The Thingness of Things


This is a reprint of a blog essay/talk that I first gave in 2007. It has proved to be a few years ahead of its time…

I love books. I love that they are what they are. Pages. Words. Paper. Ink. Books are a thing in a way that CDs are things. They can be looked at and handled. They have texture and color, and they don’t vanish when the power goes out.

Recently, as I was cleaning out my office, I found a thesaurus and the old Quality Paperback Club version of the Columbia Encyclopedia. Neither of these have been touched in years, because it’s so much easier to just use the keyboard.

But I remember when you could extrapolate enough facts from a brief section of the Columbia Encyclopedia to flesh out a character. Or the random flip of a Thesaurus page would inspire a different direction in a sentence.

Now everything is digital. This email is something you’re reading in a swamp of other bits and bytes on the screen. You might still subscribe to a newspaper, or you might just check the paper’s website. Or not even bother with that. Perhaps you’ve got a list of blogs you check.

We’re all checking and writing and copying and communicating, but the thingness of things is going missing. The tangibility. The feeling offline.

On the one hand, thank goodness for coffee shops, because they bring us together (each with our own laptops) so we at least see other people. On the other hand, do they all have to be a generic multinational conglomerate coffee shop? It’s still a thing, but it’s the same thing — which is comforting, but at the same time…

What about the local thingness of things. This is the biggest hole that the vanishing newspaper leaves. Yes, there are any number of local websites and blogs, but the universality and thingness of the newspaper creates a community. And that’s going the way of the dodo and the slide rule and the compact disc.

Sigh. Sometimes I think I’m an old fuddy duddy luddite. Kids, you see, won’t notice these things. They’ve never heard of rotary dial phones either. Many of them may never have a “land line.” They live untethered.

So, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the value of books asthings. Things to look at and touch — not just access or data mine.Things to spend time with and absorb, not just scan. Permanentthings. Annoying things. Things that pile up. Things that are made by people.

On the one hand, if I never buy another cd, I’ll probably be a little sad, but I won’t really miss them too much. Too much plastic. On the other hand, I’m going to miss the feel of newsprint every morning when my latest newspaper is “downloaded” onto my ipodpaper.

But mostly I’m going to miss the fact that the newspaper will always and only be the newspaper. That the book — that book right there — will always and only be that book. It won’t be gone one moment replaced by the next bit of data.