In the second volume of David B.’s Incidents in the Night, there’s a shoot-out in a used bookstore. It’s a fairly straightforward gunfight until the moment when one of the villains cries out and looks down to discover a book clamped around his leg like a pair of jaws. A moment later, another book wraps itself around another villain’s face, nearly suffocating him to death. “The books,” the villains declare, horrified, “they’re marching against us!”
When asked by another character what he thinks his books are doing, David B.’s bookseller replies, “They’re not MY books, it’s their words that bite.”
Books are curious creatures in that in one sense their materiality is of little importance: It’s the words that bite, and that has nothing in particular to do with the book itself you hold in your hand. In theory, at least, the words bite whether they’re digital or printed on paper, whether they’re read aloud or silently—though, of course, as soon as you declare that, you can’t help but think of the exceptions: the books that can’t be read effectively aloud without limiting their meaning, books that gain or lose something from being in one format rather than another, and so on.
Books exist in that strange space between materiality and immateriality, where on the one hand (if hand’s the right word) we feel that their materiality doesn’t really matter and, on the other hand, the physical qualities of the book are absolutely inseparable from the reading experience. The specificity of the reading experience is based on the particulars of the copy of the book you hold in your hands. On the one hand, the digital, hardback, and paperback copies of a book are all the “same” in the same way that all the chairs in the world supposedly partake of Plato’s chairness and point back to an ideal, virtual chair. On the other hand, however, once you’ve verified that the chair you’re sitting on has chairness, the peculiarities and the comforts of the particular chair you’re sitting on really come to matter.
When my son was born last year, I realized that while I couldn’t juggle both him and a book very easily while feeding him a bottle, I could manage to read books on my smartphone. On the screen would appear a page of maybe ten lines, forty words or so, and then I would swipe my thumb across the screen to move to the next page. I could hold my son in the crook of my arm, hold his bottle with one hand, and hold my phone with the other. I could put down the phone, turn it off or on, without losing my place. It was, no question, convenient. In many ways it wasn’t just the most comfortable book I could manage, but the only book, given the circumstances, that I could manage.
And yet, even knowing this, I missed things. I missed most the act of turning the page, that quite minor physical effort. I missed being able to thumb forward to see where the end of a chapter came. I missed being able to tilt the book and compare the thickness of the pages I’d already read to the thickness of the pages left to read. I missed the weight of the book, its so-called heft. I missed balancing a book on my chest in bed as I read myself toward sleep. In addition, after reading several books on my phone, I began to miss the tactile shift that comes from moving from a book with one sort of cover and heft to another with another sort of cover and heft. There was part of me that thought—and still to some extent thinks—that what I was doing was akin to reading a book but wasn’t exactly the same, in the same way that listening to an audiobook both is and isn’t a kind of reading.
True, I was “reading”—I could discuss these books with others, in some detail. I was getting all (or nearly all, since there are sometimes formatting shifts that do impact the content) of the content and even of the form that I could get out of reading print versions of these books. What I wasn’t getting was the experiences that I associated particularly with reading a print book. Rather than turning a page, I swiped. Rather than putting in a bookmark, I touched a corner of my smartphone’s screen and got a virtual bookmark. Rather than standing up and getting a pencil to mark a passage I wanted to refer back to, I pushed my thumb against the screen and moved it until the passage was highlighted.
The materiality of the book is what particularizes the reading process. It has little if anything to do with the content or even the form, but everything to do with what stands between us and the words that our eyes pass over and our minds string together to form the reading experience. It is an excess or a remainder: It’s not really needed. At the same time, it’s comforting and soothing, habitual, even addictive in the way a regularly repeated habit like smoking cigarettes can be. We know we can take the nicotine in another way, perhaps even in a better way (a patch, liquid, an electronic gizmo) but there’s something about the habit itself, about what we’ve learned to do with our lips and our hands, that we cling to. Which suggests that on an important level reading is not just about receiving the form and content that make up, say, a narrative: Reading is a repeated gesture of comfort brought to bear on the particularity of a copy of a given book, the joining of habit to a slightly and subtly unique experience.
When we think back to books that we read, particularly the books that had the biggest impact on us, we remember not only the words, not only the story, not only the form and the content, but the situation of reading, as if that has become for us part of the book itself. I remember reading Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes while camping alone in the middle of the Utah salt flats—something about the terseness of his objective descriptions seemed relevant to the severity of my situation. I remember the smell of the fire I read it in front of, and the way the book smelled of smoke for years afterward. I remember reading Ulysses in the Brown Deer Public Library in Wisconsin when I was supposed to be going door-to-door as a Mormon missionary—I remember among other things the table I read it at, the feel of my elbows propped up against it. I remember reading Peter Straub’s In the Night Room in a streetlight-free and utterly quiet suburban neighborhood in Indiana and the impact that that had on my reading. I remember reading The Twenty-One Balloons as a kid, wrapped in a blanket. I don’t remember where in my parents’ house I read it, but that feeling of being wrapped up, enveloped, still comes over me every time I look at the cover of that book.
