Nathan Jurgenson, a social media theorist and contributing editor to The New Inquiry, coined the phrase “digital dualism” to describe the thoroughly contemporary impulse “to see life mediated by digitality as less worthy, human, and real.” Though we may shake our heads at the sea of glowing screens at a concert, or chide the brunching Instagrammer for not “living in the moment”, Jurgenson usefully points out that a digitally mediated experience is not an anti-experience — it is merely a different model of experience. This refusal to privilege the analog above the digital (or vice versa) feels prescient, and I suspect digital dualism will prove to be less of a conceptual problem for the next generation whose online and offline existences are likely to be more organically enmeshed, ceasing to be a duality, or, at least, ceasing to be perceived as such. Still, the entanglement of authenticity and the analog remains an idée fixe for many, myself included. Indeed, the genesis of this monthly column was nothing less than a desire to write about and work through my own apprehensions with regard to technology, literature, and life. Grappling with the ramifications of one’s permanent connectivity — both its communal expediencies and numbing passivities — has, for me, become something of an existential issue: nothing less than the choice of a particular kind of agreed-upon reality. If this choice is self-imposed and ontologically fluid, the anxiety it creates — that is, experiencing technology as both social clarity and personal opacity, conduit and impasse — is profoundly real.
That anxiety is apparent, too, in literary life, wherein it takes on an aspect of material snobbery, even conservatism. I am an admitted offender. Reading and collecting books has been one of the prime pleasures and obsessions of my life, pursuits that underpin my identity as much as they satisfy some inexplicable interior yearning. By “books”, of course, I mean physical texts with covers and blurbs and crisp white pages; phones and tablets, in my estimation, are made for think pieces and memes, not novels. The thinness of digital reading makes it, for me, inimical to the very idea of the novel — it is, at bottom, a limitation of the medium. Are these merely the thoughts of an absurd and dandified Luddite? I’m not ruling out that possibility. But if I’m honest, I’m not ashamed of this admission; truth be told, it feels more like a point of pride. It would seem we’ve arrived at my own form of digital dualism, manifested primarily as an immense scorn for the electronic book, that palely gleaming sibling of the analog text, a mere file on a smeared screen, a way to read James Patterson on a flight to Burbank. Still, I recognize that the reactionary nature of my feelings — girded as they are in supposition, fantasy, and object fetishism — deserves further scrutiny. How and why did my own digital dualism arise? What is the bullshit quotient of my physical preference? Perhaps most importantly, where does the materiality of reading end and literary posturing begin?
As an unabashed sensualist, the most obvious deficiency of the digital book, to me, is the scarcity of its satisfactions: its lack of spine and alarming weightlessness, its abstract and odorless pages, the tactile sterility of the entire enterprise. It seems to me that a book’s physicality is part and parcel of its ability to convey an intimate and lasting experience. Books are meant to be handled and smelled, fingers run along worn cloth, words underlined in good black ink, dog-eared corners folded and refolded. Indeed, the materiality of books — pages, fonts, marginalia, previous owners, stains — channel, for me, a kind of literary magic, an aura of lived memory that the eBook cannot aspire to. The drops of blood in my copy of Dune (nosebleed, age 14), the wilted spots in Jude the Obscure, the profound and funny notes in Confederacy of Dunces written by a mystery reader I’ll never meet — this is where the physical book and the vitality of the reader come together, thickening with every encounter. Yes, the ideas within books, their collections of consciousness, are the important things; however, a physical book makes the conveyance itself an essential part of the endless enrichment: a monument to our relationship with the living, growing text.
Another comparative category of interest between the physical and the digital is availability. At first blush, this seems like an easy win for the eBook; after all, this is the argument I hear most often from friends and family — that on extended trips and vacations, a handy tablet can carry multiple books and magazines for all-day, hassle-free reading. I do not dispute this practice, even if a battered paperback seems much preferable to me. But I would argue that the kind of availability physical books offer is more immediate and somehow more generous. If the virtual library is about ease of access, the physical library is about intimacy of access. By that I mean: taking books down at random when walking by the shelves to read a favorite (or random) passage; holding a comforting tome during bouts of insomnia; spreading multiple volumes out on a desk when writing; borrowing, trading, and quoting books in the company of other literary obsessives. That kind of availability means a great deal more to me than mere digital pragmatism; or, rather, it feels even more practical to me inasmuch as it privileges affectionate use over portability.
There is also the consideration of books as beautiful objects whose aesthetic physicality makes the library one of the more gorgeous and magisterial domestic fixtures available to those who have been priced out of fine art (read: more or less all of us). Walter Benjamin, an inveterate book collector, said that “ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects” but it is his clarifying remark regarding his books that has always stuck with me: “not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” The collector of physical books, then, is seeking not only the generous reward of the text itself, but also a kind of imagined domicile, an intellectual haven. In this respect, the books that line our walls become a kind of secondary support, a metaphysical as much as a physical buttress. Perhaps the more cynical reader might claim here that the impulse to collect is a bourgeois affectation, or that the cultivators of personal libraries are merely reaching toward cultural status. To these I claims, I must strenuously object. My library, more than anything, is an existential comfort, an alleviator of anxiety and a balm against recurring depression. As much as our books provide beautiful visual tableaux, the aesthetic of the library is, finally, an aesthetic of nourishment. The virtual eBooks on one’s device, which can indeed be placed on a pitiable eShelf to “display” one’s collection, cannot match the radiant physical presence of the true library; indeed, it was never meant to. It is a library debased, limited, quantified to pure information: a catalog in place of a hearth.
With all that said, I realize there are a wealth of practical reasons to embrace eBooks. The literary life, with its attendant mountains of physical books, can quickly become costly and cluttered to the point of inconvenience. In both personal and public libraries, the ease of archiving electronic texts is hard to deny, and if there is ever a Neo-Alexandria, it will of necessity be digital. More than that, though, it would be foolish to dismiss an opportunity to minimize our physical presences — to say nothing of the environmental impact of industrial production and transport — by way of digital means. As an act buoyed by political awareness, digital reading locates an attractive context.
I suppose a reasonable objection to this piece could be: why create a dichotomy when one isn’t needed? Why not physical books and digital books? This is fair, I think, but perhaps missing the point. In order to avoid Jurgenson’s digital dualism — that is, in order for me to perceive and experience life as an integration, rather than a bifurcation, of digital and analog — I require books as a mechanism to balance said integration. To be more fully engaged with my life, connected or otherwise, I need the experiential efficacy of deep, physical reading, something I’ve been unable to duplicate on my phone or tablet. Whatever personal identifiers can be gleaned from this necessity — inferred character judgments or cultural assumptions — are of little concern to me. The truth is that reading these mysterious, vibrant, echoing works — holding them in my hands and absorbing something from them — has, without exaggeration, saved my life and will continue to do so. Far from a precious conceit, I believe this way of thinking is more of a reminder to myself: that my books are possessed of a unique being, a unique presence, something strangely returned to me again and again. Perhaps that’s why when I take a favorite novel off the shelf it’s more akin to a handshake — or, at times, something like an embrace.