As beaches begin to fill with sunbathers toting Kindles and iPads to their balmy haunts, we might well wonder about the implications of our loss of the physical totem of the book. In the world most of us have known, reading was a scared act of communion accessed by that object of our attention and devotion. The careful choice of a book to be our companion when setting out for a few days’ sojourn at a friend’s house or a trip to the beach would find us solemnly weighing the subject matter, our degree of engagement, its physical dimensions, and, of course, its disposability. No one wishes to have an autographed first edition of their favorite author’s opus subjected to the pervasive abrasiveness of sand, to the dangerous proximity to pools or of precariously placed drinks. These were the mainstays in the pantheon of our personal libraries, never to be discarded throughout whatever moves we made, never to be lent or carelessly toted into danger. We knew how to keep these sacred objects unsullied.
Yet for a beach book, we needed to be prepared to graciously say farewell, should the need arise. Books are, after all, a portable medium, something meant to spread the contents within, and therefore to be freely shared. Should a person in our social orbit inquire about our latest find as we linger upon the penultimate chapter, we will put a cheerful face atop our knotted throat and encroaching feeling of sadness, and pledge to part with the this holy object and and new friend once its last page has been exhausted. As we switch to a digital media, space is no longer an issue: we can carry our library with us and drift from the high-minded prose of Joyce to a trashy bodice-ripper to a study of the subtleties of the Opium Wars to magazine articles about television shows whose return will salve the sting of summer’s end. Along with the physical limitations, however, we have also lost the attendant community that the physical book made possible. No longer does a single paperback police thriller migrate throughout our social circles, our individual engagement with it engendering discussions and illustrating a shared undertaking.
For much of history, books were such an expensive and rare commodity that they were preserved in libraries which generally made visiting them a solitary act even in cases where they were a communal touchstone. Popular American historical lore traces the history of our libraries back to the donation by John Harvard of some 400 volumes to the then-fledgeling university which would one day bear his name. Private libraries were expensive to acquire and required adequate space to maintain, but the major disseminator of written information was the newspaper, a portable and ephemeral sacrifice offered up regularly on the alter of information. These fleeting chronicles were expected to provide a bulwark for the preservation of the American character, something less tangible and more enduring that the papers themselves. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently wrote in a letter to Charles Yancey of the Virginia Legislature in 1816 “Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.” There was,however, in this flood of disposable information still a sacredness attached to the physical object of the book. The Jacob Berriman bible, an example of the early American pulpit folio ( A List of Editions of the Holy Scriptures and Parts There ... ) was, at sixteen inches tall, clearly not meant to accompany the early Americans on journeys or be spread like the Gideon bibles that greet travelers in hotel rooms today. It was instead a veritable sacred component of the church pulpit itself. Even during the depths of the depression, the poorest farmhouses in rural America had at least two books. As Lee Hays put it in a 1972 interview with E. Victor and Judy Wolfenstein “There are two things every farmer has in his house, a family bible and the almanac. One takes care of you in the next world and one takes care of you in this.” ( Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie )
In recent decades we have watched mass production create an object demanding much less veneration, something which is largely designed to be disposable. After the last page has been read, paperbacks thoughtlessly purchased at an airport make their way to untended tabletops and seats, to be discarded unceremoniously, and perhaps to be picked up by someone else. Plenty of readers, such as those at www.bookcrossing.com deliberately “release” books into the wild to be picked up by fortuitous strangers. They are also offered the option to track these books on their journey, thereby connecting us to the community rather than the object once again.
With the advent of the electronic reader, however, we have returned to a world of solitude, both bolstered and imprisoned by the sheer volume and indivisible nature of a library resting in our fingers. In our preoccupation with ourselves, worshipping at the Temple of Me, our scriptures have become our blogs and photos, erected in pixels for our own exaltation. As we shut away the world with our private, digital hymnals, however, we may be discarding our old sacred relics for a almost mystic communion with the text itself. A community of sorts is being reforged, albeit without the troublesome presence of other people.