I've been mulling over my changing relationship with books this past decade. Ten years ago everything bookish in my life lived on paper and I was well entrenched in in that world of the physical — making, co-publishing, luxuriating in print. Then five years ago, with the advent of the iPad and a certain critical mass and maturity of the Kindle, I found myself only reading books on screens. Both modes were equally exciting and there was that electric sense of the new and unknown and the what-may-be in digital. And, then, just last year, I realized I had shifted back entirely to print.
Why did I jump back to print? I have an essay for you on that. But if I was to sum it up, it's this: I like having long-term relationships with books. I'm not a one-night-stand kind of book guy. Sometimes, sure. But mostly, if I like a book, I want it in my life for a long damn while. I'm a book polygamist. I want to be able to go back to those books I love without worry. I want my notes to be there. I want the books themselves to be there.
Because digital book platforms are closed, we're beholden to the intentions of the stewards to ensure our books, our data, live on for years, nevermind decades. So far, the results haven't been too inspiring. The stewards seem half-heartedly invested. (Not surprising when you consider the size of the digital book market compared to the size of all the other markets for companies like Apple, Rakuten, and Amazon.) And most recently, with the closing of Oyster, there's even more of a reason to look to print for the books you truly care about. These platforms are brittle at best, doubly so when their holding of your data is closed.
Humans like to optimize for the short term. It's easy. I want x, give me x now. But we try, we can think in terms of deep-time. And that's when things get interesting. Books over deep-time become powerful totems. It's the sort of thinking that led Turrell and Charlie Ross into the desert. This deep-time writing is what led me to read out to Ross Andersen to edit my piece. Mercifully, he accepted. (Ross was at Aeon until just a few weeks ago, and is now at The Atlantic).
Andersen writes about Charlie Ross' Star Axis land sculpture with tremendous affection and clarity. His essay, "Embracing the void" is exceptional.
I stayed on that step for a long time, letting my vision travel through Earth’s atmosphere, and the hundreds of light years that sit between this planet and Polaris. The tunnel was isolating, in a way I hadn’t expected. It seemed to shrink all of existence to this elemental encounter, between you and the star. It made you wish you could see all the way to its surface, and into its interior. The sky had mostly cleared by then, but occasionally a scrap of cloud would drift over the circular hole, thinning the flood of photons that beamed down the tunnel and into my eye.
Some of those photons were created tens of thousands of years ago. One might have formed at precisely this moment in the last cycle of precession, from the violent crush of two atoms in the outer layer of Polaris’s core. The photon that emerged from that atomic merger would take hundreds of human generations to free itself from the interior of the star. To break out, it would have to navigate the densely packed guts of Polaris, where photons can travel only a centimetre before smashing into a high-energy particle. The little glimmers are re-emitted almost immediately, but in a random, pinballed direction. They might continue their journey outward, but they could also backtrack, or split off sideways. And even if they hit the reemission jackpot and continue on toward the star’s surface, they flash on only another centimetre, before being absorbed by another particle, another directional dice throw in a game that lasts for millennia.
Books, stars, the projects we work on, the time we spend on this microscopic floating dot — maybe thinking about the long arc of our output is futile, but it certainly feels like a valuable meditation, a trenchant goal for the stuff we add to our collective ledger.
How do you read these days? Reply and let me know.
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