The paper magnet

Words of the world are the life of the world
— Wallace Stevens, An Ordinary Evening in New Haven

When I think back on my life, I can define a set of books that shaped me — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. Books have always been an escape, a learning experience, a saviour, but beyond this, greater than this, certain books became, over time, a kind of glue that holds together my understanding of the world. I think of them as nodes of knowledge and emotion, nodes that knot together the fabric my self. Books, for me anyway, hold together who I am.
— Hugh McGuire, Why Can’t We Read Anymore?

For many of us, our book collections are, in at least one major way, tantamount to our children—they are manifestations of our identity, embodiments of our selfhood; they are a dynamic interior heftily externalized, a sensibility, a worldview defined and objectified.
— William Giraldi, Why We Need Physical Books

The best answer I can give is that it’s an emotional response for me, a reverence bred in childhood where books were something special to be cherished. But I’m beginning to see how annotation can also be read as a form of respect. I’m beginning to think maybe I’m being short sighted, a creature of habit stuck in old ways, and that perhaps I should take a more collaborative approach and start marking up.
— Kandy Woodfield, In the Margins

The elastic stretched a long way, but it did not snap. If anything it rebounded back even further than its starting point. As a bibliophile, I have returned to my first love, even if I have not entirely shunned the screen. Too many years spent appreciating and studying film, coding websites, crafting online texts, consuming those of other people, and conversing on social media mean that, as long as I have my sight, I will never wholly abandon the dull glow of the digitised rectangle. Nevertheless, the musty pages of the physical book hold me in their thrall once again.

As a regular commuter, an iPad loaded with ebooks books served me well. But as a freelancer, mostly working from home, I find that the favoured Kindle titles are now duplicated in hard copy. The iPad is gone too, surplus to requirements. The only constant is Evernote, loaded on both phone and laptop, as a tool for capturing quotes, thoughts and a web of cross-references which I record in response to the texts I read, then weave into ideas and early drafts of my own writing. Only a few Kindle books remain to be read, none waiting in a bucket list to be acquired at a future date. I am operating in both the digital and analogue worlds. I want, maybe need, both, having gained awareness that I am more than just a digital forager. By embracing and bridging between the two, I am resisting becoming an advocate or fundamentalist for either one. I am realising the benefits of thinking and working both fast and slow.

The journey of the past few years, in which my reading habits have twisted and turned, have unearthed a few other interesting discoveries too. Having duplicate copies of titles in physical and Kindle format, for example, has revealed that content is occasionally excised by publishers from the latter or re-ordered in a way that interrupts the flow of the text. The beauty of typefaces and the layout of certain physical books mostly fails to transition to the screen. Covers in digital books are something you flick away too, rather than an object of beauty and attraction to be lingered over every time the book catches your eye. The feel of a book in my hands is wholly different too, somehow more tactile, more giving, than the experience of holding an iPad or phone. Paper has a different quality of touch to metal and glass.

There has been a period of reconditioning and adaptation as I have opted to read more on paper than on screen. Space and storage remains a perennial problem for all book lovers. But there are other habits quickly acquired and slow to set aside that arise from technological innovation. I still find it hard, for example, to resist pressing my finger on a word and waiting for a dictionary definition or Wikipedia link to pop up. But that just does not work on a physical book, as I have found to my embarrassment. Flicking will not turn the page either on a physical book – but it may tear it.


Don’t ask me to explain, because I cannot in any rational way, but poetry needs to be read on paper, somehow losing a little of its magic on screen. Fiction, on the other hand, seems to work in either form. In fact, the search facility of the ebook makes it very easy to remind oneself who a character is and when they first made an appearance in a multi-populated novel like Wolf Hall or One Hundred Years of Solitude. I have learned the hard way that I prefer an academic text, business book or anything on the arts in physical form. Sports literature I can take in any flavour. Although some of the really good examples I seem to have acquired in both. Working alone, there is something comforting, though, about being able to reach out and touch a book. They are the present friends with whom I resume a conversation while flicking through their pages. This is the slow side of engagement with a book, a counterpoint to the rapid find and retrieve of digital search engines. Holding a book in my hands, scanning its pages, I am far more likely to serendipitously encounter a half-forgotten passage or idea than I am with a Kindle text.

Books in both physical and digital form remain essential to my own approach to personal knowledge mastery (PKM). The books themselves are integral to my seeking activities. The notes I make and refine are part of my own sense-making. The blog posts I then write, the curated extracts from other texts I include with them, the books I will eventually publish myself, all fall under the broad umbrella of sharing. But so too can the notes I make, transcending the blurred line between sense-making and sharing, becoming digital artefacts themselves. Doug Shaw has written of the value, and the joy, of sharing and passing on books. In a sense, it is a form of working out loud, of sharing a gift in both a literal sense and in that intended by John Stepper in his own forthcoming book. But while I can share digital notes with multiple people simultaneously, I can only share a physical book with one of them at a time. The spectre of digital rights management largely inhibits me from sharing digital books at all. At least within the strict bounds of the law.

It is so much easier to highlight and copy in a Kindle text than to transcribe from a physical book, but I suspect that the act of transcription leaves a memory trace whereas the copy-and-paste approach does not. I took many notes, highlighted many passages, when I first read certain books on the Kindle app. The extracts were transferred to Evernote, and the personal notes and observations added to and refined over time. As I have now duplicated some of these titles in physical form, I have taken the time to scan back through my notes, adding relevant page numbers, enjoying a different experience with a real book in my hands. Inevitably, new gems have been unearthed as I have worked my way through the texts again. My relationship with and understanding of the text has been further enriched.

I still cannot bring myself to write on the pages of a physical book, though. The childhood and university habit of adding my name at the front of the book, of demarcating possession, is long gone. The reservation about writing on a book that Kandy Woodfield expresses in her post on marginalia is something I share. Nevertheless, Stephen Jay Gould’s accounts, in The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox, of his interaction with the Latin annotations of a 15th-century student on one of his prized books and the defacements of a censor on another are truly delightful. It speaks to one of Kandy’s observations about how marginalia, in fact, can be helpful to others years after they were made. With physical books, annotated or not, there is a legacy to leave for others – or a mess to sort through, dependent on your perspective. With digital books, however, your collection effectively disappears as your own life expires. It is neater, but the evidence of your own intellectual and cultural existence are extinguished at a stroke.

What I have become conscious of is I still want to write books, real books. That I find the inclusion of my writing in digital books not entirely satisfactory,  even somewhat unfulfilling. The publication of ephemeral, digital text is well suited to blogging. It is good for work in progress. But I have this aspiration to make, to create, to have a finished product in my hands. Not to say that that is the end, though. For me, the book is the start of the conversation. It is an act of sharing, opening the door to yet more seeking and sense-making.

In many areas, progress destroys diversity. Not so with books. After Gutenberg, mass market journalism, film, television, computing, satellite communications, and the Internet have all appeared. With each new development, the end of the book was prophesied, and each time more books were published, with greater ease and on more diverse subjects.
— Gabriel Zaid, So Many Books

Culture and context, it seems, are playing a constant game with the senses, shifting the balance between them, encouraging them sometimes to bloom but at other times to fade.
— Roman Krznaric, The Wonderbox

Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.
— Umberto Eco, Reflections on The Name of the Rose

He thinks how, in all these endless pages, all these stories and poems and essays and letters, he tries to give imaginary meaning to parts of his life he doesn’t understand.
— James Sallis, Accounts Due

3 thoughts on “The paper magnet

  1. Pingback: The paper magnet | Socially Build

  2. Pingback: Blending | IndaloGenesis

  3. Pingback: Traces | IndaloGenesis

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