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.