As I write this, on the desk in front of me, is the book The Spell of New Mexico, a collection essays written by various authors over the years. It is not a title I’d normally be interested in by any means, but the book was given to me by a friend. As I look at the book, I am reminded of him. But moreover, I am reminded of the essays he recommended, one by Carl Jung and another by D. H. Lawrence. Who knew that these two men spent time in New Mexico and wrote about its life? I surely did not. The fact that my friend gave me this book tells me something about him as well as telling me that he knows me even better than I thought. The passing of that one book from his hands to mine strengthens our bond. For the rest of my days it will be impossible for me look at that book without calling him to mind. It gives to my memories something, even as it sits on the desk or high on the shelf, that a digital copy never will be able. The first dog-eared page that I came upon had this line written by Lawrence:
There are all kinds of beauty in the world, thank God, though ugliness is homogenous.
The line makes me pause. I so get that. The act of finding those words again, finding again that one page out of hundreds, means something so much more than if I searched for it digitally. I remember where in the book (somewhere half-way through, on a right-hand page, a third of the way from the bottom) that I first read those words. To Google that wisdom would be impersonal — like looking up a zip code.
And at some point I will pass this book onto another friend and point out that very line. When I do, I will ask him for his thoughts. Call it communion. With The Word. With God. With a brother.
I will also feel the absence of this book once I give it away. It is already a part of me, symbolic of a friendship and the flow of life and time. Who knows where this book will end up, what surprises are in for it, what journeys it will be taken on. It will travel a physical road. It can’t be zipped from one server to the next. The tangible book is not only its constituent text. It is, in a very real way, both its readers and its own road. It — like the friend who shared it with me — has an independent life. It transcends itself to become a human connection. It is Book and Man.
In the beginning was the Book, and the Book was Man. And the Book was with Man.
This rich interaction, one of real connectedness, could not have happened digitally. Books are talismans and a talisman contains magic.
If, as Marshal McLuhan said, the medium is the message, then I would say the message of the digital medium is this: life is cold, slippery, and hard throughout; life will crash. Life will be obsolete in six weeks. Life is mostly gray, odorless, and by the time you figure it out it, or you, will have to be replaced. The message is that life is expensive, that only experts can help you figure it out, that it can only be filled by buying more stuff, more apps, more programs. Life in the digital age is about monetization and mindshare. The message is that the world is a polarized place of two forces — Apple or Windows, terrorist or the good guys. Choose your side.
I prefer the medium, the message, of the physical, tangible book and it is this: Life comes between covers at the beginning and end. Sometimes those covers are hard. The message, the medium, reminds us that life flutters and comes in a multitude of colors; that life is not just cerebral but should be grasped and inhaled; that life is sometimes torn, yellowed, marked-up, dusty and never knows what hands it will fall into next. Sometimes life is illustrated beautifully; sometimes its appearance is misleading. The book reminds us that life has weight. That which appears full and promising may be empty. That which is thin but untimorous in tone may have the wisdom of the world nestled within.
A book is a medium that basks in unattenuated time spans, not ones blasted and splintered. It courts contemplation because it calls to you as much as you call to it. It has one utilitarian function — to be and transmit its own self. It does not beep. It does not email. It does not play music — though fugues of thought are in its purview. It does not dial-in porn or check your portfolio. It does not have an alarm, or a user password, or an IP address. It does not get forever fucked if you leave it in the rain, but it reminds you to be careful with your treasures if ever you do so. It does not court the fractured moment and interruption. It courts your own contours and depth. Books are more courtesan than call-girl. Books are a unity of form and content.
The digital medium for reading not only accommodates our shortened attention spans, but exacerbates them. Attention Deficit Disorder has become the norm. If books disappear, how much closer will we be to the day when actual discourse will vanish? How few more years and genetic mutations will we be from a time when our eyes and ears become as vestigial as the appendix? The digital medium is a speed medium. It tells us in form that nothing is worth the time. It is a medium that has taught us to glean, not read.
Thoreau counseled us to “Read not The Times. Read the Eternities.” One can only imagine what he’d think of blog posts.
Something worth reading should not be gleaned. Will future generations think that their gleaning is actually reading? Will the endless time-saving devices designed to make our lives better ever really do so? Is having everything at our fingertips really the point? Can time be saved to come back to? My sense is that the freedom to luxuriate in time has been stripped from us; therefore the book finds less of a place in our frenetic worlds. The death of the book means that we are surrendering to being consumers gleaning information only so that we can consume more — all the while being dazzled by the latest technological bells and whistles.
In the end it all comes back to how we define what it is to be human, to share, and to have a community. The Word is God. The Book is Man. We, as a society, are the ebbing and flowing thesaurus — a word that originally meant treasury.
I will leave you with this as I put aside my computer and pick up The Spell of New Mexico. Again it is from the D.H. Lawrence essay quoted earlier, originally written in 1925.
On the superficies, horizontally, we’ve been everywhere and done everything, we know all about it. Yet the more we know superficially, the less we penetrate, vertically. It’s all very well skimming across the ocean, and saying you know all about the sea. There still remain the underdeeps, of which we have utterly no experience.
If Lawrence sensed a loss of depth because of a sped-up world nearly a century ago, imagine how much is being lost now . . .
I fold the page over, marking it for its next passenger, its next fellow traveler on the slow and holy road.
John Rexer, the slack half of the La Cuadra publishing duo, is a very conflicted man. He began this article with pen and paper, then shifted to writing it in short distracted bursts on his Acer Net Book which often crashed. He then turned to pecking it out on his iPad, and completed it on a borrowed MacBook Air. He chokes on the irony.