The Writing Life

The Joy of Print Books

Naming the Unnameable is available for free online, or can be purchased in print form for $9.99 on Amazon.

This month my textbook became available in print. As an open source book, it has been available solely as a free pdf download since March, but I have to tell you, that book didn’t exist until I opened the padded envelope in my kitchen and held it in my hands, felt the smooth cover. There is just something about a book that can never ever be replaced or rivaled by a digital version of it–even (especially?) if it is your own.

I do not own a kindle or any type of reader. And right now I have no need to. Every room in our home has books in it, and most rooms’ walls are lined with book shelves. Cookbooks and cooking magazines in the sunroom; poetry, non-fiction, ecology, British Romanticism, early American texts in the living room; fiction, philosophy, art, mythology, gender studies, travel, reference, language in the den; teaching materials and textbooks in the spare bedroom; literary critcism, poetry anthologies, and books that currently have my attention in my office; books Rob is working with in his office–every room of our house has a different purpose. In our bathroom catalogs from presses, pages left open for the other to read; in the bedroom this month’s Atlantic, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and Mother Jones along with my current night reading, dream dictionaries, two old copies of Emerson’s essays (one from 1893, one from 1940), and one copy of the unique Comfort Found in Good Old Books by one George Hamilton Fitch (1911)–all three that Rob gave me one year as a birthday gift.

A birthday gift from Rob

The old books that Rob gave me came with additional stories and magic, as many old books will. Two have the names of previous owners–Eleanor Harter, Ruby Sigler Kirkwood. One has a a poem “Mr. Emerson Tries to Complete an Essay” by David Wagoner published in a 2002 issue of the New Republic cut out and taped in the front. Some used books come with personal inscriptions penned by gift-giver to recipient. Once in a used bookstrore on Monroe Ave. in Rochester, NY, I found a four-leaf clover in a copy of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Sold! The copy of Fitch’s book opens with a little fascimile of the cover to Shakespeare’s first folio of plays.

A delightful fascimile that lifts from the page

Why would I ever trade these for a digital copy and its flat uniform screen, plastic body, and reliance on electricty? These old copies are electric, as anyone who loves books knows. They have a history, an energy, and engage and delight my senses just as the writing within them. The mind/body connection between a reader and a book is not only sensual; it also effects our level of engagement with a text.

In my classes, college students are usually bummed that I require print texts for the course. They complain about the prohibitive costs and ask if they can purchase the digital version instead. I respond with the science–studies show that digital texts contribute to diminished attention, focus, and deeper thinking that fosters contemplation, introspection, imagination, and reflection. But print copies of books foster these mental states along with improving long-term memory and concentration.

On the first day of all of my classes we read articles and watch videos addressing the costs of our digital technologies, social media, and reliance on Google: Continuous Partial Attention, Google amnesia, and cell phone addiction. We listen to an interview with Nicolos Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, in which he postulates that the age of humans reading, thinking critically and in solitude, deeply pondering the world is just that–an age, temporary. And that what we are doing when we welcome digital technologies into our lives so easily is hastening an end to this age, hastening us back to our primal roots where we were always on edge and our attention shifted continuously on the lookout for predators and other threats in the wild. Today, for me, the dismissal of the print book is the threat.

Having written a digital textbook I am fully aware of the benefits that the format offers. As I composed I was able to intorduce hyperlinks into the body that takes readers to a wealth of resources–author biographies and additional poems, audio recordings of readings, articles and essays I reference–it is truly beneficial. Writing Unnameable was a different type of writing, multilayered, referential. One of the advantages was that if my publisher couldn’t afford the republication fees for certain poems I was able to just link out to where they already exist online. Open SUNY Textbooks is a nonprofit organization run on grants whose purpose is to lower costs for students who attend SUNY (State University of New York) schools, so not having to pay $500 for one ten line poem allowed us to keep costs low. (It was “we so cool” if you must know.)

Having a digital book has other advantages as well. I am able to access it easily in classrooms, share portions of it in emails with students, and save students money. But I know that when I use it in my next creative writing class I will also require students purchase the print version as well. So we can use it in the classroom. So they can use their hands and ink to annotate the pages. So they can see what I did: I wrote a book.