The Book as Psychological Anchor

One of my favorite bloggers recently mentioned something habitual book-readers may want to ponder:

“. . .The distinct material shape of the book not only encodes a text but also becomes a reservoir of my personal history. I remember where I was when I read it. Or I recall who gave it to me or to whom I have lent it. In other words, the presence of the book on a shelf recalls its contents to mind at a glance and also intertwines an assortment of memories into the backdrop of my day-to-day life. At the very least, it becomes an always available potential portal into my past. I don’t mean to be romantic about any of this. In fact, I think this is all decidedly unromantic, having to do chiefly with the meaning and significance of the stuff that daily surrounds us.

The digitized book by contrast may have its own advantages, but by being the single undifferentiated interface for every book it loses its function as a mooring for the self. It’s not that the e-reader has no materiality of its own—of course it does. Perhaps the best way of conceptualizing this is to say that the device over-consolidates the materiality of reading in a way that smooths out the texture of our experience. Consider how this pattern of over-consolidation and subsequent smoothing of the texture of material culture recurs throughout digital society. The smartphone is a good example. An array of distinct physical objects—cash, maps, analog music players, cameras, calendars, etc.—become one thing. The texture of our experience is flattened out as a result.

“A mooring for the self.” Somehow that seems right. Not to say that ebooks, or, more precisely, reading books on a screen, don’t have their advantages or uses, but that reading a digitized ebook [and possibly listening to an audiobook?) is a difference experience than reading a printed book, with subtle – as well as obvious and/or practical – consequences.

A point worth considering before, say, deciding to radically purge a print book-based personal library.

The quotation above is an excerpt from “The Stuff of Life: Materiality and the Self,” Vol. 2, No. 13 (July 19, 2022) of the digital newsletter The Convivial Society, written by L.M. Scasas.


An Exploration of “Bookishness”

This blog does not often mention (or review) particular books – the blog is devoted to the pleasures of The Reading Life, rather than the merits or demerits of specific books – but sometimes An Exception Must Be Made.

A recent essay by Mark Athitakis in the Washington Post mentioned in passing a 2020 book by Jessica Pressman entitled Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Pressman’s introduction:

“. . . In the twentieth century, we no longer need books, physical codices, as reading devices. We have other means of reading, writing, communicating, and archiving. But that doesn’t mean some of us don’t want books. And that want manifests everywhere. Indeed, at the moment of the book’s foretold obsolescence because of digital technologies – around the turn of the millennium – we saw something surprising: the emergency of a creative movement invested in exploring and demonstrating love for the book as symbol, art form, and artifacts. . . . Cell-phone covers crafted to look like old books; decorative pillow printed with beloved book covers; earrings, rigns, and necklacs made of miniature codieces; store windows that use books as props; altered book sculptures exhibited in prestigious collections; and bookbound novels that revolve around a book as a central character. . . . Bookishness happens across countries, languages, media, and genres. This obsession with the materiality of books spans the spectrum from high art to absolute kitsch, and it signifies a culture grappling with its own increasing digitization.

The book has historically symbolized privacy, leisure, individualism, knowledge, and power. This means that the book has been the emblem for the very experiences that must be renegotiaed in a digital era: proximity, interiority, authenticity. So what happens when the books get digitized and bookish culture goes digital – when the word “book” may or may not refer to a material object? Bookishness signals a culture in transition but also provides a solution to a dilemma of the contemporary literary age: how to maintain a commitment to the nearness, attachment, and affiliation that the book traditionally represented now that the use value of the book has so radically altered. Books aren’t going anywhere, but they are being repurposed and reimagined. Our relationships to books are changing, and often the results are surprisinly poetic and generative.”

You can read Pressman’s entire introduction and read excerpts of reviews of Pressman’s book at Amazon. (Note: the book is available in hardback and in a digital edition.)

Another Look at the Pros and Cons of Ebooks

“Whether you love or hate ebooks is probably a function of what books mean to you, and why.”

So sayeth Ian Bogost in a recent article in The Atlantic.

Read Bogost’s essay.

Some readers – both those who prefer ebooks to print books, or vice versa – may be interested in the mammoth study of the post-digital history of the publishing industry entitled Book Wars, by John B. Thompson.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent review, written by Jennifer Howard for the Los Angeles Review of Books, of Thompson’s book that’s relevant to the print vs. screen essays by Bogost:

“Despite their early boom, ebooks didn’t cannibalize the print market. Thompson uses data from the Association of American Publishers to show that ebooks plateaued at 23 to 24 percent of total book sales in the 2012–’14 period, then slipped to about 15 percent in 2017–’18. Print books, on the other hand, continue to account for the lion’s share of sales, with a low point of about 75 percent in 2012–’14, bouncing back to 80­ to 85 percent of total sales in 2015–’16. (Thompson’s study stops before the 2020–’21 pandemic, but print sales have for the most part been strong in the COVID-19 era.)”

Reading in the Digital Age, or: The Death of the Book, Revisited

Dan Chiasson, in The New Yorker’s September 2, 2019 issue, reviews the new book What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading by Leah Price. As with most New Yorker book reviews, Chiasson’s essay addresses a range of related issues, and wittily so.  (The wit begins with the essay’s title: “Reader, I Googled It.”)

Read Chiasson’s delightful, insightful (and, for habitual book readers, reassuring) essay.

Ordering information about Leah Price’s book – as well as excerpts from another ten reviews – is here.


Books vs. Social Media: The Math…and The Choice(s) You Have


Would you imagine that anyone – specifically, that you – could devote enough time to reading 200 books every year?

Well, if you use social media at the frequency that The Average American does, you could read 200 books instead, according to Charles Chu, swap the screen time for book-reading time –  and voila!

Published originally at Better Humans, then later at Quartz; found at New Jersey librarian Leslie Kahn’s Facebook page