I grew up with a record player.
And no, I didn't grow up in the 1970s (I graduated high school in 1992). My generation was the generation of cassette tapes and Walkman. But my father owned a Sears-model turntable, and in one of the great happenstances of my life, he held on to all of his record albums. So, in the 8th grade, I not only loved Guns-N-Roses and Megadeth, but I also adored Roy Orbison, Sam Cooke, and Johnny Cash. I could recite the words to Michael Jackson's "Beat It," but I also knew every word to The Statler Brother's "Counting Flowers on the Wall." Those albums opened up worlds to me and my brother, and i can't imagine a greater gift that my father unintentionally gave me.
These days, I wonder if the huge collection of books in my house will be to my son what those record albums were to me.
Only those with more optimism than I believe that the physical book will survive the current e-book revolution. I'm saddened by this fact because, for the record, I adore books. I love their smell; I love their texture. I love the way print looks on a cream-colored page. I love the feeling of a book's spine on my palm. I love holding a book open while I run a finger down the page, eating the text. But facts, as they say in North Florida (my neck of the woods) is facts, folks. As Johann Hari writes in The Independent:
The book – the physical paper book – is being circled by a shoal of sharks, with sales down 9 per cent this year alone. It's being chewed by the e-book. It's being gored by the death of the bookshop and the library. And most importantly, the mental space it occupied is being eroded by the thousand Weapons of Mass Distraction that surround us all. It's hard to admit, but we all sense it: it is becoming almost physically harder to read books.
I couldn't agree more. Our culture has made it easy to sink into the distraction. Smart phones. Smart pads. Netflix on Demand. You name it: a million Weapons of Mass Distraction are right at our fingertips.
Reading, after all, is a contact sport, not a pasive activity. Reading, one has to wrangle with the words on the page. One has to make the words make sense, and this kind of mental activity is necessarily a solitary quest. As Hari rightly observes, "To read, you need to slow down. You need mental silence except for the words."
I'm not a believer in the good old days. I don't think they ever existed. I think that what we remember as the good old days are convenient fictions. However, I do believe that culturally speaking, we've lost touch with our desire for what Hari calls "mental silence." It's hard to imagine parsing through a difficult text like The Wasteland while texting a conversation with three friends, Yelping where you ate lunch, and listening to the manufactured ennui of contemporary pop music.
Ultimately, I believe that e-readers have a place (and an important place) in our culture. I am the proud owner of an Amazon Kindle, and I've read numerous books on it. My current obsession with hard boiled/noir writing wouldn't have developed outside of Kindle. I just don't have immediate access to those books; Kindle allows that access. However, Kindle has a really crappy browser; so while I'm reading on it I don't feel the need (as I often do) to check my email messages or my friends' Facebook walls. I can't log into CNN.com to see the latest apocalyptic crisis facing the world. Reading on a Kindle is almost like . . . well, reading a printed book. Again, Johann Hari wisely observes"
We have now reached that point. And here's the function that the book – the paper book that doesn't beep or flash or link or let you watch a thousand videos all at once – does for you that nothing else will. It gives you the capacity for deep, linear concentration.
Perhaps one day, my little boy will discover a dusty shelf packed with books by William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Lynda Hull, Larry Brown, and Cormac McCarthy books. Perhaps my son will pull one down, flip open the crumbling cover, and lose himself there, as I did. And maybe, just maybe, these books won't be anachronisms, the kind of thing you can find only at collector's outlets. Maybe the demise of the printed book has been great exaggerated. Vinyl, after all, survives, despite the digital revolution.
Even from my cynical perspective, I can always hope that books will, too.
O for a muse of fire,