In Praise of Physical Books: From Symbols of Cultural Capital to… Cultural Relics?
George Prochnik on Why Reading Offline Remains Essential
We didn’t change anything after we moved in; we just kept acquiring more bits and pieces. The present kept interrupting, like a clamorous child—in the person of that child—over our misty aspirations to more thoughtfully mold the shape of our life together. But with this, there’d also been so many warm, voluble conversations in these rooms that if all the words spoken there still hung in the air, the walls of the house would give way before them and the exchanges would fill the sky over Cumberland Street.
I pictured the dialogues swirling and streaking—black, red, verdant, and coruscating. And even when everything inside fell silent, every room of the house still overflowed with books. All those calling voices and verbal visions lay in wait for any hand that reached out to them. We’d fallen in love with the place for the old, dark mahogany shelves built into a big wall of the parlor. We’d put up new bookshelves in the dining room, the halls, our studies, and the bedrooms.
It was a house made of language, and though when I reread these words I hear their ring of vain romance, the sentence nonetheless keeps repeating in my mind—louder than any trepidation is my persuasion of their truth. We’d talked about everything here—everything. Only now it occurred to me that I couldn’t recall a single discussion of what we would do in the event that the demagogue actually won. As if before that contingency, all this verbal architecture simply went blank.
Looked at more coldly, there was another unacknowledged gap in this fairy-tale image of a house made of words: We knew by now that the content inside the multicolored covers of those thousands upon thousands of books surrounding us was already as good as void in the eyes of many present-day beholders. Recognizing this development had begun to subtly change our relationship to our own living space—to historicize it.
When we’d moved into Cumberland Street, books were still (if just barely) “part of the larger conversation,” as the phrase goes. Cultured people with even a little money invariably had lots of them— as many as possible. But over these past thirteen years, there had ceased to be any definite correlation between the presence of books in a house and the conceit of cultural relevance, let alone relevance of some other variety.
How many times recently had I heard one of my educated peers say, “It’s awful but I just don’t have time to read books anymore”—or “I don’t have the concentration,” or “I can’t remember the last time I read a book all the way through.” Wistfully, matter-of-factly, or sardonically. And these sighs were paltry compared to the lamentations over young people’s refusal to read anything. Indeed, the presence of large numbers of books in a house no longer even signaled education so much as being “of an age,” of maintaining an antiquarian interest. Whatever it now meant to “be civilized,” if anything, books had lost their safe seat in the construct.
It had been three or four years since we’d begun to notice a sharp uptick in the numbers of books being laid out on the streets of our neighborhood in boxes marked FREE—PLEASE TAKE. These objects had not simply lost all economic value, they’d become oppressive orphans. Please, please take us! Even finding thrift stores that wanted them, let alone libraries, was almost impossible, as we discovered when it came time to move. I’d often pick up a few volumes instinctively from the lineups we walked past along Brooklyn’s sidewalks. We joked that we were running a rescue shelter for forsaken books, but really that wasn’t so far off the mark. Or if not a shelter, perhaps a shrine for these cultural artifacts.
There might not have been anything intrinsically wrong with such a project. But we hadn’t set out to create a Museum of the Book, like the mythical Nazi Museum of the Extinguished People! We’d just wanted to read and write! Books were the medium through which we made our living, literally and figuratively. In the years of our life in this house, our passion had transformed into an archeological discipline. This latest period had seemed to culminate that process. Pulling a volume off the parlor shelves, I felt like a tomb raider.
Of course the paleo-ization of the book, together with the decline of reading, was a subject that came up frequently among our writer friends, though rarely with real bitterness by the summer of 2016. What was the point? Mordant humor sufficed for such talk. The more philosophically sanguine among us might occasionally note that this was all just a natural, evolutionary shift consequent on the arrival of new technologies and lifestyles. Creative narrative forms were thriving, after all. With television, podcasts, and short-format video, storytelling was arguably flourishing as never before. Why fetishize the book?
There were moods in which I went along easily with this notion of an essentially indifferent transposition of media, even merrily. Though inside I felt qualms about the casual way the word fetishize was bandied about, so crudely did it short-circuit discussion of the idea that there might be an integral value to particular mediums of expression.
It all felt somewhat as if a person attached to walking were being mocked for not grasping the fact that cars were demonstrably a faster means of getting between places. Nor could I ever quite shake the sight, the previous summer, of two children nearby each other on the couch of a friend’s place, one with an iPad, the other with a book. Watching the former impatiently tilt and swipe the glass of his device, I’d thought how what he clutched opened out in a great V for victory to the cosmos—and the cosmos of consumerism in particular.
