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In Defense of Heavy Reading

Massiveness: an overlooked benefit of J.K. Rowling's achievement. (Image © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons)

As anyone who has ever moved can attest, books are the heaviest known objects in the physical universe. Indeed, it’s a well-known scientific fact that any five books packed into a small cardboard box possess a molecular density greater than the business end of Thor’s hammer. If you absentmindedly leave such a box on your back porch for more than two weeks it will, most likely, self-compress into a block of coal.

And that’s why, I contend, books are not just vitally important, but always will be.

Oh, hold on please, I seem to have left something out here…

Let’s back up, then, to a point early in the second Clinton administration, and an incident that prompted neither the first nor the last time that my wife would laugh at me. I was ordering some interesting-looking hardcover volumes for our kids. Dinosaurs, creatures of the deep, that sort of thing, rendered artfully with plenty of cutaway diagrams, pull-out triptychs, and so on. In short, the books seemed educational and engaging, bursting with both information and wonder. The only problem was, we didn’t yet have any kids.

“Why wait?” I offered.

So we ended up lugging those books, when they did arrive, from our small apartment to our first house… to our second house… and then to our third house before the first of our children was old enough to read them. And of course along for the ride were all the books we’d saved since high school and college, plus a few we’d been given as children by our parents. I’m sure most of you have first-hand familiarity with this scenario.

So, yes, there’s something special about a book all right. But lest you suspect this is turning into another half-wistful, half-elegiac piece on the romance of cloth- and glue-bound printed material, on how nothing will ever replicate the smell of fresh ink on fine paper—well, forget it. Despite my personally being able to relate to such sentiments, we’ve all read more than enough of those love letters to “old media” during the past decade.

Instead, I’d like to draw attention to the formal aspect of the medium referenced above, namely, weight. Mass. Size. Cumbersomeness.  Actually, you might even say that heftiness is an “emergent” property because it’s certainly not something that’s mentioned in any standard definition of the novel or book-length memoir.

Not that we don’t get “physicality” with other media, other platforms.  Hand someone your favorite VHS tape from 1984, and you are apt to get a big smile from the sheer kitschiness of the gesture. Hand someone your absolutely most favorite CD-ROM from 1992, and they are apt to hand it back to you. But if  someone hands you a book they’ve been carting around for year after year, it takes on meaning—why would anyone keep (treasure?) this book? And why is it being given to me?

Of course we can still share important texts with each other when they’re in electronic form, and indeed it’s usually easier to do so—that’s one of the virtues, after all, of having older content forms now accessible via new media: easy to store, easy to share, easy to start a discourse about.

But in all that ease it’s also easy to lose sight of the critical and curatorial opportunities that we—and those who are now growing up without the primacy of the book—may be losing out on. Why should I hold on to this particular book instead of donating it or adding it to the yard sale pile? Choices have to be made for the simple, even crude, reason of physical practicality. Only so many bookcases, only so many shelves, only so much available space. Only so much arm-strength.

And this is something librarians know a thing or two about: what’s worth acquiring, preserving, telling people about, and re-purchasing if a better version comes out or the original one just goes to seed.

Well, guess who else engages in much the same process? Fans. They support noobs in identifying and understanding the key texts in a given fandom, help their peers find the more obscure ones, and create and maintain Web sites in honor of bygone media products—all without any compensation from the media producers and publishers. They facilitate interaction between readers (broadly defined) and texts, as well as between like-minded readers (aka their fellow fans).

Although countless librarians are clearly also fans (I probably wouldn’t have this gig if that weren’t true), there are important—and instructive—differences between the two groups. Librarians must curate, organize, and annotate texts that hold no personal interest for them. And librarians must do this for the widest possible population of end-users, not just those who already gravitate toward a specific author, genre, franchise, or storyworld.

Huntress fan, with comics scribe Gail Simone. (Photo credit: Luigi Novi.)

Yet fans and librarians are forced to undertake their parallel missions in the same market-driven cultural environment that keeps  product coming so fast that we barely have time to catch our breath, let alone exercise our critical faculties to the degree of which we’re capable.  Often we’re reduced to simple binaries of like-it/don’t-like-it or buy-it/don’t-buy-it instead of explicitly making the deeper connections that speak to why we’re fans in the first place. To be clear, my intention here is to put down neither media publishers nor the commercial impulse itself—that would be like condemning rainfall because it can lead to flooding—but rather make what may seem like a counter-intuitive claim: being a fan can not only co-exist with being a thoughtful reader, but in many ways is a prerequisite.

