Digital Shelves Are Infinite

By Eli Ryder

Kindle Library

I’ve been debating digitizing my library and reading electronically. There is difficulty and frustration involved in making space for a sizable collection of physical books. Yes, the dream is the big room lined with mahogany shelves stocked with beautifully-bound leather volumes, but let’s get real: that’s a long way off, for me.

Also, books are heavy. E-readers aren’t, comparatively.

But they feel analogous to Kenny G jazz. The soul, the cool, all the great things that make the heart hurt and teeth gnash—the human-ness of it all—gone. No offense to Kenny G.

Is emotion any less powerful when it’s popping off a glowing screen instead of a pressed mass of wood pulp? We might reference the analog vs. digital debate fought among audio purists. I’m not sure where I stand on that. Does the musical debate apply to words on a screen? Does their electricness make them less consumable? Less essential?

The only Jack Ketchum I’ve read is The Girl Next Door. Easily the most frightening thing I’ve ever read. Scared the shit out of me, really. I wonder if I would have reacted as strongly if I’d read a digital version.

I have a horror-freak friend who constantly decries the plethora of computer-aided effects in movies and greatly prefers practical effects. Prefers the rubber Godzilla costume to the giant cartoon monster overlaying the New York skyline. From a production standpoint, he might be on to something. Going the costume route requires focused attention on the entire stage so that the costume plays as big as it should, as destructive as it should. Digital Godzilla asks actors to react to stand-in props. I’ve heard they use tennis balls. That’s undeniably less essential than a man-sized Godzilla.

Are e-readers the scary tennis balls of the literary world? Or does the magic work in our heads, instead of on the screen? The music purists debate the difference in sound, but e-readers don’t set us up with pages whose text is visibly pixelated, do they? My moviephile buddy sneers at cartoony Pennywise unfolding himself out of a cabinet.

For the record, I loved IT.

I haven’t read Ursula Le Guin. I know, I know. Take my writer card, burn it. I know I’m missing some vital part of the literary experience for not having read her, and I plan to rectify that soon. Next on my list, actually. I’m setting aside Victor La Valle for the time being to take up The Left Hand of Darkness. Tribute, I guess. And, I’m going to read that on my tablet. Feels appropriate.

I’m splattering this screen-against-paper debate all over a screenglow-only medium, the irony of which is not lost on me. I guess the screen had better be as gut-punching as the page. Otherwise this whole thing is in trouble.

Maybe that’s why so few people read actual, physical newspapers anymore. Sure, news on the web can include pop-up links clarifying information, or quick videos demonstrating the ideas described. In fact, digital composition is often exponentially more effective than traditional composition.

Unless, of course, you just want to read.

Immersion is a problem on an e-reader. The experience doesn’t draw me in the way the right books do. That might be proximity to distraction at work, and may have nothing to do with any real or perceived shortcomings ebooks might have. Might be my attention span, or my ever-dissipating down time.

Tom Petty sounds like Tom Petty to me, regardless of the medium. Vinyl, cassette, CD, and now satellite radio—“The Best of Everything” still kicks my teeth in even tragically over-compressed and shot into my car from space. I’d like to think The Girl Next Door would have tweaked my insides as deliciously on an e-reader as it did on paper. And I hope my digital cruise through The Left Hand of Darkness is satisfying.

I hope I’m not signing up for the Kenny G version of the Le Guin experience. No offense to Kenny G.