I sometimes feel like I’m ahead of the curve, in other ways hopelessly behind it. For example there seems to be something of a backlash against social media use at the moment, on the grounds of mental health harms and distraction on demand. I like to feel that I was ahead of that particular fashion, abandoning Twitter in 2016 and having largely done the same for Instagram and Facebook since then.
However sometimes I think I’m forward looking and it turns out that I may have been on the wrong road entirely. I’ve waxed lyrical in the past about my love for my kindle e-readers. I wasn’t being deceitful – I genuinely thought they were brilliant, being small, portable, and able to access new books virtually anywhere. In some ways I still do feel this – there’s no doubt in my mind that an e-reader is a fantastic choice for travel.
But I opened my Kindle the other day after not having used it for a few weeks. It just… didn’t do it for me any more. The software had to update itself a few times. It needed a charge. And, as with all electronics, it started to feel slow. I started to feel nervous about accessing my considerable library of electronic books if my Kindle died. I mean, I could use the phone app, but it’s kind of a pain in the arse. Would they be lost forever? How would I get my notes back if they were sitting on a server somewhere in Oregon?
And why had I stopped using it in the first place? Because I’d fallen back in love with paper books. The delight of an order of a dozen books appearing at my house in 4-5 shipments due to the perverse arrangements of Book Depository. The pleasure of impulse-buying in Readings. And the undeniable sense of triumph when re-shelving a book that I’ve read, written in, manhandled and generally made my own. I came back to paper books, and they were waiting patiently for me all along.
It turns out that the fuddy-duddies were right. Even though they’re not always the most practical, paper books are magical. E-readers are sensible and the online store can be convenient, but it makes the experience somehow more transactional. Reading becomes less like a treat, more like an industrial process. Book 73% complete.
As it happens, I’ve always felt that way about paper notebooks and diaries. Electronic systems have never sat quite right with me, despite trying my best to use them. For years now I’ve carried around a Field Notes notebook wherever I go. They’re not searchable, occasionally I lose them, and when they’re full I just put them on a shelf. But the experience of writing something down commits it to memory better than a thousand keystrokes.
Robert MacFarlane, the British nature writer, has commented on this idea recently. I think he hits it square on the head.
People sometimes ask me why I don’t use a phone to take notes when I’m ‘out’ in the field. The answer is that phones smash, while notebooks bend. I also like the way that notebooks record where they’ve been not just in terms of what’s written in them, but also in terms of the wear they bear as objects.
Ultimately, perishable paper may end up having better longevity than any of the electronic formats we use. Electrons are forever, but the devices that store them and the machines that interpret them change with alarming rapidity. Try finding a connector for your 2006 iPod now.
I’m an absolutist in few things, and reading matter certainly isn’t one of them. I still use my Kindle, particularly where weight and size are factors. But it seems clear to me now that the experience of a paper book is an ancient love that shall not be supplanted.