When I fell in love with music it was because I was promised three chords and the truth, and because it seemed perfectly logical, when faced with the problems of sexism, racism, classism, elitism, religion, or ‘the man,’ to just say “f*ck” over and over again until someone listened. I tried for six months to like dance music like everyone else at my school, so I wouldn’t get my head kicked in, or so I thought, but I was 13 and she was 16, and she had a Nirvana t-shirt, black lipstick, and purple Doc Martins, smoked rapidly disintegrating roll ups, and talked with fire about what music made you feel, from your body to your soul. In my head music still kind of looks and sounds like her.
When I fell in love with books it was because I thought no one else had yet. I must have been 9 or maybe 10 the first time I bunked, not a class, but a lunch break to go and hide down a tunnel of blackberry brambles behind the school kitchens, to eat my packed lunch and read in cool isolation. With the screams of a game of kiss chase, where I knew I had no hope of being pursued, blissfully muted into white noise, with the sun directly overhead, with fruit just about to burst from green to black all around me, that’s where I first learnt the meaning of ‘dappled,’ a word with a look and a sound that I still love. The triumph of a new word that fit perfectly, the uneasy moment where your immediate surrounds seem a pale simulacra of a fiction you’ve just ceased reading into being.
When I got given my first mix tape I had no idea what it was. She ran up, put it in my hand, and walked away without a word, like she knew that what she was doing needed gravity, mystery, like it just had to start with unanswered questions and a cold rectangle of plastic and a yellow glittery star glued in the top righthand corner. I knew I wouldn’t be able to talk to her again unless I’d listened to what was on that tape and worked out what it meant. Half an album on each side, by bands I’d never heard of. I still remember: drums, volume, sex, guitars. The next time I saw her we went for a walk, and she asked me what I thought, and I kissed her. I bought a walkman and wore that tape out on the bus, still sitting at the front, but not talking to the driver like a geek anymore. I swapped songs with the guy I’d start a band with on a bus like that, which means that if anything’s managed to go ok so far it’s probably because of that tape.
I fold down pages, underline quotes, and write in the margins of books because they’re mine. And I’ve got books with messages written in them from people who cared enough to lean over and scribble something to me in class. And I’ve got books where I tore out a blank page so someone could write a hasty letter to save themselves from much more shame, or try, just once, to get him to go that party, because, who knows, he might say yes, and that would be something, wouldn’t it, that would mean something, that he wanted to go, when he could be anywhere else after all. And I’ve got books that brought home photos used as bookmarks after I’d leant them out. And I’ve got books that still smell like perfume after I leant them out. And I’ve even got a book which now says, in gold pen, “I wish I’d invited you instead,” which is, for long gone reasons, the most painful book I own.
So, god knows, I get it. I get that you worry about the damage, and that you look at kids with mp3 players the same way that people who grew up with vinyl looked at your tapes and CDs and understood the appeal, but still sadly shook their heads at what had passed. I get that you think it would be the end of the world if books went the same way too.
And I get it when you say “it’s not the same.” And I get it when you say “ebooks will never be the only way that people read.” And I get it when you say “they don’t smell right,” even if you do insist on saying it over and over again, the same way you tell me that “you can’t read them on the beach.”
I get it.
But the other day I found a mobile phone with its SIM still safe, and I swapped it out, and read old messages on a new screen, and was quietly stunned that something like that, a bit of mobile, which is meant to be so cold, could make me feel those things all over again.
Given enough time, enough energy, and enough hormones we can attach meaning to almost anything. Anyone who loves them knows that books are much more than words on a bundle of pages. But they’re not of course, the bundle is exactly what they are, we just bring something else, something better, and do our best to attach it, and, with practice, do.
If you have any doubt that people will find a way to humanise their digital things then you must really think that those things stop humans being humans, because making things not things anymore, but objects, our objects, is what we do. Every stickered laptop, every swapped memory stick, every annotated electronic text, every emoticoned IM, every abbreviated SMS, every nail-varnished mobile, every cheap home movie, every bedroom recording, every tagged photo, every lovingly tended Myspace, Deviant Art, and Live Journal profile is testament to the fact that we spend our days making things ours, as in mine, and ours, as in you and me together.
How long do you really think it will be until ebooks are more than words on a bundle of screens? How long are you willing to bet against people using things into beauty?
Editor’s Note: Matt Hayler is a PhD Researcher at the University of Exeter. He is interested in all forms of resistance to the digitisation of the written word, but particularly resistance stemming from human neuropsychological and phenomenological interaction with physical objects and the widespread idea that technology is ‘unnatural.’ He blogs at http://4oh4-wordsnotfound.blogspot.com and you can follow him on twitter – @cryurchin