I can't remember when my family first bought a computer, but it was long after those who had taken an early plunge into personal computing had relegated their Apple IIs and Commodore 64s to the attic. As such, I can't count myself as a digital native, but that didn't prohibit my entry into the world of digital editing immediately following my graduation from college in the late 90s. I've spent my whole career as a digital editor of one stripe or another, including time at AOL and Gourmet magazine, running digital content for Martha Stewart's publishing empire, and acting as a content strategist consultant. I'm as much of a believer in the power and opportunity of digital content as anyone, but I seem to have drawn a line in the sand regarding books.
I was a bit of a holdout when the music industry's slide toward digital was more than evident — 2006 and the closing of the last Tower Records is a clear demarcation — because I loved going to the record store. Now my music buying patterns are split between the future and the past. I subscribe to Spotify premium and I buy vinyl. One is incredibly convenient, and the other is incredibly meaningful and how I pay reverence to the songs, artists, and albums I adore. Spotify is a service to me, but vinyl is an experience. MP3 files made for those little white ear buds require that music be compressed into a wispy file that slices off both the highs and the lows in the sound spectrum; vinyl has no such concerns. I like to feel the weight of the record in my hand as I pull it out of the sleeve, and I like holding the cardboard sleeve while I listen to an album, inspecting the cover art and the names of producers and engineers.
The physicality that I love about vinyl albums is also what I love about books. I own a Kindle and an iPad and have bought books on both, but I've never been able to read for very long on either device. I read slowly and dog-ear pages for later reference and make notes in my margins and underline passages, all of which I love to do on paper but find tedious and too similar to working on a spreadsheet in a digital format. Just like a record, I love to feel the weight of a book, and just like an album, I love the art of the cover. AndI read slow enough that I see each book in my library as an accomplishment — a stack of achievement here and a shelf of completion there.
Novelist Henry Green once said that the "purpose of art is to produce something alive, in my case, in print, but with a separate, and of course one hopes, with an everlasting life of its own." This is something I've struggled with as a digital editor, as there's a dichotomy at work between the fact that anything digital has a lifespan of, potentially, forever: Every little digital thing will be stored somewhere and could eventually be dug up via some enormous index of wired history — but this sense of forever is a bit of a falsehood, as most things online live an indescribably brief existence, quickly buried under a mountain of more creation. Print still contains a power and sometimes it seems that it has more longevity than any digital counterpart. Albums can be cherished for lifetimes, and if there's a physical reminder of that Grant Lee Buffalo or Simply Red album that you love, you're more likely to rediscover it every once in a while. But when that album is filed away in some kind of digital lockbox, it's less likely to see the light of day ever again. Unless there's a fire or you sell your collection, a physical library will be there to be perused every now and then. Similarly, each book you keep will bring back memories and remind you of an author or suggest to you that a friend should read this or that novel.
I am devoted to the possibilities of the written word in the digital landscape, but for me, it's dependent on format. Maybe I'll switch sides and eventually begin reading ebooks — and I am fully aware that the definition of what a digital book may be is still being explored. But as of this moment, anachronistic or not, I am still in love with the notion and reality of the printed book as it has existed for centuries.
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Adam Brent Houghtaling is an editor, writer, musician, and digital consultant living in Brooklyn, New York.
Books mentioned in this post
Adam Brent Houghtaling is the author of This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music