What is writing?
Stephen King posed this question in his classic must-read for writers On Writing.
My name is Stephen King. I’m writing the first draft of this part at my desk (the one under the eave) on a snowy morning in December of 1997…you are somewhere downstream on the timeline from me….in your own farseeing place, the one where you go to receive telepathic messages. Not that you have to be there; books are uniquely portable magic.
Portable indeed. The recent changes in publishing, for example, the dominance of online publications, the fertile hatching of new blogs (cough, cough), and the proliferation of e-readers are testament to this fact.
In so many ways I’m on board with this portability, this virtual nature of communication. When the paper-web divide started happening at the publishing company where I worked, I hopped over to the online side as soon as possible—I could see the proverbial writing on the wall, and the possibilities the online side contained. Today, so much of what I do professionally depends on the Internet and online capacities, and so much of my personal life does too. But then there are books.
King is right of course. Technically speaking, writing is telepathy. And if you follow the logic of that definition, the vehicle for transporting those words shouldn’t matter, right? Kindle, Nook, Kindle app on the iPhone, physical book—who cares. Maybe in some not-too-distant future, it won’t, or we will forget that it does. But I can say that for me, right now, it most definitely still does, maybe not book for book, but definitely in the overall sense.
I copied the above On Writing passage from a paperback my boyfriend bought when it came out, at a time when he spent many an hour locked away to write fiction. He could go neck-in-neck with Annie Wilkes in Misery as King’s “number-one fan” (without all the craziness, of course), and this book contains telepathy from his writing hero.
The book is marked up by my boyfriend’s highlighter, marks made before we’d meet, testament to who he was and what resonated for him at that time. It also contains my underlining and little asterisks next to the passages that I wanted to remember, when I read it however many years later.
In other words, this book—this physical book—is a conversation its readers are having with the book’s author, and in a way with each other. It’s a diary of sorts, of where two of its readers were at the time each touched and read this particular book.
By definition, a book encapsulates its author’s mindset at a certain time and place. Yet, a book so often also contains the palpable stamp of its readers.
One of the first and most powerful examples I have of this was during college when one of my roommates was taking a philosophy class I had taken a few years earlier. She asked for my help, and as I picked up her copy of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and flipped through the pages, I saw my notes in the margin. I don’t know why I had sold the book back, I absolutely loved both the book and the class, but to see that book, my book, randomly show up in that way, I actually caught my breath a bit. Its return felt a little cosmic somehow.
These book “conversations” aren’t necessarily with others either. I can pick up any number of books from my bookshelf, flip through the pages, and see a liberal dose of notes that clearly were not meant for anyone but me to read. It’s this great window into who and where I was then. I’m not saying that I need/read books just to deface them, to, you know, own a little bit of their greatness with my, Hey, let me graffiti the heck out of this classic tome (“Fitzgerald, just so you know, you will not have the last word!”).
The truth is, I actually do very little in-page response these days. I find it difficult enough just to find the time to read, much less take the time to respond to what I’m reading as I’m reading it. It’s just that, even though as King says, writing is telepathy—mind-based—for me when it comes to books, the physicality of the book itself so often still plays a treasured part of the book reading experience. (It’s interesting to note that at least in this 2010 EW article, King had adopted the Kindle but maintained a similar take.)
Though I didn’t do any in-page marking on the first Twilight, when I recently revisited the first few pages to see what I’d think now (and what its bestselling secret was) I was immediately revisited by that feeling of being sucked right into it from page 1 and (haters be damned!) despite what my critical brain may see differently. I also didn’t mark up David Sedaris’ Naked, which, when I read it, provided much needed distraction on a very long flight but which seriously challenged my ability to keep my laughter in check. When I recently reread some of that book, I was immediately brought back to how special Sedaris’ writing had been to me, how things that are actually pretty sad and dark can make me laugh out loud, and how I fell in love with his family, but most especially, with his acid-tongued, chainsmoking, detective-TV watching (but oh-so-loving) mother.
You can flip through a book and get that visceral sense of where you were, who you were, when you read it. It doesn’t seem to quite work the same way with an e-reader.
