When he isn’t greeting people or performing other duties, one of the doormen in our Manhattan apartment building often sits at the front desk with a well-worn book open to a familiar page.  I presume it’s a familiar page because it’s always the same book, always the Christian Bible.

I watch him from the corner of my eye sometimes.  Clearly in addition to whatever encouragement this man experiences in the words he’s reading, he also appears to find comfort in the book’s physical attributes: perhaps its heft in his hand, the act of turning its pages, the smell of the paper, and the texture of the attached silk ribbon that he uses to mark his place.

While he’s reading that Bible, I’ve noticed, he’s also caressing it.  But though the tactile experience must be satisfying in some way, it’s not the main source of his satisfaction.  How do I know?  Let’s do a simple thought experiment and imagine that all the pages are blank.  That man may still choose to carry the book around, but he’d no doubt go other places for stimulation (or for affirmation of his beliefs).

In the beginning, John wrote, was the word.  Not the tome or the scroll: the word.

My glimpse of this doorman and his holy book has me thinking of all those literature lovers who are lamenting the advent of electronic books and it has me further thinking about what lies at the heart of our experience with books.  I have a theory that a book’s stimulation of our senses of touch and smell is associative of what books do for us in other ways.  In other words, we love the feel and aroma of books not so much for their own attributes but because they remind us of the enjoyable immersion that we experience when we read.

This is an important distinction because — barring a return to the Dark Ages — book technology will not relent simply because nostalgia would have us wish it away.

Nevertheless, those of us who tell long-form stories can be forgiven for feeling a little defensive these days.  We wonder whether books will exist by the time our next one is finished.  We wonder whether we’re witnessing not just the disintegration of publishing models but the disappearance of sustained reading.  We think about the books jamming shelves in our library — those works that seemed so alive to us just yesterday — and fear that they’re becoming relics.  We fear, in other words, that we’ve committed ourselves to producing silent movies at the dawn of the sound age.

My good friend John Hubner, after writing four books of narrative non-fiction, has turned to novel writing.  He told me that archaeologists believe the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira served as background — as stage sets — for storytellers.  His point is that stories aren’t only entertainment: they’re part of the human condition.  We evolved hearing them.  We need them.

But do we need books made of paper?  Consider that the book the doorman reads is believed to have existed as a series of oral stories for several hundred years before it was written down in consistent form.  And when that finally did happen, it appeared on scrolls that were not easily transported, stored or even read — especially by the vast majority of people, who were illiterate.

The Jews revere not only the words of the Torah but the actual scrolls upon which scripture is written, keeping these treasures in a blessed ark on the side of the synagogue nearest Jerusalem.  In the Middle Ages, the Christian Bible existed primarily in the form of illustrated manuscripts meticulously crafted by hand, and the effort required to create these objects perhaps led us to revere them in ways that, for some, enhanced the content of the stories within.

Then came a man named Johannes Gutenberg.

Imagine how librarians at the local monastery felt about the advent of the moveable-type printing press.  The Gutenberg Bible was an affront to the holiness of the illuminated manuscript, a threat to the privilege of scribe and priest alike.  In the promise of its portability and cheapness — its very inclusivity — the mass-produced Bible democratized western religion.

The scribes and priests were right to fear for their jobs.  Just 15 years after Gutenberg’s death, Martin Luther drew his first breath.  At the age of 35, Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church at the University of Wittenberg and rocked existing hierarchies to their foundation.

Nowadays some people — with more than a few writers among them — feel compelled to defend printed books from the onslaught of e-books.  But that defense is no more necessary than defending the typewriter from the word processor or the stage play from the feature film.  Words live equally in the typewriter and in the desktop computer.  Stories live equally on the stage and on the screen.

As an entrepreneur, I fully expect the inexorable new medium of e-books one day to claim a large share of the book market — maybe even most of it.  As an author, I’ve about as much power to hold back that tide as King Canut did in his time.

Publishers and other middlemen clinging to old business models could learn a thing or two from old Canut, who took to the shore to make his point and, when the tide wouldn’t obey, leapt back and declared: “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws.”

Well, let’s leave Him whose pronoun requires capitalization out of it and focus on mere capitalism.  If and when the market decrees that e-books shall surpass the dead-tree version, let us agree to declare collectively: the book is dead, long live the book!

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J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

23 responses to “The Book as Fetish”

  1. Becky Palapala says:

    Ho noes! This again!

    I feel like taking you to task on comparisons is a low blow, but the illustrative potential may be worth it.

    Because, of course, there IS something different about seeing a play on stage as opposed to on screen. I don’t think that’s a stage production fetish. Just a statement of fact. Something is lost in the translation.

    And w/r/t typewriters, we could talk about how using a machine with so much less ease inherent changes the way we write. How fast, with how much care…when cut & paste means with scissors and tape, how that changes the way our brains approach a project.

