In 1997, while browsing stacks at a Chicago bookstore, I came across a collection of essays called The Future of the Book. I remember the book’s place on the pine shelf, its purple spine. Inside, each author explored the future of reading, the book as a medium that can shift and change over time. I couldn’t wait to share these insights with other writers, but my bubble burst quickly, as I encountered a stance that was popular both in the ‘90s and today: books are dying, so they have no future. People don’t read as much as they used to, probably because of the internet or TV, videogames or cell phones, the modern world at large. There’s evidence to back this up, most notably in the 2004 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, which found that Americans really don’t read as much as we used to. I can imagine how a world without books could be on its way, as visions of Fahrenheit 451 dance, fire-lit in my mind. Still, I have a hard time imagining any kind of life without reading.
I grew up in a family of readers, so some of my earliest memories include visions of people reading. My big sister read with pursed lips, her arms and legs folded into triangles. Mom read in a chair at the far end of the living room, her head tilted at an angle to overtake the book. Dad held his books higher than his eyes. Sometimes, he touched the sides of the pages, as if petting the book like a cat. Before I learned to read, I wondered over books. What was it about those pages? What was in there that took these people over so fully? I needed to know.
When I learned to read, we became a full family of readers. When we traveled, we lined our suitcases with books, carefully considering which to bring, which back-up books to pack in case we finished reading early, which back-up books to bring in case we finished our back-up books. We read together in the car on the long, un-airconditioned rides, and when we stopped to pitch the tent for the night, each of us pulled out a book and a flashlight. At home, I read over the long summers, tucked inside the humidity of the house. I read over the winters, sitting in front of the heating vent. I read outside in the Wisconsin woods, inside the grocery store or the dentist’s office. I read while I walked home from school. I read during recess. I read during class, when I was supposed to be doing other things—and, like many readers, over time I have known books that have shaken my bones, ruffled my feathers, and pulled me out of the underworld. Reading has changed me. It has mattered to me.
With the popularity of ebooks, some predict that all this—all that readers love—may soon die, as we move toward iPads, iPhones, Kindles, and Nooks. Books that come on a screen can never be the same, booklovers say. You don’t get the smell of the paper. You don’t get the feel of the pages. You don’t get to read it in the bath tub. I understand these feelings—the objective correlative of it all, the Proustian experience of a book that reminds you of other worlds, other times, other ideas.
I remember weeping through the end of A Hundred Years of Solitude while sitting on the bathroom floor at 3am. Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being brings me to the Lincoln Tunnel and a peculiar man on the bus who thought I was his dead wife. Dostoevsky? He’s in the now destroyed Mosinee Pool, where I spent summers with bleached-out bare feet and the smell of sunscreen. Books matter. The object of the book, the smell of the pages, the way the book’s cover is bent in a particular way—these things carry memories. Still, what about the copy of The Idiot, left outside in the backyard before a thunderstorm and later retrieved, bloated and wiggly from the rain? What about Fingerpainting on the Moon, which I lent out (who knows when) and never got back? What about the books I owned when I lived in that mold-infested apartment? These books, even though long gone, still impact me.
This is because the magic of reading isn’t necessarily in the smell of the pages, and it’s not in the size and shape of the paperback. There’s nothing special in book binding glue. The magic comes in the way that we become absorbed in the stories and ideas of others. The magic is in the suspension of our disbelief, the beauty or cacophony of words, the way we move from our physical world to another when we enter a book. It’s in what David Lodge talks about when one of his characters suggests that the novel is the closest thing to telepathy that we can get. The book happens with the words, not the object—plus, if books are sacred as objects, rather than vehicles for the words inside, we’re already doing a bad job of treating them that way.
In 1999, I spent the months before college graduation in my dorm with the phone on the floor, making calls to New York, sending copies of my resume to workers in publishing houses who might want to take a chance on a twenty-two year old from Wisconsin with zero experience. I had shiny black folders laid out by the dozens with the resume set (watermark properly aligned) and my fake little business card ready to be plucked from its special pocket in the folder.
By June, I was on a plane to New York to work at Simon & Schuster Audio. In Manhattan, I looked up at the buildings as I walked. I mispronounced the names of places (the street is not Houston, like the city in Texas). I spent an awful night in a motel room with a chair propped against the door, wondering if I’d run out of money before I got my first paycheck, and at work I began to learn about the publishing industry.
Marketing, I learned, happened when sales reps went to bookstores around the country and tried to get them to stock the shelves with the right books. Marketing happened when publishers printed many more copies than they knew would sell, when bookstores piled books like boxes of cereal at carefully calibrated end-caps. Marketing also came later, when bookstores returned the books (for a refund) and publishers destroyed them. Marketing happened when Viacom, our parent company, asked why we in the book industry couldn’t earn as much profit as the new, fancypants multimedia departments that had created the still unburst dot com bubble. Marketing happened when we began to use Amazon to get information on our own titles. Marketing depressed me.