On Sunday, I got lost in the bookstore. Not literally, of course. It’s a big Barnes and Noble but I’m not actually spatially challenged. No, I mean lost in that head-in-the-clouds dreamy sort of way.
The holidays had been completely crazy-busy and we were taking this day to catch up on some essentials shopping. There was plenty to do, I was supposed to run in and get my next book and (way late) a wall calendar. But confronted by all those shiny happy bookcovers, rows and rows of them, I just got a bit, uh, lulled. My eyes glazed over and I just wanted to stay near them. Like being near beautiful art at the museum, their richness and possibility radiated into me, soothed me, provided me with a bubble of solace after the frenetic nature of the holidays.
The bookstores-as-museum metaphor is becoming apt, I fear, this place where physical books are given showcase space. Hopefully physical books will not become merely artifacts, at least not too soon. And bookstores will not be some quaint idea from yesteryear. But it certainly seems to be going that direction, perhaps especially with regards to the latter.
I realize, of course, that these are two separate issues—the books themselves and the bookstore. Kind of, anyway. The truth is that for all our virtual sensibilities (the telepathy of reading, the brain-focused, in-our-heads nature of so much of what we do and interact with), we are visceral-physical-emotional-tactile creatures at core. Though we need the in-our-head stuff, we need the in-the-physical world stuff too. And our physical objects, to remain viable and top-of-mind need places that allow us to see them, respond to them, touch them.
How physical books will battle with our perhaps equally intense desire for convenience (and packing and traveling light), I don’t know. In a very few cases (e.g., doorstoppers like Haruki Murakami’s IQ84, King’s 11/22/63), I’ve straightaway gotten both the physical copy (for home, to have) and the Kindle version (to read on the commuter train and such). But that’s certainly not typical. For example, I absolutely loved Gone Girl, which I read pretty much the day it came out—on the e-reader. But I probably won’t buy it in physical form.
I didn’t expect to like it, or I would have bought it to begin with. But that kind of book (thriller, crime fiction) is more up my boyfriend’s alley, and he was excited for it to debut and bought it right away. I was between books, so I decided to give it a shot. And I’m seriously glad I did (it was the don’t-talk to-me-until-I-finish book of 2012). But like a “first” anything, the experience of reading it for the first time is gone, especially something that keeps you with “what next?” Buying the physical book won’t replicate that fresh read experience.
On the flip side, I do have a number of physical books that I wish I had bought on an e-reader. So there you go.
When I first started freelancing a few years ago, for a brief time I read for the teenage literary site/magazine Teen Ink. It received avalanches of submissions from its digital native audience and I’m quite sure still does (just look at the site). But the big prize is to get your story/art/poetry/etc. into the print magazine. I also have teenage nieces who are devout booklovers. And, in the adult world, the classes at the nearby Grub Street writing workshop center consistently sell out. It’s clear that the concept of “story” isn’t going anywhere.
Life is crazy—at every age and time—and we look for meaning in (among other things) our stories and our writing. And to reach way back, even our primitive ancestors had this urge, and moreover, wanted physical proof of at least some of those stories, so much so that we have cave representations of such.
Perhaps we’re starting to believe in the permanence of what is online, so we’re not thinking of this concrete aspect too much (in books as in other areas). But you only need an online pub you wrote for to disappear, your Netflix/Amazon movie stream to take a big nap while you’re watching a streaming movie, or your content management system to crash when you’re under deadline to remember that this online permanence is an illusion, at least in the way we take it for granted.
But then again, nothing is permanent—a fire could burn up your bookshelves at any moment.
“Look—” writes King, “here’s a table covered with a red cloth.”
On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.
Do we see the same thing?…I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room…except we are together. We’re close.
The evocative nature of words and their power to connect us. Just words, just the ideas they convey, in whatever their form.
Maybe, as long as we’re reading, as long as we’re experiencing stories and talking about them, I should just lighten up. But if only for right now, I’m going to hold on—probably too tightly—to my beloved physical books and those brick-and-mortar bookstores that house them.