the quietest and most constant of friends

“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

“Books are the ultimate Dumpees: put them down and they’ll wait for you forever; pay attention to them and they always love you back.” 
― John GreenAn Abundance of Katherines

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.

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.

49 thoughts on “the quietest and most constant of friends”

  1. Yeah, I don’t think any of us who love to read are giving up on printed books any time soon. I think we all have stories like yours. There’s a lot of people who swear by House of Leaves for the reasons you discuss – the experience of discovering the book and exploring within the book.

    Right now I’ve got a book story of a different sort. I’m fighting with Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil for the third time. I have not been able to get past the fourth part until recently. I saw a few on tumblr blog about it – a friend mentioned he was struggling with it – and I decided that I had to try and forge ahead to try and say something about what I got out of it so far and what made it (makes it) so difficult. That’s involved long stretches of sitting at the dining table when no one else is around and reading one sentence at a time and writing a note about its larger relevance or a thought that came to mind.

  2. I agree that those of us who love to read are not going to give up our physical books for a long time. In fact, I could see me a few hundred years in the future, sitting on a holodeck, not being in a story, but just having a comfy couch and a fire and sitting down to read a book. I see that as the best way to keep books in electronic format, and would be the only way I’d ever have my entire library that way.

  3. I honestly don’t think people give REAL books enough credit anymore. Sure, e-books are convenient, and easy to obtain, but it’s just not the same. I know a mother who reads with her young children on her Kindle. I bet it doesn’t have the same effect, or leave the children with the same feeling, as if she had a real book with them.
    I’m a book lover myself, and I too like to read e-books, but not very often. Who could give up the great feel of a new book? Or the amazing smell of a loved book.
    I work in a library, so e-books are kind of my enemy…

  4. I want to add an afterthought I just had a moment ago: it should not be overlooked that I was drawn back to this book (and paper books in general) because of something that only exists — indeed, only could exist — at this point in time because of the technological advancements of the Internet.

  5. Thanks to your Dionaea House tweet, I already traveled down the wormhole to find House of Leaves and Danielewski. Though nothing will ever quite replace the weight and texture and satisfaction of holding an actual book, this Slate article got me very excited about the future of e-books:

  6. It’s the ceremony of it all, isn’t it—the choosing and picking up of a book, the smell and weight of it, the feel of the pages. There’s something instinctual about it, although it’s not possible that it can be. It makes me wonder about future generations whose first experience with the word might be an eReader. Will physical books mean anything to them? What will they miss when the art of printed typography dies? And what else can be done with a book to make it as amazing as the one you describe? I haven’t read it, but I know others I’d categorize in the same way you describe “House of Leaves.” I’m simultaneously sad and amazed for these future generations, who may experience a book three-dimensionally. What will “book” even mean then?

    I’m also struck by “…I spend more time creating than I do consuming,” because it’s the second time I’ve encountered that thought in 48 hours. I’m not much for signs but, oh, 2013, you make me want to do things in you.

  7. LOVED that book. Then I found out that the singer, Poe, is Danielewski’s sister. I re-listened to her cds, & my mind was blown. LOTS of talent in that family!

  8. I agree Wil. The ritual of holding and reading a book is awesome. Last year for Xmas I received a Kindle Fire. I was reluctant at first to read books on it but yes it does make it portable. So now I still read books both ways. However all your books I buy in print so I always have something for my favorite author (yes you :) ) to sign for me at Phoenix Comicon each year. Hope to see you and Anne there in May. You are the main reason our family attend each year since 2008. You and Anne are always so nice to us. Thank you for that. :) Happy New Year Wheatons!

  9. Books are magical, whether e- or dead tree. I agree there’s something special about sitting down with a ‘real’ book—although I suspect that the current generation of toddlers will form the same visceral attachment to their digital quiet companions as we did to our paper ones. In the end, it’s the words—the story—that contains the magic. The format is just the vessel.

  10. I’ve spoken to my Dad about this very feeling of reading a REAL book. I got my bibliophile genes from him. He’s read thousands of books, I’m sure.

    There’s nothing like reading a real book in that, especially if the book has been handed down from generation to generation, at some point, one of your family members read that exact page, read that exact sentence. They were there. They’re sharing that experience with you as you read that page, sentence or word. It doesn’t feel the same as reading an eBook. Your grandfather, or even much more distant family member was sitting there, reading that book, enjoying its story, style and/or intent.

