Embodied content: or, Thoughts on ebooks after spilling coffee on a real book


[As you can tell, I’m really digging this Dr Strangelove-style formatting for all of my post titles lately. Anyway]

So I just splashed some coffee all over my hardcover of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a book on my nightstand that I’m alternating between devouring and slowly savoring.

  • First reaction: this
  • Second reaction: “This, while somewhat sucky, illustrates why I can’t see myself ever seriously getting on board with ebooks.”

Ebooks are sorta fun in the superficial way that any new sci-fi-ey technology is fun, like augmented reality. And in certain very narrow contexts, like when I’m on a long trip, I often pine for them. But mostly I find them (and their increasing, overheated popularity/significance) off-putting and vaguely sinister. Allow me to indulge in some pointy-headed armchair philosophizing:

Spilling the coffee on my nice new hardcover didn’t make me think “aw fuck, my book is ruined,” but rather “Heh, now every time I re-read that book and see that huge stain I’ll remember that silly mistake, and how funny/ridiculous it was that I screamed “FUUUUUUCK” at the top of my lungs for a split second (did my neighbors hear me? I do that a lot during the workweek too — do they think a crazy person lives upstairs?), and how it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been loving the book so much that it was a permanent fixture on my nightstand at a specific point in my life when I was newly married without kids in Brooklyn and had time to leisurely read stuff on Sunday mornings, and how I had bought the book on impulse in Manhattan one day after a particularly grueling session with my therapist because I wanted a story I could escape into,” and so on and so on.

Books are physical objects that (like all physical objects) have their own stories that link to other stories in your own life. They are not just “content”… they’re embodied content. The “bodies” are not just arbitrary containers — they have unique histories that are valuable and meaningful in their own right.

In contrast, if I had spilled coffee on an ebook, it would just be broken. (Or rather, the container would be.) I would have thought (in worst case scenario) “aw fuck, my book is ruined” — or more accurately, “aw fuck, my current means of reading any book at all is ruined.”

Ebooks are just content. They’re not embodied, they’re encoded. Damage the decoder, lose the content (temporarily or permanently). The story stops there — but then again, it always does when you flip the “off” switch anyway.

Does encoding content have to mean disembodying it, and does disembodying it have to mean sealing it off from the possibility of having those valuable, meaningful “extra” (hi)stories associated with it? I’m not enough of a semiotician to know, but in my own practical experience, it sure seems that way. Saying “there’s no way to dog-ear an ebook” can seem pat, but there’s more going on there than knee-jerk Luddite-ism.

At this stage in our society’s evolution, encoded content is fundamentally disposable and difficult to “fix” value to (monetary or otherwise). Embodied content is fundamentally durable, and is intuitively simple to “fix” value to — because the value isn’t just “for” the content itself, but for all the shared connections and stories (aka, “meaning”) that travel along with that body in its physical past, present, and future.

And that’s my inability to “get down with” ebooks (as a mainstream replacement for “books”) in a nutshell. Besides the fact that they’re expensive and fragile, I just can’t help but feel I’d be losing more than I’d be gaining. I’d gain portability and links to other content, but I’d lose embodiment and connection to other stories… and I daresay, other meaning.

[Postscript: Obviously it may not always be the case that disembodied/encoded content (or anything) is intuitively difficult for us to fix value to, and Kevin Kelly points the way in this brilliant essay. But even those “generative values” are of a completely different kind than the values we’re “used to.” I just hope the two can peacefully and generatively co-exist, rather than be caught up in some fake and ultimately destructive zero-sum battle royale cooked up by futurists. Embodied values will never go away — unless we all encode/upload our minds post-Singularity — but the dismay I feel (crystallized in the evolving importance of ebooks) is just that these embodied values themselves (as opposed to any particular means of embodiment, like scrolls — after all, I don’t really wish I had more scrolls than books in my life) will become ghettoized in mainstream culture.]


7 Responses to “Embodied content: or, Thoughts on ebooks after spilling coffee on a real book”

  1. Have to disagree. The book is embodied in YOU, not some pile of pulp and ink. All new media give us tradeoffs – sometimes beautiful, unexpected, glorious tradeoffs – in their means of engaging us / becoming embedded in the world around us.


    The New Yorker does a series of podcasts in which famous writers of fiction read a favorite story by a different author, from any period. The result is a stream of “greatest hits” by “writer’s writers” — powerful voices I’d neve hear otherwise. But I digress.

