When I read a story, I want to get physically intimate with it. I want its body to be smooth and flexible. I want its cover to bend back when my fingers grasp it, and its pages to flutter and release a sweet papery breeze when I accidentally lose my grip on them. I want to dog-ear and etch notes on and drip mustard and coffee across its leaves so that I can track my presence later. (An eReader may clack stiffly against the tabletop when I set it down. Its screen may dim within seconds and stay dark, too bored to bother with staying awake until I return, needing me to press a button or swipe a finger to restimulate it. I worry about drinking and eating near an eReader because an innocuous river of spilled tea could kill it. Then how priceless would reading be?)
When I read a story, I appreciate that the binding yields to open up and expose the story. This opening is warm and welcoming. It also reveals the story’s vulnerability to my judgment, and invites me to be vulnerable to the feelings that the story will summon in me. The image of an open book has always conjured connotations of imaginative risk-taking. In the animated or fantasy films of my childhood, a character would leap into the center crease and transport to an extraordinary alternate world, where he would undergo an enlightening and wisdom-building adventure. (I imagine that in a modern-day equivalent of that special effect, a character would bounce off of the hard, cold screen of an iPad right back into his everyday life, and perhaps even break a foot.)
When I read a story, I am continually rereading the pages that have come before and that have led me to where I am. Maybe I’ve missed a crucial detail about a murder setting; maybe I’ve forgotten who Uncle Baxter is. Maybe I’ve blanked out temporarily because the description of the Alaskan wilderness (such as in Into the Wild) has slung me into memories of my honeymoon. In any case, I like the option of seeing more than one page of text at a time. I can trace events or the logic of the narrator in an efficient sweep of the eye. I gain a richer understanding of how one moment leads to the next, to the next, to the next. At once, I enjoy a close-up reading and a more “aerial” reading. (On my iPhone, stories are chopped up into hundred-word sections. Not being able to see one page alongside another hinders my absorption of the whole picture. And hunting for a phrase that I want to revisit could take an unreasonably long time, not to mention aggravate my propensity for migraines with that eye-boggling effect of electronic page after electronic page flashing past.)
When I read a story, I regard its words—stamped into the pages, unsmearable, everlasting—as proof of a writer’s mastery of her art. An author earns a right to be revered once she has published a book that claims territory on a shelf. The rest of the world must shift to let in her words, and therefore, her text causes permanent impact. She becomes smarter, more worthy, more worldly than her unpublished counterparts. Her voice carries far beyond the ears in the room with her. Henry David Thoreau writes in Walden:
A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; — not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself. The symbol of an ancient man’s thought becomes a modern man’s speech.
How miraculous that the language of artists such as Sophocles and Shakespeare, Melville and Wharton, Fitzgerald and O’Connor has sustained life through the centuries, and all because of ink etchings on parchment! A published author’s voice will penetrate libraries, bookstores, and classrooms, cultures and generations; it will penetrate more deeply, more infinitely if it is first “carved” in tangible form. These carvings, in the words of Willa Cather in My Ántonia, become “human landmarks.” (Digitized words aren’t as crisp, and therefore are not as confident, as imprinted ones. They always seem to hover in the white space of an online document, a touch fuzzy around the edges. Are they mirages? Can they be deleted too easily? Do they suffer, lose grounding and authority when a reader cuts or copies them from one place and moves them against their will to another?)
Each story deserves to occupy its own three-dimensional space, not share a flat, fleeting landscape with innumerable other “files.”
The majority of the world may be heading toward fully electronicizing their relationships with the stories written by their fellow human beings, whether they consider this method more convenient, more brain-tingling, more organized; less expensive, less old-school, less cumbersome. You will never find me, however, actively choosing an e-book over a printed book. You will never find me using a stylus to scribble notes in the margins of an on-screen text. You will never find me propped up in bed pressing a Kindle to my chest in self-collection after reading a particularly poignant line. Instead, I’ll be the one who grows old cradling the shredded cardstock-and-Scotch-tape remains of A Separate Peace and American Short Story Masterpieces, reciting whole paragraphs of these tales that I know so well because, over time, the letters inscribed on the pages have transferred their enduring weight onto the canvas of my heart.