Yesterday I thought about driving to Berkeley and visiting one of my favorite old haunts: Amoeba Music. Through college, nearly every dime that didn’t go to food or otherwise keeping myself fed and alive went there. I happily handed over any cash I had in exchange for shiny sliver discs filled with music. I spent hours clickity-clacking through the crowded aisles of CDs looking for those three things I knew I wanted, usually finding five others I suddenly needed to try. I was obsessed with the act of collection more than the act of listening: I bought albums I never listened too, inexplicable things like a jazz album by former NBA player Wayman Tisdale, or sometimes multiple versions of the same album to see if I liked the remastered version better. It was a problem, but a happy one.
And then, one day, it stopped.
I didn’t go to Amoeba yesterday because I had a convincing but utterly shameful thought: if I went to Amoeba, I’d just end up buying CDs, and why on earth would I want any more CDs?
Not long ago, CDs to me were synonymous with music. Before that, cassette tapes; before that, records. Not wanting a CD would have been not wanting music, which is a wicked, horrible, you might as well go crawl under a speeding bus thing to think. But that’s no longer the case – music itself no longer has a case (if it ever really did). Now my CDs sit unloved, largely ignored in disarray on my shelves, still out of order since I moved to a new house over two years ago. Sometimes I’ll go pull out a treasure and sentence the CD to death by ripping the tracks onto my computer. Music has dematerialized and that’s how I expect it now. I miss album art, liner notes, and I miss being able to proudly present a wall to anyone visiting my house that said “This is me, this is what I like”, but the music itself easily transcends those add-ons. Music was never meant to be contained in a physical form, so the transition to the dematerialized world was, in retrospect, very easy.
But books it’s not so simple. Words, like music, don’t necessarily need a physical form, but the act of reading is fundamentally different from listening. If you want to read with your eyes, the words need to be somewhere. To not want a book is not the same as not wanting words, it’s the same as not wanting reading.
I’ve had books I loved so much they look like old raggedy teddy bears. Books have been my companions around the world: they’ve wedged open windows, killed cockroaches, pressed filmy ferns, and acted as a note pad. And when they were done with those secondary tasks, books kept me entertained. Or if they’ve annoyed me or weighed me down, I’ve ditched them on bookshelves and cafe tables. Books are mementos of place, sometime incongruous ones, but powerful nonetheless: I can’t separate Flannery O’Connor short stories from Venice and Trento where I first read them, Cormac McCarthy from the London tube, Somerset Maugham from a park bench in Bern where an Italian man wanted to talk to me about George Bush and pesto.
For months now, a Kindle has sat in my shopping cart on Amazon unbought. Am I ready to enter the world of dematerialized books? Will I have the same connection to words on a Kindle? I can read words on a Kindle, and the story can be just as good or bad as would have been in the printed book, but the experience will change forever. All books will look the same, feel the same, and smell the same (if they smell at all). Just try pressing a filmy fern in a Kindle (in fact, please do, and send me a photo of the results), and I’d wager that killing a cockroach with a Kindle is a pretty risky undertaking.
I once sat on a panel discussion at a conference where, having forgotten the several compelling arguments I had come prepared to put forward in defense of books, I found myself arguing that books couldn’t die because we’d all miss the smell too much. I was only half serious, but man, when I cross over into the realm of the dematerialized book – and I know that I’m at the tipping point now – I surely will miss the smell.