In the Gutter

Could there be anything, anywhere with more placeness, and artfulness, than a book? In the small amount of space that a book takes up in our hands and in front of our eyes there are worlds. It is both its own place and any place. And its placeness is multifold: It is not just those well-described universes created by writers and laid down in ink on a page – the intended placeness – but also those spinning galaxies of life and motivations that we invent in our own minds, that we bring to the reading experience from our own histories and backgrounds, in partnership with and reaction to those dark, squiggly symbols that are words and that we interpret into mental pictures. It is this self-imagined world – in which we can conjure up and “see” people we’ve never met, and buildings and towns we’ve never visited, even creatures and things that do not exist – that is at the heart of the magical placeness of the book.

But there is another, book-related placeness that, perhaps, is the most powerful, and personal, and evocative of all.

Let’s digress, momentarily – in order to make a soon-to-be-made point – to a discussion of the new iPad. It, like so many of the Jonathan Ive/ Steve Jobs/ Apple mechanisms, created not just a curiosity in us, or a mere desire, but a lust. (Or, rather, it has done so in one of us … the male one of us.) And not the least of which because of its ebook-reading capabilities. The iPad’s screen is bright and clear and can, in an instant, “become” any book, any word-built world, any brain we desire to see or meet or, like avatars, live in. And to bridge the gap between what we have had for centuries and what it offers, the iPad produces a brilliant simulacrum of the old-media reading experience. Turn the seductive, handheld device sideways, in landscape orientation (an appropriate descriptor for the viewing of worlds), and the screen “becomes” a book, with the familiarity of facing pages. What’s more, with just a horizontal swipe of a finger across the smooth glass screen, one can “turn a page,” the astonishing software emulating the comforting rhythm and flow we of all older generations have come to define as book reading. You can sit, and read, and flick pages, in a hammock, at a table, even under the covers, with a book that brings along its own flashlight.

It has everything a book has … except essential placeness. That is, it itself lacks so much of what makes a place a place, and a book a book. The slide of a finger across frictionless glass does not have the scratch, the catch, the warm roughness and stubbly caress of paper’s subtle resistance. One cannot slip one’s finger under a page and hold it there, in sweet anticipation of feverishly flipping it over to follow a tense story line. The iPad pages have no smell. They do not bend. They cannot tear. They will not age. It is not easy to jot down that “NO!” or “YES!!” next to a passage that inflames you or defines you, and you cannot discern the personal affront or happy agreement felt by the person or persons who read the book before you, because we cannot see their particular handwriting and underlining, confident or tentative, in pencil or ink, that tells us that real people have touched this page and been touched by it, and that now we are part of that continuum, that shared reading journey. In fact, with the iPad, there is no sense, no evidence, no mark indicating that anyone has read this before you: all books are new and hold no spiritual or physical residue of those who lived and read before us.

In the physical and, perhaps, metaphysical sense, a book is like a plot of land; an ebook is like the deed to it – with it you can find the land, and know it, but never feel the soil sift  through your fingers.All this, and more, about the iPad (and other similar electronic devices) we’re sure has been written. But when it comes to true placeness in the book-reading experience, where the real art lies – the art of the physical book, the vehicle per se, not the words or pictures on the page – we may find no better symbol of the difference between old and new than in the lowly, literally overlooked gutter.

Indeed, of all the components of a book – cover, page, words, illustrations – the most unduplicatable component outside the physical realm is the gutter: that gap, that valley between facing pages, the gully that swoops down to the binding, that chasm of process that allows a book to be a book. It is by the gutter that we can gauge our reading progress (as the sage said, to measure what we’ve lost). It is in the gutter where we slide our bookmark or slip in that ribbon that carries with it the memories of other gutters and others times, and of the circumstances that brought that ribbon into our lives. In the gutter of second-hand books and library books, we find the evidence, the detritus of others, and in our own books read again we bump into our own leavings: a hair with a color of bygone times or long-gone people, crumbs from the meal or snack we had in our first life with the book, receipts we thought we’d misplaced or thrown out – in that little chasm, that caesura, dwell so many of the wonders of reading and of being a reader.

If living is an art, then the gutter of a book – inimitable in an iPad, ebook world – is a strange, unexpected locus of the art of intellectual life. A book is more than just viewable words, organized. It is a place where we take things from and put things in, and leave ourselves in some way. It is like speech, in that it is the spaces between that can make all the difference. In the rush to “progress,” we are so worried about being left behind, of falling through the cracks. Sometimes, the cracks are where it’s at.

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