In Gary Shteyngart’s futuristic and comic narrative about the upcoming demise of the United States, "Super Sad True Love Story," one of the signs of the Apocalypse is the fate of books.
You remember books. Those hefty artifacts of paper, glue and ink that we used to cart from place to place, wondering why we’d brought so many with us. Those things that used to thunk to our noses as we drifted off to sleep beneath their pages. Surely you remember them?
I still have a few around the place, but I did not have one in my hands as I was reading Shteyngart. I hardly know what to call his work in the form that I read it. Narrative doesn’t seem quite right, even though that’s what I called it above. But that doesn’t get at the substance of the thing. E-book? Document? It does exist in the archaic book format, but that’s not what I was using to read it. What do I call myself? A reader of e-reader files?
In Shteyngart’s ... e-story, the main character, Lenny Abramov, has a “Wall of Books,” something no one in his contemporary New York City environment values anymore. Anticipating the arrival of a much younger woman with whom he wants to connect, Eunice Park, he considers his collection:
“I counted the volumes on my twenty-foot-long modernist bookshelf to make sure none had been misplaced or used as kindling by my subtenant. 'You’re my sacred ones,' I told the books. 'No one but me still cares about you. But I’m going to keep you with me forever. And one day I’ll make you important again.' I thought about that terrible calumny of the new generation: that books smell. And yet, in preparation for the eventual arrival of Eunice Park, I decided to be safe and sprayed some Pine-Sol Wild Flower Blast in the vicinity of my tomes, fanning the atomized juices with my hands in the direction of their spines."
That musty smell of densely packed libraries - the scent track of so many of my intellectual and cultural awakenings - will soon be consigned to the dustbin of history. In its place will be the library of odorless glass and metal that is my smartphone. Our patience for outmoded technologies will grow thin. (Is there still a Society for the Advancement of Telegraph Usage?) Our facility with the digital will grow. And all those books that have been the symbol of the advance and preservation of civilization will look like IBM Selectric Typewriters in a room full of Macs.
Even so, I can’t write the panegyric to the printed text I thought I would be developing in response to the world of electronic reading devices. I read more now rather than less. I find myself discussing books and literature more. My vocabulary has grown because I can press on a word and a dictionary definition pops up to enlighten me.
But I still appreciate books. Next to me as I write this is a wonderfully bound Library of America volume of William Faulkner’s work with a cloth cover and red ribbon bookmark. It seduces me with the promise of a truly sensual pleasure. I will savor that book, its weight and its beauty and even its sound as it resonates when dropped on a table. I will savor it. I just hope I read it.
As a person from the community of The Book, I feel slightly treasonous in adapting to the virtual read so readily. But if the Word can be made flesh, it must be powerful and versatile enough to accommodate many platforms. The question is whether we can sit still with the Word long enough, whether in leather- or app-bound format, to let it form us. And despite the dystopian future Shteyngart sees, I am optimistic. Because books are not the "sacred ones.”
This piece originally ran in Catapult Magazine.