Book Objects and Book Traces

I am a scourge and tyrant to my books. I immediately break their spines, annotate and underline the hell out of them, and even freely write notes in them about unrelated things, hoping they will help me recall more of my thought processes later. If my house caught on fire, I would try to rescue my copy of Moby Dick, which I’ve had since high school and have read four times. The book is a palimpsest of my intellectual development, with four sets of notes reflecting my priorities, literary and otherwise, at each given moment; it even has bizarre notes from friends, rather like Ruthie Whitehead’s ugly hand. I doubt it will ever wind up in a library, digitalization or none, but I treasure it, along with the thought that someone might excavate it from my tomb in 1,000 years and wonder what I meant by “whiteness=vacancy of form–>all soul!**”

To see my printed books sitting on their shelf, snug among each other’s battered spines and dated color schemes, is somehow to dwell in their company. I prefer the word “packrat” to “hoarder.” The books say what they say, day after day, night after night; the face of each page protrudes into space independently, requiring no mouse-clicking or wand-waving to reveal its contents. Of course, you still have to pull the book off the shelf and open it to read it, and most of mine have sat unopened for years. But their physical presence helps preserve their contents in my mind, especially given all the thought I’ve given to their organization. I often wonder if Henry Miller is happy wedged between Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac, and if Nabakov, Kafka and Camus are squabbling with each other on their common shelf. I love my Kindle, but I don’t worry about these things with my Kindle elibrary.

Some of the benefits of reading traditional print books are probably nothing more than pure association. The look and feel of a traditional printed book reminds me of a fruitful process I’ve enjoyed since early childhood (as Andrew Stauffer discusses in his WTJU interview), and which I associate with distinct moments when my own cognitive capacity has seemed to leap forwards. Interacting with physical ink on paper activates my synapses in ways that reading on a screen doesn’t. Whatever the reason, I worry that special ink-and-paper phenomenon will just disappear in a post-book world. I also associate reading on a screen with skimming and trying to collect a maximum volume of ideas and information without ever lingering over any given text. When we read something online, the next text, the next tangential rabbit hole, or or whatever, is only a click away. The problem isn’t that we’re tempted by distraction, but that we feel obligated to vacuum up all of the information in the entire world all of the time. There is so much content literally right in front of us, it feels indulgent and inefficient to spend too much time digesting any single text’s meaning on the screen; at the very least, it causes a serious case of FOMO.

In my own experience, my longest intellectual strides—the moments when I’ve suddenly managed to comprehend or express something significantly more complex than I could before—have arisen while looking at ink on paper, without links or tabs poking out at me. But I also appreciate having immediate access to so many more sources via digital research than we had ten years ago, and my research is much richer for it. Book Traces’ best-of-both-worlds approach of preserving the physical texts without opposing their digital availability seems incredibly reasonable to me. I hope to stumble across some treasures in the NYPL to contribute.

1 thought on “Book Objects and Book Traces

  1. Sophia Natasha Sunseri

    Kate, thought you might appreciate this quote from Anne Carson (which I love):

    “A page with a poem on it is less attractive than a page with a poem on it and some tea stains. Because the tea stains add a bit of history. It’s a historical attitude. After all, texts of ancient Greeks come to us in wreckage and I admire that, the combination of layers of time that you have when looking at a papyrus that was produced in the third century BC and then copied and then wrapped around a mummy for a couple hundred years and then discovered and put in a museum and pieced together by nine different gentlemen and put back in the museum and brought out again and photographed and put in a book. All those layers add up to more and more life. You can approximate that in your own life. Stains on clothing.”

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