    I made a similar point about writing by hand recently…somewhere. About how careless I am with a keyboard. How much I just sort of blllaaaarhgblrghle. Then I go back and salvage what’s worth it, erasing the rest with a quick bat of the backspace key. Writing by hand demands more thoughtfulness in that regard. More letter-by-letter attention. I mean, I’m not sure if that makes it better, but it makes it different. And if it’s different, it’s not the same.

    These aren’t just fuck-off kinds of things. There will, one day, be whole shelves of dissertations about how ebooks changes how people wrote and read. And it will change those things. Actually. In actual ways. It’s not six of one, a half-dozen of the other. While not all change is bad, neither is it all amelioration.

    The more people complain about book fetishists complaining, the more I start to wonder why anyone cares, beyond casual annoyance with the constant din, if someone likes to hold a book.

    If I accept your comparisons, accept mine in return: If I say I prefer a stage performance or hand-writing letters, most people won’t suddenly invoke Canut and accuse me of fearing change. So it goes both ways.

    Anxiety is high. People are shaking violently. Alternately manic and depressed. WTF is going to happen? No one knows! Can I just sit here, at least, petting my books in peace?

    If any of the ambient chatter surrounding the topic is any indication whatsoever, the dead trees are the LAST thing anyone really gives a crap about in all of this. That’s a rhetorical Hail Mary thrown into these arguments to attempt to derail the anxiety-making chatter which is really about, in my opinion, the future of the writer, not of the book.

    And if what you say is true, if it is all so inevitable, then what is there to fear from a paperback-petter? Sounds like s/he is the only one who needs to worry.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      You’re right, Becky, that the play-movie analogy isn’t the strongest one. I concede the point about that without a fight. Writing by hand versus the computer — well, that’s a whole different argument but it’s about the process of creation rather than of consumption, so let’s set it aside. Maybe a more accurate analogy would be to compare reading a hardcover vs. reading a paperback. So long as e-books are in the current format of electronic ink — rather than the interactive versions that are more often contemplated than produced (so far) — it’s pretty hard to argue that the reading experience is seriously impacted.

      There’s an expression on Wall Street (forgive me!): you can’t fight the tape. Sure, caress your books. Just don’t allow yourself to be discouraged by the prospect that print on paper may not be the chosen form of books in the future.

      Oh, and I agree it’s not so much about killing trees, per se. Just an expression.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Well, I don’t know. I feel like hardcovers and paperbacks are maybe too similar. In that case, you don’t even have a change in materials used, for the most part. But the analogies weren’t the real point, so no need to get into it further than that.

        Though I do wonder if, somewhere along the line, people will discover that there is some fundamental difference, on a cognitive/perceptual level, in the way information is received when viewed digitally as opposed to in print. I think most writers are already vaguely aware of this possibility–if not likelihood/reality. I mean, people talk about it without really knowing they’re talking about it.

        I’m thinking of, for example, a recent study that showed kids (and adults) benefit from writing by hand (handwriting is not a particular drum of mine, for the record, this is just a coincidental example). The study suggested that people who do more handwriting have more precise motor skills, better spacial & idea composition skills, increased comprehension of language, use more of their brain in communication, etc. than their primarily-digital peers. What if the perception that “there is more writing and less of it is any good these days,” is exactly right, and it’s because of this? Not because of fetishism or nostalgia but because people are cognitively, demonstrably-at-a-scientific-level, thinking less and not as well when they type?

        Again, there’s a creating vs. receiving issue in the comparison, but I do suspect that there is something fundamentally lost in the 2-D version of books, above and beyond their smell. The reader itself is 3D, yes, but the books are not. The books are no longer unique sensory objects in and of themselves; the e-reader becomes the tactile fetish and the books sort of individually unexceptional. Disposable? I wonder what that does, cognitively, to our experience of the words in them. Again, not a question of fetish or nostalgia. A question of the ways human brains react to experiencing information in one way as opposed to another. I mean, these are caveman brains in our heads. Realistically. They’re designed to comprehend the world sensually. That, too, is a matter of fact, however arguably.

        Sure, caress your books. Just don’t allow yourself to be discouraged by the prospect that print on paper may not be the chosen form of books in the future.

        Why not? Why not allow myself to be discouraged? This is what I mean. I don’t see how it could possibly make any difference to anyone whether or not I am discouraged. If I can’t stem the tide and therefore pose no threat to the brave-new-world enthusiasts, why does it ruin anyone’s day that I AM disappointed? I am. I just am. I am disappointed, I am concerned, and I’m thinking about amassing a vast collection of bound books for when they go “vinyl” and hipsters everywhere are eschewing ebooks for the “more natural” sound quality of paperbacks.

        I will make…one MILLLIO…..one BILLION dollars!

    • I think you mentioned it in commenting on my Digital Boogaloo post.

      Interesting thing about reading and forms and such. Like, as a for example, Shakespeare never meant to be read.

      I don’t begrudge anyone who prefers a book, but I think the preference for a book–that is, a tangible object for a set of bound pages–will be held by a minority. I think, for the most part, society and culture will move toward consumption and manipulation of, as well as interaction with, information via screens. The proliferation of digital content will likely be exponential.