Whatever book he might have been reading at any time, the porosity of that text to the larger material world was literally embedded in the “page.” His social media apps and shopping preferences shared the space of the words and expanded the premise of any story they told to include all those nascent acquisitions barraging his algorithmically customized mall-of-being. The girl next to him, with her book spread open between her quiet hands, seemed encircled—entirely contained by the volume in a way that seemed to mirror the enfolding embrace of a parent. I knew the analogy was romantic, but her clasp nonetheless seemed a material echo of that older, warm crescent.
None of the other vehicles for narrative bear this intimacy of simultaneously cradling and being cradled by a paperweighted world of still words. And the idea that this intimacy (from the Latin intimus, “inmost, innermost, deepest”) has no clear successor does seem an occasion for mourning, however inevitable the change, howsoever futile the regret. Is this mourning a species of fetishization? Or nostalgia? Or is it simply the muscle memory of a certain act of imagination? “Human lips with nothing more to say / Retain the shape of their last uttered word, / And a sense of heaviness stays in the hand / Though a jug being carried home has half spilled over,” wrote the poet Osip Mandelstam.
People sometimes bemoan the loss of a capacity for critical thought consequent on the collapse of older literary habits, but that linkage is undermined by all the accessions of false consciousness in eras when the book was glorified. Yet a type of intimacy may, indeed, be endangered now, and what this means sociopolitically we can’t yet determine. Several years ago, one of my older children took part in a volunteer project in Tel Aviv, working to assist undocumented migrants from Eritrea and South Sudan.
On returning to New York, he spoke about how, spending days with individual asylum seekers and other volunteers, he’d realized it was the first time he could remember ever engaging in conversation with groups of people in which there wasn’t one screen or another—phone, television, computer—displacing the experience. More than this, he said he couldn’t actually recall situations in New York where people even looked directly into each other’s eyes the way they’d done in those stark rooms sheltering the refugees. For my son, this open-eyed engagement with other individuals and worlds was electrifying.
The intimacy offered by books nurtures its own form of political consciousness. Reading Carlo Levi’s The Watch, an Italian novel from the post-Mussolini era this morning, on a day when Extinction Rebellion protests were blocking traffic in Central London, I came across a passage beginning, “The question now was whether that extraordinary popular movement called the Resistance would actually develop further, remolding the shape of the country, or would be pushed back into historical memory, disavowed as active reality… like a spiritual experience without visible fruits,” and felt myself profoundly stirred. Enlivened for our own struggle, just by virtue of feeling my own urgent questions inscribed through another consciousness. More than any particular political message, reading imparts a sense of solidarity in solitude across time and cultures that can strengthen our courage, even when it validates our foreboding.
One problem we face now is that those who would resurrect wholesale a former golden age, with all its rancid inequities, are counterbalanced by those who seek a future in which the slate is finally wiped clean—whether for the sake of sanitizing the moral landscape to protect fragile inheritors of trauma, or in deference to new technologies that promise to mold reality afresh in ways everyone can buy into equally.
Something in the ecology between past and present has gone awry. The imbalance distorts our judgment not just on what’s happening now, but also gazing forward in time. We’ve lost our temporal demarcations, as if these were the stilts of wooden piers swept away by a superstorm. News comes to us continually. There’s no anticipation of a rich weekend paper, let alone the next morning’s edition. There’s no Sabbath to our work, since in America almost everyone makes themselves constantly digitally available. (Surely one of the great silent coups in the annals of business management is the unheralded transition to the expectation that ambitious employees in white-collar jobs will append off-hour contact information to their work emails—as if every job required the vigilant responsiveness of doctors on call for a hospital emergency room. Then again, with the unassailable excuse of being always partly at work, each individual has been gifted by their company with an ever-ready escape hatch from the discomfiting immediacy of family intimacy.) The electronic mailbox never ceases delivery. The online store never shuts. The virtual entertainer never stops dancing out for our private delectation. We live in the perpetual twilight smear of casino time. Forever awaiting some jackpot of news—personal, professional, or global. Forever hunched before our screens, rattled and ravaged as a sclerotic, zombie-eyed smoker staring at the spinning symbols on the slots in Las Vegas.
Even if we cast aside the haptic model of the physical book as no longer culturally or environmentally viable, the practice that used to be referred to in schools by the acronym SSR—sustained silent reading—holds off this subjugation to incessancy, allowing the mind to simultaneously focus and drift across time zones without the gambler’s agitation. In so doing it too becomes a form of resistance to the corrosive hysteria of the hour. “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language,” Wittgenstein wrote. The purpose of this struggle, others have glossed, is deliverance from a kind of idle fascination, which is to say the liberation of consciousness, the inception of freedom as such.
Excerpted from I Dream With Open Eyes: A Memoir About Reimagining Home by George Prochnik. Copyright © 2022. Available from Counterpoint Press.