None of those memories have anything really to do with these books, and they’re not things I can pass along to others. But all of them particularized those books for me, made the experience of reading them material and specific.
Of course, in a way, reading books on my phone while holding my child has done the same thing. It’s not that that’s an immaterial reading experience, just that it’s differently material, and that since the device I’m reading on is identical from book to book, it’s the experience of reading on my phone while holding my child that’s material, more so than the relationship to any specific book. The books blur together. My phone, unless I change the case between books, always feels the same.
I have a number of books I bought at the same used bookstore. I assume these books were all owned by the same person, though they may have come from the collections of several similar people. In my mind, though, it is one person, someone whose taste in books I can trust, who is also a heavy smoker, and someone, too, who reads all his (in my mind it’s a he) books through slowly, carefully, with a lit cigarette centimeters away from the pages. When I open one of these books to read it, it still smells of smoke, somewhat stale but still strong, on every page. If I’d ever been a smoker, perhaps I’d have an experience like the one with Proust’s madeleine, but since I never was, what is evoked in my memory is the other books that I’ve opened to similar effect, a kind of secret library catalog of excellent books that has been formed for me by someone who didn’t even know he was doing it, and who certainly didn’t do it for my benefit. It’s the particularity of my own reading experience—in this case, a particularity tied to smell—following on the heels of someone else’s reading habits, that creates the tentative, shimmering connections between those books. And because I tend to share the taste of this imagined reader, when I open a book and smell cigarette smoke, it now comes with a promise that the book is going to be good.
In other words, some of the satisfactions of my reading certain used books are based on smells that allow me to construct a narrative or a story about whom a book belonged to before, to imagine someone reading something slowly and carefully, a cigarette between the yellowed fingers of one of the hands holding the book open, the book interesting enough to him that he forgets to raise the cigarette to his lips.
From a pile of books bought for a few dollars, I seem to have created an affable imaginary man in the process of smoking himself to death, and my reading continues to be haunted by the person I imagine him to be.
Yet within books, beings created from books are rarely so benign. In Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, the main character, Franz, an alcoholic writer obsessed with the occult, sleeps on a bed covered with piles of books and magazines, which, over time, take on a roughly human shape. He begins to think of the pile as his “Scholar’s Mistress.” Eventually he begins to talk to the pile as if it is an actual woman, and near the end of the book the Scholar’s Mistress comes to life, “her thin, wide-shouldered body … apparently formed solely of shredded and tightly compacted paper.” Then she attacks. “The dry, rough, hard face pressed against his, blocking his mouth, squeezing his nostrils; the snout dug itself into his neck. He felt a crushing, incalculably great weight upon him.”
Michael Cisco’s first novel, The Divinity Student, opens with its eponymous hero being struck by lightning. Once he’s dead, they “dump his contents cooked and steaming on the floor, and bring up stacks of books and manila folders, tearing out pages and shuffling out sheets of paper, all covered with writing, stuffing them inside, tamping them down behind his ribs and crushing them together in his abdomen. What pages they select and what books they tear are of little importance, only that he be completely filled up with writing, to bring him back, to set him to the task. A moment later, after a kind of parodic baptism, he comes back to life, a man of words wrapped in skin.
In our imaginations, even after the reading experience has ended, books begin to take on a life of their own, continuing to evolve and develop, to limp on into some continuing life. I remember, back in my early twenties, describing what I liked about Beckett’s Molloy to a friend only to have him inform me that what I was describing wasn’t actually in the book. Going back to reread it, I realized that what I’d picked up on was a certain vector or directionality, a promise or suggestion of something that was only partially fulfilled. It wasn’t exactly that I was misreading Molloy; it was that I hadn’t stopped reading it after I’d closed the book, that, in some nebulous and even mystic fashion, I’d read far beyond the final page.
I read Molloy for the first and second time in an unlovely Grove Press mass-market paperback that contained all three books of Beckett’s trilogy, with yellowed pages and crowded gutters. It was a translation from Beckett’s original French, done by Patrick Bowles and Beckett himself. The third time I read it, I read the original French version in a copy from Editions de Minuit. The curious thing about the English translation is how rigorous it is, how insistent it is about maintaining the French version’s syntax and word order, to the degree that that can be done and still sound like English. As a result, I felt less of a difference between the English and the French versions than I normally do between a translation and an original.
But what I did feel, and can still vividly remember, was the difference in format—the ample gutters of the Editions de Minuit copy, the precision of the stamp of the words, the effect of having a larger font, all of which added to the feel of the text. It was similar to the effect that one gets when one has read issues of a floppy comic book and then reads it later gathered as a graphic novel: Not only is the appearance different, the work seems changed.
Since then, I’ve read the English version of Molloy in the collected Beckett and had a still different experience with it: A mass-market copy of a book positions a reader in one way, a hardback collected works positions you in another. The story is still the same, but the way in which I’m being solicited to take it in is different, and the way that my reading is being facilitated is different as well. It’s not exactly like you’re reading a different book, but it’s not exactly like you’re rereading the same book either. All these different formats mostly overlap but don’t quite, and each of them has a different feel that I’ve taken away with me.