Still, all this talk of heavy books can obscure the idea that’s it’s not the preservationist impulse itself that’s essential, at least not to most of the educators and fans whom I know. Rather, ultimate value lies in the conversation about saving and transmitting. Because that dialogue, both internal and external, is where it’s at. Determining what’s worth clinging fast to, what’s worth being passionate about (and then sharing that passion), and what’s worth leaving as a legacy to those who come after us—that’s the heart of the matter. So give me your thick-cut, back-breaking volumes, and I’ll give you mine, and together we’ll bestow them to those who may be too young to know the rewards of heavy lifting—even if it means that these “books” sometimes come in the form of Web comics, movies, and music videos.  In the end,  it’s their weight upon our hearts and minds that really matters.

Oh, and by way of postscript,  just the other day my eldest handed me (not just recommended) reading material for the first time in his life: a Spider-Man and Wolverine team-up from last year (actually, a reprint). In fact, it’s a comic that a buddy of his gave him a few weeks earlier, which means that I’m now effectively part of the community of twelve-year-old readers, a fact that I’m inordinately proud of. And because he shared this story with me that he really likes I’m tempted to say of him, a bit proudly, a bit condescendingly, “Hey, he’s learning”—but of course, one would hope, so are we all.

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About Peter Gutierrez

Comments

  1. Wonderful essay,Peter and certainly one that resonates. Purchasing and keeping books for those not yet born must say something about what we value, honor, and need. Carting said books from one domicile to the next let’s us know that some books are artworks we intend to cherish, perhaps beyond our mortal selves…So live this and this gives life to thee…

  2. What I absolutely love about this piece is the multifaceted nature of the message: the exuberance we all find in sharing, face to face, person to person; the grounding, resonating energy an object like a book can give to us all. Kind of reminds me of the book people in Fahrenheit 451. And the fact is this doesn’t even have to be a book for something like this to happen…

    … why my old gameboy was passed onto a friend 8 years younger than I, and then just last year it was given to his sister, 9 years old at the time. I just so happened to be renting a room in the family’s home so I was there when it was given to her. The fact she knew that it had been MY gameboy when I was her age was such an exciting thing for her to know. In fact the history of the gameboy was probably a bigger deal to her then the gameboy itself.

  3. Congratulations on the blog launch, Peter, and a great broadside indeed! Reading needs all the defenders it can get, and you are one of the best! I know that archivists are very much concerned about the effects of technological innovation on the accessibility of electronic materials. I myself was shocked to see that the newest version of Microsoft Word can no longer open some of the older Word files that the previous version had no problem with. The media ecology scholar Harold Innis distinguished between heavy media and light media, and you’re quite right that it’s books as heavy media that will survive, being both durable and accessible, not to mention an object of aesthetic delight. It’s the light media that are meant to be distributed quickly and then thrown away that will disappear in favor of the digital and the online, such as newspapers and other periodicals, and I think comic books (as opposed to graphic novels) will be among them.

  4. Interesting musings Peter. That picture resonates as I own hardback (UK) versions of the Harry Potter series and they were a right royal pain to carry around in a satchel! Necessary though, from my point of view ;-) However, NOTHING compares to the utter unwieldiness of George Martin’s latest addition to his ‘Song Of Ice and Fire’ cycle, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS. I dubbed it the ‘Kindle Justification’!

  5. I like objects with stories; a primary reason why I buy many second hand clothes, books, etc. and swap with friends when opportunities arise. In fact my George Martin set began as a hand-off from a close friend who didn’t enjoy A GAME OF THRONES ;-) Maybe it has something to do with a subconscious search for connection; some innate desire to participate in broader narratives? I think this is why I had a strong response to E. Annie Proulx’s ACCORDION CRIMES. Canadian artist/writer Douglas Coupland (http://www.coupland.com/ | @dougcoupland) engages themes around disappearing life narratives etc. quite deeply in his writing – though much of his work may appear light and quirky on the surface. I read an interesting analysis of his work a couple of years back which might be of interest to you also: DOUGLAS COUPLAND (Andrew Tate, 2007, http://www.amazon.com/Coupland-Contemporary-American-Canadian-Novelists/dp/0719074886)

    Anyway, sorry about the lengthy comment and keep up the great writing and exploration of ideas!

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