    I especially get this feeling when I borrow books from my Dad’s massive library (which even includes books from his Middle School and High School years) and it connects me to him as he was, and as he is now.

    As for House of Leaves, it is a favorite book of mine. Its style, format and yes, the story, are quite unique (at least for me) and I re-read it from time to time, just to get back a fraction of the exciting feelings I had when I first read it.

  11. Wil…. I had to comment on this blog post and say well done. I’m the most avid reader I know…. books have been one of the great loves of my life. Every birthday and holiday comes the inevitable question – do you want us to buy you an e-reader. My answer always is and will always be, no. I love curling up on the couch with a 600 page novel and getting lost in the magic.

  12. I adore ebooks: love them, love the convenience, love the instant gratification of being able to shop from my bed at midnight, love the versatility of changing font sizes and visibility when my eyes are tired after a long day, love having an entire library at my fingertips.

    But I also love the way they turn paper books into something special. Paper becomes precious. It’s artwork. Instead of me having to fill my house with the clutter that tells you if I haven’t read a book today, I’m feeling deprived, the books on my shelves become the meaningful books, the ones that are part of my identity. Five years ago, when you walked into my living room, what you knew was that I was a reader. But there was no difference between the Jon Sanford or Nora Roberts or whatever that I grabbed because I’m an addict and the memoir that changed my life.

    Five years from now, I hope what you will know when you walk into my living room is what works of art have inspired me and moved me and really mattered to me. And by works of art, I do mean books. Books that I will have in paper, because that’s how I care about them.

    Meanwhile, my daily dose of meaningless entertainment (textual, because that’s my preferred format) will just get to live on my ereader.

    1. You’ve put very, very well exactly how I feel about books — the ones I buy “for real”, so that I feel their weight in my hand and hear the rasp as I turn a page, these are the ones that are special, and mean something to me, and represent the me that I give to the world and to those who visit me. It’s more convenient to carry my everyday reading material around in my pocket, and it also has the advantage that no one has to be embarrassed by realising yes, I AM reading a romance in public, and the cover that the person next to me was trying to figure out was the ubiquitous half-naked people on it.

  13. Today girl Today at Fresh market checkout girl, picture nerdy and a little scatterbrained said ” Happy Halloween! blushed and was embarrassed, so not to miss a beat, I replied “And a Happy Easter to you!” People in line looked puzzled. My good nerd deed for the day. :)

  14. I had a similar experience with House of Leaves… A friend lent me her copy years and years ago and I just couldn’t get into it. Fast forward about 5 years, and my boyfriend (now ex) who HATED reading bought me the full-color-super-duper-awesome edition as a birthday gift, swearing it was the only book he’d ever read from cover to cover. After much coaxing, I finally gave it another go. Since receiving that gift several years back, I’ve read it at least 20 times myself and purchased probably 10 copies either to give as gifts or to replace my own dog-eared copy, worn or from being loaned to friend after friend… Even once or twice to replace my personal copy that never found its way home. House of Leaves is of those books that must be owned as a physical copy and will always have a place of honor on my bookshelf… Right alongside my Harry Potter, Inkheart, and Wicked books. I love my Kindle, but some books MUST be the real thing.

    1. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

      I glanced at this comment on my way out the door and when I ended up at the main Half Price Books store here in Dallas a few hours later, this book was the first thing I saw on the clearance shelf.

      I picked it up and kept reading it all the way to the counter.

      Again, thank you. I’ve got a long night ahead of me.

  15. I only read Lovecraft on paper. I have some ebooks of the same material, but they aren’t the same. You have to have the smell of binding glue, paper, and ink to make the experience real. Great post, glad to see someone else realize this.

  16. I totally understand what you’re saying. I love my Kindle, since it has turned me on to authors I would perhaps never have heard of, but there are certain times I just want that book in my hands. My son (who is 10) has just gotten into the ‘Lord of the Rings’ via the films, was flabbergasted when I pulled out a huge hardcover set of all 3 books, plus ‘The Hobbit’. They’re a prized possession to him now, and he’s knee-deep in Bag-End as I write this.

    I used to get annoyed at people when I loaned them a book and it wasn’t returned. Now if someone shows an interest in something I’m reading (or have read), I simply gift it to them. ‘Take it – let me know what you thought of it.’

    Books are a kind of magic. Pass them on whenever you can.

