“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.” – Charles William Eliot
In late 2000 or early 2001, a friend of mine gave me a book. It wasn’t a special occasion, like a birthday, and it wasn’t meant to mark something important, like the closing of a show or a graduation; it was simply a gift.
“This was written by a friend of mine, and I think you’ll really like it,” she said. It was a fairly large book, soft-covered. “It’s weird. There are tons of footnotes, and footnotes of footnotes, and sometimes you have to turn the book upside down to read it.” She opened it and showed me.
I took it from her, thanked her for it, and a few days later opened it up to read it. It didn’t grab me right away, and all I can remember now is being intimidated by the size of it. I set it aside, guiltily, and went on with my life. I kept it, though, through a number of moves and new houses, and always gave it a place of prominence on my bookshelf, so I wouldn’t forget about it.
“I’ll read it someday,” I would tell myself, but I never did.
Over the years, when my friends who had read it saw it on my shelf, they’d excitedly ask me if I’d read it yet. They always wanted to talk about it, and seemed disappointed when I told them I hadn’t gotten to it, yet. It became something of a white whale in my library, and I always seemed to find other things to read, excuses to avoid opening it. I’d waited so long, I thought, what could it hurt to wait a little bit longer?
A few months ago, while I was browsing r/nosleep, I came across r/Slender_Man. I was immediately drawn into the world of Marble Hornets and various other ARGs. I downloaded the Slender Man Mythos and lost myself in that wonderfully creepy and genuinely scary world for hours and then days and then weeks.
Eventually, I exhausted all of the Slender Man material I had, and went looking for something equally spooky and unique. I kept seeing people talk about this book, called House of Leaves, and I realized that I owned that very book. In fact, it had been sitting on my bookshelf since my friend Maureen gave it to me over a decade ago.
So a few nights ago, I opened it up and began reading. It didn’t grab me right away, but I stayed with it long enough to get interested enough to keep reading. Then, right around page 40, I think, it hooked me and hasn’t let go.
I was up late last night, reading all of The Whalestoe Letters, and only stopped when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. When I woke up this morning, I skipped my usual hour or so at the computer with my coffee and instead spent two hours in the living room, reading my book.
Anne and I went to breakfast, and on the way there I told her all about it. The thing that sort of surprised me, and the reason I sat down just now to write this post, was the revelation that it wasn’t even the story or the way it is told that is so satisfying to me. Instead, it’s the ritualized act of holding an actual book — hundreds of bound pages — in my hands while I sit on the couch or in a chair and give myself over to the words printed inside. And House of Leaves is a rare book that absolutely must be read this way. It will not translate to an eReader, and I’m actually quite grateful for that.
I love my eBooks. I love the convenience of having a book sync across all of my various devices, always at my fingertips wherever I am and whenever I need it (unless I’m on an airplane; a stupid and pointless rule that really needs to be changed). I love the instant gratification that comes with buying a book and reading it within minutes after hearing about it, without ever leaving the chair I was already sitting in. As an author who exists primarily on the Internet, I’ve made a very good living due in no small part to eBooks.
And yet there is a romance and a power and a beauty and a permanence and a sense of reality that actual printed books have, which also does not translate to electronic format for me.
I haven’t read nearly as many books this year as I wanted to, partially because I’ve been very busy, partially because I discovered Minecraft, partially because I spend more time creating than I do consuming … but I have to admit it’s all mostly because an eReader sitting on a nightstand doesn’t say “pick me up and read me” the same way a book does … which is exactly what this book next to me is saying right now.