You can experience something similar if you start reading a book in one format and shift to another, going from a mass-market paperback to a well-designed first-edition hardback, for instance, or from a print book to an e-book and back. It’s strange how disorienting those shifts can be. The words are all the same, but the reading experience is definitely not.
In reading physical books especially, one takes in a sort of residue, some of it intelligible, some not. The reading experience is partly about learning to ignore this residue, to not care overly much about the font or the yellowing of the pages or the size of the print. On one level (there are, of course, exceptions—for instance, William H. Gass’s Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife), reading is about seeing through such things, pretending the window we’re looking through isn’t changing the view.
But even if we largely ignore that residue, it still affects us, in the same way that the chair we choose to read in, the quality of the light, and so on remain associated with a given book.
In a used book, this residue suggests another person. The previous owner’s name might be signed inside the cover. The corner might be turned down on several pages. There might be passages underlined or notated. There might be marginal notes, or even a bookmark with a few page numbers jotted on it. As we move through our own reading of a used book, that sense of proceeding down someone else’s path and either following it or diverging from it—while at the same time paying heed to the story with most of our attention—can be one of the great joys or frustrations. We experience a one-sided engagement with how we imagine another’s previous reading to be.
There is marginalia when you read in phone and e-readers as well—it’s relatively easy to take notes, leave bookmarks, highlight passages, and so on. Yet that engagement doesn’t tend to be solitary or passed anonymously from one reader to another as it is through a used copy. On a Kindle, for instance, you only look at someone else’s marginalia under two circumstances that I’m aware of. The first is if I “loan” you the virtual copy of a book I have bought, which means that I don’t have to imagine a reader: I know who loaned me the book. The second is stranger: Occasionally when you’re reading a digital book through Kindle you’ll hit an underlined passage that will say, for example, “Twenty-seven other people highlighted this passage.” You don’t know who these people are or why they highlighted that passage, but you know there are twenty-seven of them. Which makes you feel like you should probably pay attention to it. Marginalia in this case is less an engagement with one other person’s reading and more a kind of pressure to conform.
Fifteen years ago I bought a used copy of Jorge Amado’s Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon and took it home to find it had a letter tucked in its pages as a bookmark, a letter that had never been opened. It’s still in that copy of that book, though a few years after buying it I opened it and read it. It doesn’t matter—or doesn’t matter to you in this context at least—what the letter said: It was an ordinary letter, not unlike any number of unremarkable letters, subdued expressions of love, a plea to write. What was extraordinary about it was that it was postmarked the same year as the book appeared in English (1962) and had apparently been in the book since before I was born. I was much less interested in the letter than in why and how it had ended up in that book, and in the person who had either put it there and forgotten to open it, or had made a conscious choice not to open it, or had been unable to open it because they had died.
I have never been able to bring myself to read that copy of the Amado novel, though several times I’ve taken it on trips with me, intending to read it, and I suspect if I’m ever to read it I’ll have to get a different copy. Sometimes the residue is too much for us even before the scanning of words on a page actually begins.
Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn is a book about a writer who deliberately stops publishing books. Instead, he decides to be a “copyist,” which, over time, he comes to understand as meaning that he will write “portraits” of people.
What this means is hard for him to explain. He rents a space, gets hold of lightbulbs timed to go out after a relatively precise length of time, and then his subjects come and pose nude in the space for a little over a month. They can do anything they like—walk around the room, sit, sleep, etc.—as he unobtrusively watches them, sometimes jotting notes. Once all the lightbulbs burn out, he writes up a verbal portrait that captures who they are. He makes only two copies. One he gives to the person who sat for the portrait, for his or her eyes only, after the person has signed a declaration pledging “the most absolute discretion, on the pain of heavy pecuniary sanctions.” The other he keeps in a drawer for himself.
These portraits are not character sketches, at least not in the way we typically think of them as being. Instead, according to the first person he portrays, Rebecca, he writes “a piece of a story, a scene, as if it were a fragment of a book.” Stories aren’t portraits, suggests another character, to which Rebecca responds, “Jasper Gwyn taught me that we aren’t character, we’re stories … we are the whole story, not just the character. We are the wood where he walks, the bad guy who cheats him, the mess around him, all the people who pass, the color of things, the sounds.”
Here it’s not that the books are coming to life, but that the close and careful observation of people reveals something about how they can be translated into words, and those words serve in turn as a mirror for what they are. It’s not the characters in the story that serve as our mirror, but the story as a whole.
We, as tangible material creatures, read in a way that asserts our sense of being material creatures reading, that reminds us in subtle, repetitive ways of our role in making the book come alive. This seems as if it should stand in the way of the reading process, should keep us always at a distance from the worlds reading creates.
And, yet, books come alive nonetheless, and they bring us alive with them.