On Reading and Writing (In Books)

I have a former life as an academic. It’s only somewhat awkwardly behind me–it hasn’t been fully relinquished, but I’m no longer (if I ever was) on the “tenure track.”

In any event, part of my awkward semi-break with academia has been my awkward semi-break with reading, which was for the first thirty years of my life my defining state.

I have a vivid memory of watching a Donald Duck cartoon as a kid, in which his nephews buy him a box of cigars for his birthday. Donald, outraged that the boys are buying cigars to smoke for themselves, forces the boys to smoke the entire box. Nauseous and horrified, they’ll never smoke again. Graduate school was like that with books. After reading twelve hours a day, I was left with a vague discomfort around the book as physical object. How do I interact with this thing, now that it isn’t “work”?

Electronic books stepped in to fill the void, to some extent. Devoid of physical form, e-books are somehow separate from “book books” and thus that vague, lingering feeling of “work not play.” I’ve torn through fifteen “fluffy” fiction books electronically in the last six or seven months, but the real book (just as non-serious) that I’ve been reading over the same time period is still languishing on the end table.

I realized lately that the problem is writing. The physical separation of a “fun” book from a “work” book is whether or not I have a pen in my hand. “There will be a quiz later” it screams. “You’ll be expected to remember this.”  With an electronic book, there is no possible reason to hold a pen. No pen, no quiz, no paper to write later, no labor.

Oddly, though, the electronic book has been covertly working to bridge the gap. My choice of reading matter lately is heavily biased toward non-fiction, practical things. Mostly books about dog training, sigh, because I have the world’s most neurotic dog. They’re actually a terrible choice for reading electronically, because you need to flip to a certain section for reference later, but the prices are more dramatically disparate than fiction books.

That’s how I found myself obsessively using the highlight feature of my e-reader. And suddenly this very arbitrary but important division between fun books that I read electronically and serious books that I read in print has collapsed. I suspect that it’s partly the act of writing itself that has shifted–since there isn’t a physical book to “damage,” I can highlight anything I want in any book. There’s also no pen to track down and keep up with. I caught myself digitally highlighting, willy-nilly, in a “not serious” book yesterday. Writing in the margin has quietly become a thing of its own, not a marker of labor.

It’s early to say how this will play out. This morning I picked up a very serious book off my physical bookshelf, without feeling like it was “work.” I’m hoping that it’s the beginning of a trend. It’s certainly been long enough.

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