? As a reader, in the romantic sense of the word, I do not believe that there will ever be a time without books. There will always be shelves in my house for books to sit on display, waiting to be lifted and held. As Jorge Luis Borges said, “I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books.” In fact, I have an odd habit of collecting books in bed with me, falling asleep with five or six books hidden under the sheets, held close, hoping their characters will invade my dreams.
I must admit that in recent months I have taken to reading magazines and newspapers online more often than the actual paper copy. The ease with which the Internet allows one to find information is hard to argue against. In my own writing, I find search engines are an invaluable tool for research. How did I ever write without Google?
I don’t know what the answer is, and, frighteningly, neither does the publishing industry. On November 25, The New York Times reported that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has suspended acquisitions of new manuscripts. This is scary news for any writer, but the reality is that publishing has become too expensive and every part of the industry is reeling. Is electronic media the answer? The cost of posting a piece on line is far less than printing one on the page. But lower costs also mean lower profits, and posting all books online could mean the end of the middle-class author.
I have more worries than I have answers. The best advice I have for any writer is to buy more books. Support the industry you want to be a part of. Call it writer’s karma. If you want your book to someday be sold, buy a book today. Buy as many new books as you can afford. Carry them around with you, feel the weight of the book as it pulls on your shoulders from the inside of your bag. Enjoy that feeling while you can, because soon the only weight that you may be carrying is your computer.