I’m in Barcelona, resting on a bench becausethe massive backpack I’ve been lugging around has left my back aching. I see two teenagers come out of Fnac, the giant electronics and book store situated on the west side of Placa Catalunya.
One of them sets his greenish-yellowish Fnac bag on a bench similar to mine and takes out his prizes. Two LPs, one by Iggy And The Stooges, the other, Blondie.
Annoyed, a little, by this vulgar display of hipstery, I stop humming Vampire Weekend long enough to realize that I’m just like this asshole: I, too, have come around on records. I like them because, just as everyone says, they sound warm, they’re fun, and they’re way more interesting to look at. Far more interesting than a computer screen or your phone’s face, that’s for sure.
But all of that is old news; no one doesn’t know these things. And anyway, none of those reasons is why I really like records. They don’t sound that different and they’re not that fun to have around.
The thing I like about records is the investment. When I take a record out of its sleeve, put it on the turntable and adjust the needle, I become aware that I’m about to listen to music. This forces me to try to appreciate that music; I am made to pay attention. The iPod itch begging to click Next Song isn’t there; the opportunity to Facebook isn’t feasible. It’s just space, time, and a record.
I’m reminded of something we seem to be trying to forget – the importance of noting that we’re consuming art before we start consuming that art.
And as I watch that kid show off his records, I can’t help but think that we’re about to do the same thing to books.
We do not consume books and music in the same way, of course. Music can be appreciated while on in the background; you cannot drive and read Crime And Punishment at the same time. Reading is inherently a committed experience.
This would seem to render my argument moot – if the only way to read is to commit to reading, it doesn’t matter where the words appear.
But we are beings who are prone to distraction. It matters that our books are – or will be – on the same devices as our magazines as our music as our movies as our dick pics.
It becomes easy to click away, to give up, to do something else.
One can give up on a regular book, too. The act of taking a book off the shelf doesn’t guarantee that the reader will finish that book. But it does make it more likely.
Cooking dinner is always more rewarding than ordering in. The sex you had to work for is always more profound than the slut who fell into your bed. Farmers probably feel less satisfaction after plowing a field with a tractor than they did with a mule.
Notice that I did not write “pleasurable.” There is a difference between pleasurable and satisfying. Some good art is pleasurable; all good art is rewarding. Barriers to entry often elevate the joy realized when good art is consumed. Scanning the shelves of a dusty bookstore, finding a copy of Bleak House, buying it from the an old man who nods approvingly at your selection, then reading the book that night, taking it with you on the train, packing it whenever you think you’ll be afforded a spare minute…and then, 27 days later, finally finishing that last page and spending the rest of your day smiling because, well, just because.
In 1935 Ernest Hemingway listed 17 books that he “would rather read again for the first time…than have an assured income of a million dollars a year.” That type of bond – that emotional investment – is what we are incessantly trying to destroy.
That’s not to say that there isn’t reason to try to make the experience of consuming art easier. It would probably be extremely rewarding to listen to Jonathan Franzen recite The Corrections, but reading the book provides a reasonable facsimile.
The problem comes when we take convenience too far. And I think we’re about to make books too convenient.
E-readers have their place in our future – perhaps for newspapers and magazines and for looking up the definitions of the words you don’t know in Blood Meridian… lots of words you don’t know in Blood Meridian. And they might be the global solution for some people – for people who are able to concentrate on one book, no matter how many are available.
But for the rest of us – for those of us who are easily distracted, who need the reminder of a front cover and a back cover to differentiate the book we’re reading from the other thousands of activities battling for our attention – it might be prudent to remember that books are forever.
So feel free to skip the madness. Learn the lesson that our iPods are teaching us. Keep your hardcovers; use your iPad for magazines and newspapers and online reports.
And then, in eight or ten or fifteen years, when you see a kid coming out of a store, about to show his girlfriend his hardback copy of Middlesex, you’ll be able to smile, knowing that, this time, you didn’t follow the masses, that you learned from everyone’s mistakes, that you remembered that more and faster and quicker…
…are not always better.
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