Given that I was a kid who loved books, then grew up into an adult who stayed in school until age 30 and has spent the years since making a living as a writer and editor, it’s a little surprising how much of my adult life has been spent in vocal opposition to books.
It’s not precisely that I’ve opposed books so much as that I’ve inveighed against their fetishization. My doctoral dissertation argued that the commonly-held belief that kids are better off looking at books than looking at screens has been largely a social construction—rather than, as is generally believed, a scientific discovery. Since grad school, I’ve written about how I don’t miss books and pointed out unsentimentally how quickly the world is rushing to dump its books. More broadly, I’ve argued against the conventional literary establishment by standing firmly in favor of writing online, for free—which I think that even Karl Marx himself would have done if there’d been a 19th-century Internet—and celebrating the exploding world of non-professional creative writers on the Internet.
Yet, despite all those anti-print principles, I’ve found myself recently returning to some of the books I loved as a teenager—and returning, when possible, to the same specific copies I first read. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 series, Richard Adams’s Watership Down, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, even Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt books. In part that’s just because they’re good stories that I can now discover anew, but it’s also undeniably true that I have an emotional connection with these books—these copies of these books—because of what they meant to me during a difficult period in my life.
My strongest memories of teenage reading are of huddling with fat mass-market paperbacks on the public bus taking me to and from high school. On either end of a trying day at a school where, in retrospect, I really didn’t belong at all, I’d be rewarded with time alone to escape into thrilling stories. Like generations of readers before me, and like many kids today, I clung to my books as talismans, as physical proof that there were grown people who would go out of their way to write and publish and sell stories like that. The conspicuous presence of books about my person marked me as a nerd, and I was acutely aware of that. They were stolen from me, scribbled on, thrown back and forth over my head, knocked out of my hands, and generally mocked. My books were abused by bullies as a way of abusing me, and holding onto my books has always been a way of holding onto an important part of myself.
Given that I’ve now distanced himself from the creation of printed material to the point that I now write for the websites of radio stations, it’s ironic that I recently tore my mother’s attic apart trying to find the copy of Foundation that matches my Del Rey paperback series. Books have been very important in my life, and the shelf in my dining room is full of books that have stories of their own. There are my uncle’s Peanuts anthologies that were some of the first books I ever read, there are the sociology books I stayed up studying on sweaty Massachusetts nights, there are the Tolkien novels that belonged to my grandfather. These books are some of my most treasured possessions.
Still, I’m not going back to print. Nostalgia for the books of my youth notwithstanding, today I don’t buy new books unless that’s the only way (or at least the cheapest way) I can access the words in them. The Internet is still better than print, and here’s why.
The other day, after I published a blog post, I opened The Tangential’s real-time Google Analytics and sat watching for a few minutes. As the post spread on Facebook, I could see dots pop up across the country, and then around the world. Watching the data stream, I could see people who don’t even know me—who will likely never know me—reading what I’d written, and then clicking to read other posts on the site. A 400-word satirical blog post is no Once and Future King, but words are words, and readers are readers, and it was incredible to think that I was making connections with hundreds of readers, far away—and unlike T.H. White, I could see it. If they wanted, they could leave a comment, or tweet at me, and I could follow them back. We could actually know each other.
As a teenager, I loved reading, but not just because books are good—because loneliness is bad. There may be fewer books in the world today, but I also hope there’s less loneliness.