Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
Did you see Simcha's post from a couple of weeks ago in which she and a bunch of Register readers listed their favorite humorous books? If not, do check it out.
The first book Simcha suggested was Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. When I read her description of this classic campus novel, it was love at first sight. Her readers' energetic agreement with this selection only confirmed me in my certainty that this was the book I'd been waiting for for months; I just knew it would be one of those reads where you feel a small sense of disappointment as every page passes because you don't want it to end. I didn't even finish the whole post before I began clicking around to get my copy in the mail as soon as possible, and the short time I would have to wait before it arrived seemed insufferable. And so I found it remarkable when I realized later:
I never even tried to get it as an e-book. I specifically wanted it on paper.
It occurred to me that this has happened a few other times as well: When I bought a fiction book that I was certain I would find deeply moving; when I got a book about prayer and looked forward to losing myself in its words; when I finally treated myself to that how-to book that changed many friends' lives -- in all of these cases I shunned e-formats in favor of the real thing.
When I first got my Kindle, I wondered what role it would play in my life over the long haul. I saw the many advantages of the e-format: With the basic model like I had, the reading experience was surprisingly good. There were no games or other distractions, no glossy screen, no backlight -- in fact, it was so much like paper that I had to use a book light to read it at night. On top of that, there was the convenience of being able to carry a truckload of books on a single tiny device. As I ran my hands over this sleek marvel of technology, I wondered with a pang of nostalgia if paper books would now be a thing of the past for me. Would the sight of the inside of a bookstore become a distant memory? Would my grandchildren one day visit me in a house without bookshelves?!
As my reading has gone on, with both e- and traditional formats now available, I've found that my Kindle has settled into place in my routine -- though it's not the place I first thought it would be. I purchase e-formats for books that I read for purely informational purposes, books that don't seem to have much substance, and books I'm not sure I'll like. In other words: I do not use my e-reader for books that I cherish. For those, paper alone will do.
A book is more than its words. My visceral draw to bound pages has made me realize that when a manuscript is paired with a cover image and a font family and a paper weight, a marriage of sorts takes place. Just like with a human marriage, even if these elements are not the perfect match for one another (as in the case of a beautiful text with a dowdy cover), something sacred has happened nonetheless. This mix of elements has combined to form something larger than itself.
And though the physical aspects of a book may not matter as much as its words, but they bond us to it nonetheless. When I was 14 I devoured my parents' copy of Lonesome Dove, the first long novel I ever read. I can tell you as much about its physical appearance as I can about the storyline: It was a small paperback, with yellowed pages and tight font. On the cover, the faces of the actors who played in the TV movie version floated in a dusty Sepia tone; ragged white creases ran parallel to one another all along the spine. A few pages showed indentations at the bottom where one of my parents had dog-eared them. The part where Gus died fell on the left-hand side of the open book. I would often fall asleep while reading it, and a brief feeling of delight would flutter through me when I woke up and the first thing I saw was the familiar cover image. I can give you even more details about my copies of The Thornbirds, Wuthering Heights, and The First Man in Rome -- all books I read 20 years ago. In contrast, with the books I've read on my e-reader, the memories of the words are muted by the monotony of the memories of the physical reading experience: It's all the same gray plastic electronic device, the same dark-gray font on the light-gray screen.
Reading an e-book is like engaging with someone on Skype. It's fine if you're talking to the accounting manager at your company who wants to go over the expense report with you; but if you're hoping to encounter people you just might love with all your heart, you don't want them to be confined to an image and a voice trapped behind the computer screen. You will always prefer the incarnational version.