Opinions Vary: Why I Read Real Books


When you pick up a novel, you basically know what you’re going to get: some characters, a setting or two, probably some discernible overriding theme—you know, the bare necessities of storytelling. These components are in any narrative concoction; whether it’s good or not is usually all a matter of mixing it up the right way. And there in the middle, moving them all about in some dramatically interesting fashion, is the conflict. Conflict can be a make-or-break element because a story’s clashes and bashes and gnashes propel everything and really make the story come to life. But for me there’s an even more primary conflict attached to this whole process, one that exists outside story itself: summoning the strength to actually pick up the novel to read in the first place. And, if you don’t mind, this conflict is what I’d like to investigate here today.

I’ve previously mulled over my reluctance to take on new stories in regards to narrative television. If I’m going to invest a lot of time and effort into something, I do my best to make sure that it will be worth it before I take on the task (usually by pinpointing out what appeals to me, doing research, gauging opinions/criticism, etc.). The same procedure goes for which books I read. If I can help it, I won’t put anything into books if I don’t think I can get anything out of it, which means I end up reading to cram my head full of stuff I should know, all in an absurd, vague attempt to “better myself.” Self-edification is the goal in mind. And unless I am fooling myself (which is a legitimate possibility), so far I think I’ve done a good enough job. More often than not, I come away feeling like my reading was a worthwhile endeavor, as I’ve indeed gotten something out it (be it fun, excitement, or any other positive reaction), and become a more knowledgeable thinker/storyteller (as much of my reading is selected in relation to what I’m currently writing about). Simply put, I get the sense that my rigor has not been all for naught.

Naturally, there have been occasions when I’ve decided on books without deliberation and I wind up enjoying what they have to offer. These more or less spur-of-the-moment selections are much-needed breaks from the books that I’m working my way through, and they put forward new perspectives and ideas that I hadn’t expected to grapple with in conjunction with the other works, and consequently become constructive contributions to my artistic development. But these moments of spontaneity are a rarity because the act of reading is not brief for me. That’s because I’m a slow reader. Now, perhaps what I’m reading is what’s slowing me down, as I have to contemplate things more thoroughly than if I were enjoying lighter fare (though I do read some that as well), but it nevertheless takes me a long time to get through a whole book as it currently stands. Moreover, when it comes to giving a book a go, I try to finish what I start, so I seldom give up on one once I’ve committed. This ultimately means that, spontaneously chosen or not, and whether or not I like it very much, I’m going to do my best to complete the read. So it stands to reason why I think so long about the topic of what’s worth reading: because I know it’s going to take a good amount of time and I want to make sure I will value the experience.

If it isn’t already obvious to all, my conflict in choosing what to read next can be a laborious exercise, in and of itself. (I mean, if there’s any question about my predilection for over-thinking this topic, all you have to do is look at what I’ve written so far and realize that I haven’t even gotten to my actual opinion yet, but I’m almost there.) But fortunately, figuring out future readings never gets out of hand because I am always faced with what’s right before me. You see, my domicile is stacked with books, a two-fold product of my slow reading and my desire to read more. I accumulate them at a much quicker pace than I am able to go through each and every one of them. And because of this, I now can’t look in any direction without catching a glimpse of a book that I should have (or did) read. Some might find this a troubling predicament, or at least imagine that it calls for some housecleaning, but I love the set-up because it all fits in with my feelings on books, particularly physical books. I believe merely being around physical books so often has compelled me to pick them up with greater regularity; their tangibility and close proximity have driven me to read more than I ever thought I could.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly no Luddite. E-book readers are wonderful and they allow for some amazing new ways to experience reading. I myself own a kindle, jam-packed with hundreds of classic books (the amount that are in the public domain and readily available for download is truly stunning). I have read several books on it. It is very easy to use and navigate. It even has the look of paper pages. Plus, there are a myriad of helpful features, like a dictionary and internet access, that add a whole other facet to what can be done and understood while reading. An absolute technical marvel, it is a complete library in the palm of your hand.

But for me, this compactness is a problem because as much as it’s a wide-open and welcoming source of information, it’s also withholding to a certain degree. Its capacity to store all those books suppresses them in a real way. Without the physicality and spatiality, the reading material can become more removed, put out of sight and out of mind—shut off.  And that’s precisely where I don’t want it to be. Given the option to read from an actual book or an e-book reader, I almost always choose the former because I don’t want to be able to look away from it, even when I’m not actively reading it. I want the book to be there with me until I can get it done, so I can then move onto another one that’s also waiting, buried right beneath it. That way, sprawled out before me in my room, these books are always there, staring me in the face, eying me out until I muster the time and energy to reciprocate their gazes in my mind’s eye.

Furthermore, the heft of physical books is simply awe-inspiring when I think of it, and especially when I look at it. Sitting there is the accumulation of thousands of years of thought and ingenuity, page upon page, book upon book, going this way and that, stratified like levels of the earth. These works could be easily confined to an e-book reader or computer screen, but seeing how they build on top of each other, one after the other, moves me to scrape away their covers and dig in. And when I do, I can actually feel myself working through them, and I find that work incredibly gratifying. Each book may take me a long time to read, but the physicality of these stacked books keeps me from stopping in a way that e-books could never do because I know that if I’m not diligent I may one day find myself buried.

So I ask you, readers: Do you have any particular method for choosing a book you read (or am I just being ridiculous about the whole thing)? And when you have found the right book, how do you go about reading it? Do you prefer physical or digital?