      I mean, it’s sorta like, I’m sure some people still enjoy a good radio play. Radio plays are actually pretty cool.

      Television, however, is ubiquitous.

      I think corporate publishing will become more about legacy than filtering (if it hasn’t already). I think the idea of a prized bookshelf will remain, and I think people will fill those shelves with the books they’ve loved, the stories that have touched them. I just think people will become more selective about what they actually purchase to put on said shelves, as that’s a position somewhat hallowed, to be candid. I love the idea of being on every screen imaginable, but I will probably always aim at readers’ hearts and shelves.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        I don’t necessarily dispute these predictions. I think the outcome is largely an unknown.

        I think that must be where the hangup is between the “I prefer books” and the “Well, get over it,” crowd.

        Like I think one or the other or both must think either statement is some kind of prediction, some kind of moral sentiment. Some kind of challenge or argument. “Books are better than e-readers” is an argument. “E-readers are better than books” is an argument. “E-readers will make writers and books disposable” is an argument. “I prefer books for their smell and feel and etc.” is not an argument.

        It’s a statement of opinion. Of preference. There’s no debate to be had in it. This is potentially why the volley between these positions is so consistently fruitless and seemingly neverending. The factions are essentially non-sequiturs to one another and 90% of their discussion is spent trying to find some aspect of eachother’s opinion that is actually debatable.

  2. Becky Palapala says:

    Too much for an opening salvo? I’ll just be over in the corner licking my copy of the Odyssey. Old stuff…mmmmblerrrghlbl

  3. I have been thinking about much the same thing, Joel, and worrying daily that my own words may never see publication in an actual paper book. I love your essay, because it’s so well thought-out, and the point is hopeful. What does it matter if the form changes? The content will still exist. Perhaps the e-book will mean more readers? I don’t know why I worry about it; I guess it’s sad to think that a pretty book jacket might never encase my stories, and it is doubtful they will sit on a shelf in a house where they are picked up and pondered and yes, caressed, even loved.

    Probably the same thing happened when the record album ceased to exist (so much). It’s just a lot of needless worry–though, for writers, the worry started years ago when publishing became so…difficult. And I used to work in publishing! As did you. There is much to lament, but you’re right: the storytellers still need to tell their stories, and the people still need to hear or read them.



    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Yeah, you know, the thing I really hate to think about is having someone read my book on the Kindle and, as a result, the person across the room can’t see what’s being read. That is truly sad, friend. But the tide will do what the tide will do. Thanks for your comments.

      • Ben Loory says:

        i give it six months before they add a thing that lights up with the title and author so other people can see what you’re reading. or at least a thing that broadcasts it to nearby people’s cell phones or whatever. because you know you’re not the only person asking for it, even jokingly.

        • J.E. Fishman says:

          I’m not sure I’m joking. Here’s the thing, though: some people don’t want others to know what they’re reading. My father had a secretary who was a big reader. She always had a mass-market paperback in hand and it was always wrapped in one of those covers you could get. When I’d ask what she was reading she got all coy about it…wouldn’t show me. I found out eventually that they were romances.

        • Ben Loory says:

          well of course you’d be able to turn it on and off. and/or simply have it lie. 250 million people pretending to be reading infinite jest. sounds like a chapter in infinite jest.

        • J.E. Fishman says:

          Love it…but only if they have to buy the book they’re not reading!

      • Easy problem to fix. I found a good solution. But it’s a surprise.

  4. It seems fairly evident to me that people’s love of the smell and feel of book pages is associative with the pleasurable experience of reading, so I’m glad you reiterated that here. No doubt people complained when they were no longer able to enjoy unrolling a text. So an ebook will bring its own fetishes in time. Like in the beginning, and always as you said, it’s the word. I’m continually astonished at readers’ need to be reminded that content trumps packaging. So much so that I barely have time to argue about it and skip right to mockery and satire.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      My wife and I used to have the sound of turning pages in bed. Now it’s mostly clicking (the new fetish?), but we’re still reading stories.

  5. The eventual – even if momentary – triumph of the e-book over the printed book is almost an afterthought. Predictions are that the e-book will, already, outsell the printed version by next year. This may already be the case, I haven’t checked the numbers recently.

    I don’t know about experiential differences in reading on a screen versus on printed paper with the whole tactile experience inherent in holding a physical book. Seeing a play versus seeing a play on screen (or, reading it on the page) are different things. Those things, however, do not affect my reading preferences. I do not care if the e-book surpasses the printed page (as, again, this seems to be an afterthought). There is an almost romantic notion, for me, tied to the physical copy, the feel of the page and smell of an old book, the satisfaction of looking at an over-full bookshelf. For all the reasons one might opt for the e-reader and the e-book, I still prefer the eternal turning of pages.

    Hell, I may even buy an e-reader at some point. But, I will never stop buying books. Until they disappear. Then, we’ll be in trouble.

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