In the early days in New York, I lived off oranges and oatmeal, and my diet for books was made of what was free, cheap, and available. I saved for weeks to buy a copy of Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, which I read in tiny increments, like a chocolate that I wanted to last. Audiobooks were free, and I listened to what I could grab from the storeroom at work, which didn’t always include my favorite authors but was far better than the stacks of bodice-ripping paperbacks that would appear on the free table in the hallway. One day a coworker ordered free books for all the cubicle dwellers, and I stocked up on Robert Grudin’s works on grace, time, creativity, and thought. I read these books on the bus and on the train. After work, I sat on the air mattress (I had no bed) and browsed the stacks of already-read books that towered like nightstands on either side.
As part of my job at Simon & Schuster, I answered marketing email and calls. I got calls from reviewers hoping to check out our titles. I got calls from scammer reviewers, hoping to get free books. I got calls from people asking why audiobooks still came on cassette tapes (they did in 1999), why we didn’t use CDs (there was a reason; I can’t remember), why we were so behind the times. After work, I walked through the city, discovering New York’s indie bookstores. I listened to audiobooks on a cassette-playing Sony Walkman (job perk), and as I walked, I gazed at ads for something called an iPod, which made silhouettes dance on brightly colored backgrounds. I wondered why we still used cassettes. I started reading about how people would soon be reading on computers, how novels would come on Palm Pilots, how things might soon change. I dreamt of all sorts of possibilities—silhouettes dancing with books on brightly colored backgrounds. I didn’t see change, though. I saw audiobooks on cassettes, stacked up in our storeroom like VHS tapes. I saw paperbacks coming in from other departments with covers torn off. Then the cast-off books would be hauled somewhere to be turned into mulch or to join the pile of trash that, in New York in the summer, seemed to grow taller than children.
Was that already more than a decade ago? It was. Now I’m having conversations with friends about why reading in the bath tub is not what matters, about how, even if the book-as-object can be sacred, we’ve passed the days of illuminated manuscripts long ago.
Is it so bad, to read stories on something that is not bound paper? I know the answer is complicated, because it’s not just about the paper or the memories or the book industry. It’s about libraries and access to technology. It’s about unemployed editors and writers. It’s about layoffs at the Los Angeles Times. It’s about the advent of freemiums, content being king, and the ways our brains change as we read in short bursts rather than long afternoon stints beside a fireplace. When all this is taken into account, of course, there are significant problems with digital publishing. There’s the problem of access to digital books and the internet for readers without disposable income. With the influx of books published outside the conventional system, there’s the problem of wading through the volume of stuff to find great literature. There are the problems of proprietary formatting, digital rights management, price gauging, and industry standards for digital files. Still, these don’t seem to be reasons to throw out babies with bathwater. As I remember the cassette audiobooks we used to sell long after people had tossed their Sony Walkmans, I wonder if it might not be so bad for bookish types to resist digital literature a little less today. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
One of my former teachers recently reminded me how much I loved Modernist novels as an undergrad. She reminded me of my discovery of Virginia Woolf (I lost those books, although maybe they’re still in a basement in Wisconsin), of my admiration for Woolf’s experimental story structure and her creation of the independent Hogarth Press. With one machine, Woolf and her friends brought us the innovation of Woolf’s stream of consciousness along with works by T.S. Eliot and Freud.
Publishers didn’t always have the printing press, of course. In the past, there were handwritten manuscripts and before that, the oral tradition. Each time the means of production changed, the form of our stories shifted. As we move toward digital reading, we may find new ways to push the text as well. Digital literature could lift us from the confines of linear narrative, allowing experimental writers to morph more than genre and subject matter—to push old boundaries of storytelling into what Barthes calls the “linguistically supernatural.” Today, writers don’t need printing presses. We do need, I think, the courage to innovate again, to shift the boundaries of form and see what we can create.
In 2001, after a short while in the publishing industry, I was afraid of losing my love of reading and writing, so I quit New York and drove to Los Angeles. In LA, I read books from the library, bought used books on Amazon. I read books on my Palm Pilot. Later, I read on cell phones and laptops, desktops, iPods, and Kindles. I listened to audiobooks on CDs and MP3 players. I listened to a chunk of Middlesex while walking the span of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. I listened to Middlemarch while walking on a bicycle path, heading west but never reaching the ocean. I read Audre Lorde from a Kindle on a Metro one Sunday afternoon, when a police officer stopped the bus and looked for fruit on the floor. I brought stacks of printed theory into coffee shops where I sipped chai tea until it finally went out of style. On my desktop, I read a memorable essay from William Gass on the use of present tense, where I also read Woolf and a peculiar book on the historical glamour of the invalid. On the Kindle, I read memoirs about goats and family, novels about yogurt and old men chasing windmills. I’ve been a reader all my life, and I’m not going to stop now—especially not when there are more ways to get books than there were five years or five minutes ago.
When I read, I can get a bit wide-eyed. I sometimes find myself leaning into the text. Maybe I’m afraid or excited, or maybe the magic of the book is doing its work on me. It can happen with an article or a printed book, Kindle or iPod. It’s the text that does it. It’s always been the text.
Editor’s Note: Kathryn Pope teaches creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she is also director of The Bridge Program. Kathryn is author of the novel, After the Strawberry, as well as editor and co-founder of the independent digital press, Seedpod Publishing. Any typos are the result of format conversion and should be attributed to the Editor, not to the author. PB