  17. Wil, I feel the same way about books. Every evening at the end of a busy day I enjoy relaxing in the easy chair as I read by the fireplace while sipping a glass of wine. I rarely turn on the TV now it seems. However, I wish eBooks were available back when I was in college – no more lugging huge textbooks around.

  18. I had a conversation about this with my sister at Christmas. We are both old-fashioned people and only own paper books. Yes, ebooks are convenient for travelling, and whenever I have to move I curse my book hoarding habit, but I could never give paper books up. There’s the feel and smell aspect that is often mentioned, but so many reasons more. Like, I gave my niece John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars for her birthday, which I had him sign and personalise for her at a reading. I also own every Neil Gaiman book and had them all signed on different occasions by him – not possible with an ebook.
    My friends and family often lend and borrow books from/to each other, which is also harder to do (if not impossible) with ebooks. And I like to re-read books quite often, so to truly benefit from ebooks I would have to buy every book I already own again in a different format.
    Over Christmas I also discovered that my Dad had inherited an 18-volumed encyclopedia from 1899. That feeling of a crackling gold-embossed spine in your hand, of turning the heavy pages, unfolding the hand-coloured maps, marvelling at the detail in the pen and ink drawings of plants and insects really gave me chills. Books are my treasure chests and, yeah, I’ll admit it, my porn. I’m a total bibliophile.

  19. I disagree about it not working on an eReader. I have owned the book for several years…but haven’t finished it until I broke down and found a PDF of it for my nexus 7. The book was just too cumbersome to move around with me. The PDF worked great and I loved the book dearly. I love having the book around to show others… Although I didn’t realize how graphic it would be before telling a few of my highschool students about it….and then had to warn them after finding out. There is supposed to be. An official kindle version coming out that I will purchase immediately.

  20. Agreed. House of Leaves is a must read, and pretty unique. I love how there are whole narratives running through the footnotes, and the footnotes start arguing with each other.

    Danielewski’s Only Revolutions is also an impossible e-book, and I just got the deluxe edition of The 50 Year Sword which is an artifact itself.

    Others in the same vein that I’d recommend, in either the typographic vein or the style of false-document story telling, include, The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall; Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources by David Mamet; The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech by Avital Ronell; Imaginary Magnitude by Stanislaw Lem; and Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials by Reza Negarestani.

  21. I live at the end
    Of a five and a half minute

    And as far as I can see
    You are still miles from me
    In your doorway…

    I have tried, more than once, to read House of Leaves and something always interrupts me, because the book hasn’t grabbed me enough to tie me down and flip off the rest of the world. It’s been a year or two since I last tried. I think I need to give it another shot. T.j. Bandla is right about Poe, too – give her Haunted a listen, they’re quite interwoven with each other.

    As for books… I told myself, when I moved into a 900 sq.ft. house, that I couldn’t take 95% of my books with me, and I was going to convert all of my library, piece by piece, to digital. I love ebooks, don’t get me wrong, and I keep an ereader with me pretty much at all times…

    …but there’s something about the heft, the texture, and especially the smell of a book that finds them slowly trickling back into the matchbox house, taking up what little space there is on odd surfaces and under tables and tucked in corners…

  22. I’m not a great writer (yet). But in terms of books I agree with all of these replies. I used to be a bookseller and one of my good friends with whom I worked told me a book is something you have a relationship with. So when I read the everlasting wisdom printed in the pages of the book, I interact with it by writing in the margins and highlighting the bits that pop out at me. Sometimes when I buy used books, I look for the ones in which someone has done the same and I fantasize about them. The reader, of course, has a story too. Anyway, I thought you might have fun look at the attractive features of books I made a collage out of. I did one for unattractive features as well, but everyone’s got their criteria for the making of a great book.

  23. I have never tried and e-book reader, and don’t really want to. Books are real. I’m not sure if the stuff you read on a device is real. I’m not really sure if you own it, since it doesn’t seem you can lend it to someone else, although, maybe I’m wrong about that.

    I like looking at books, not just reading text, which I can do on a computer. You can take books anywhere. What I’m not sure of is what happens when the technology you buy a e-book on becomes obsolete and is no longer maintained. I realize that hasn’t happened yet, but, considering how fast other bits of technology become useless, what happens to your e-library? Books haven’t become obsolete, yet. If you have one and keep it in the correct condition, it will last for quite a while.

  24. Watching Wil sans beard arguing that he should be let on the bridge – ahhhh Netflix.

    But as to books – the physical ones do have a certain something. Even as an ebook author I have to admit a preference for the feel and smell of the traditional book. Still, the important part of a book is intangible and it’s composed of your feelings as a reader as much or more than it grows from the book’s contents. Major books in my life tie to the times and places I first read them; the dusty stacks of a small town library as a boy reading Lovecraft’s The Shunned House, reading Neuromancer on a bullet train pulling into Tokyo station with my worldy belongings in a backpack, reading Palahniuk’s Survivor during a flight home after years abroad.
    It’s more than the stories that remain with you.

  25. What a coincidence! I was just talking about the same thing, having been going through my hard copy library after moving. (I kept pretty much everything, just relocated/reorganized.) I think it will be different for the generations raised with e-books, but for those of us who weren’t, there will always be a place in our lives for them, and that’s a fine thing.

    I concluded, during my sort, that I am a book dragon; I like having my little hoard, even if I’m not reading them (because I’ve already read them and, due to a very long memory, I don’t reread often), because just being around books raises my baseline happiness level. :)

  26. “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.”

    This is something that I totally agree with. I haven’t actually read an e-book yet, but have read many many printed books (and, of course, still do).

    Having just written my first novel, I feel that I am being forced to self-publish it as an e-book. I am not in a finacial position to follow the traditional route of publishing/printing. The traditional route of literary agents is EXTREMELY difficult to breach for first-time writers. It is incredibly time-consuming and expensive. I would love to see my book in printed format, I would love to see it on the shelves in bookshops, I would love to be able to pick a copy of my book and feel the weight, feel the texture of the paper, to open it and see my words written down in front of me. Even better would be to see it transferred to the cinema screen.

    But perhaps these are just dreams.

    But the advent of e-books has at least given the new writer an opportunity, a chance, to make these dreams come true. In mid-January I shall publish my novel ‘Virtual Messiah” through Smashwords. Smashwords has enfranchised me, it has given me the means to publish my creation at minimal cost to a large reading market.

    Of course, my novel may not be a success. I may sell only a few copies – if any. But the new technology has at least given myself and thousands of others a chance to realize our dreams.

    Printed books will never die, but nor will e-books. I believe that both formats have a purpose, a validity, and both will continue to exist – perhaps thrive – side by side.

  27. This post so elegantly states how I feel about books and ebooks. I love books. I spend a lot of money on them and love second-hand books, thinking about the life they’ve had before. I have a thing for buying old library books and seeing how many times they’be been checked out or where they started life.

    Books to me are a gift. Every time I pick up a book, they remind me that reading, and escaping in to my imagination, is a gift. I work in a large city-centre College where the majority of students at age 16 cannot read to their age. Our College works incredibly hard to bring up students’ standards of reading to enable them to be successful in employment and to pass their courses, but also to me, and just as importantly, to inspire a love of reading that, for whatever reason, a lot of students start the College without. To me, this is a tragedy, reading part of a book every day is a joy and a privilege that I will not soon take for granted; ebooks don’t inspire the same feeling of wonder but, as a student as well as an employee, on-line learning and electronic educational materials are a revolution in progress that bring education closer to millions.

    And I would, if I might, sir, recommend ‘The Raw Shark Texts’ by Steven Hall. He had to help type-set his own virtual sharks in the novel as his publisher was a bit confused by it all. It’s a magnificent conceptual book. I don’t know whether the ebook stands up to its printed parent, but I hope so.

  28. Thank you for this. I’ve been sitting here struggling with what book to buy next, while pushing away the nagging thought that I’ve got dozens of unread ACTUAL books here waiting to be picked up. Which is what I shall do right now. Thank you.

  29. Great comments from everyone. I struggle between the two formats. I have recently been organizing my eBook collection. Since my first Kindle book (James Clavell’s Noble House, still unread), I have amassed well over 100 unread eBooks — and a bunch of others that I have read, too. I buy from Amazon, B&N, iBooks, Google, Sony. It’s a little crazy. But I love the convenience of purchase, the endless storage, and the ability to whip out my iPhone and read a book when I have a moment to wait. In fact, I just finished reading my e-copy of JUST A GEEK today.

    But I miss real books, and I do buy them. I love underlining and making notes and smelling the pages.

  30. Wil, I too was blown away by House of Leaves. Have you heard the album Haunted by Poe? She’s Ann Danielewski, Mark’s sister, and the album is a companion piece to House of Leaves.

Comments are closed.