    One story in particular, which spends its entire length tricking you into thinking it’s about business or prostitution or middle age, turns out, in its final passage, to be about the loss of any sort of filial love between a father and son.

    It’s a total punch in the gut. As a new father, I found myself physically reeling, and it reminded me of the power of literature. But here’s the thing, at the time, I was walking around my neighborhood, Ike in a sling, listening to it on an iPod in a manner that would have been completely unavailable previously.

    And now the really crazy part: because humans have uniquely powerful spatial memory (one mnemonist memorizes series of objects by imagining them on the walls of an imaginary house he’s walking through) stories like these, as well as whole novels I’ve listened to while walking Ike, are now literally embedded in the streets and intersections of my neighborhood.

    Often, as I walk downtown, I remember passages from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel. As I walk on the eastern perimeter of my neighborhood, on 9th st., I think of the story I just mentioned. 2nd street reminds me of the time I learned, courtesy the BBC, that x-rays were once a parlor trick for rich Victorians.


    My point is, you absolutely cannot knock something until you’ve tried it. Because there are too many emergent properties that are impossible to predict.

    Here’s a more salient example: I’ve been meaning to tell you to read Super Sad True Love Story. It is a profoundly amazing novel.

    But I’ve also been meaning to tell you to read it on your iPod. In fact I’d say the Kindle app on the ipod / iphone is the single most appropriate place to read it. You’ll understand when you do – the short version is, it’s a very human take on where technology is taking us and how little power we have to stop it. It’s a meditation on reading in books versus reading on devices, only it’s better on a device – it’s more salient, more moving. And especially if you’ve never read a book-length text on a device like that, all the more reason to make it your first.

    I have a post on this coming up next week. Bottom line is even Chris Anderson doesn’t think books and magazines are going away. They will always have their place. I mean hey, we have about fifty or sixty pounds of records on top of our tens of gigs of music.

    • 2 Me

      First, two clarifications: I have read/used ebooks before, and I’m not trying to say that an interactive/digital content experience is fundamentally illegitimate or incapable of being meaningful.

      I am saying that the more our content experiences get abstracted away from physical embodiment, the harder it is for the *meaningfulness* of those experiences to be FIXED in a way that spans time. (Actually I am saying that about myself and only hypothesizing about “us.”)

      Your experience of listening to the short story in podcast form while taking a walk is amazing. But doesn’t it still seem that, concurrent with that “wow”/reeling feeling of having a “real moment of meaning,” you still were mentally attempting to “fix” it to a feature of the physical world — eg, that street you were on — that can exist/span time independently of the abstract “content” itself, or even of your temporary mental experience? That just “knowing it’s always there somewhere in your iPod” — or in your memory, for that matter — somehow wasn’t “enough”?

      I’m really getting into murky territory here, obviously. But I do think that affixing/embodying “meaning” (which, yes, only REALLY exists in your head) in physical tokens is a natural part of human meaning-making *at all.* There are surely other parts. But that’s a BIG one. Not to get dramatic, but isn’t this why we give rings with promises and keep urns of of dead relatives? Chunks of “content” — abstract information-patterns that exist in volatile form outside of time and space — are just not *real* enough sometimes. When they are really important — ie, meaningful — we WANT them to be made of the same stuff as we are. If someone smelted your wedding ring and gave you a digital snapshot of it to store on a computer, smartphone, etc so that you can access it whenever/wherever you want, and can never “lose” it… well, I suspect that would not be desirable. But why not? After all, the meaning embodied in that object only ever “really” existed in your head anyway, right?

      This is the crux (for me) of encoding vs embodying of information (a distinction that I admit I just made up, and which at a minutely philosophical level may not really exist. But again, that’s above my pay grade and outside of my practical interest here): Our experience of meaning is fundamentally bound to the physical. Not everyone finds the same things meaningful. But find me a person who DOESN’T embody at least some of his/her most meaningful “content” (memory, experience, stories, etc etc) in some kind of nonvolatile physical token, and I’ll be very, very surprised. Is it meaningful because it’s physical, or vice versa? I have no idea. But the fact of nonvolatile physicality seems unavoidable in those cases.

      So back to books. Obviously, not every book is an amazing piece of transcendent meaning just because it’s “a pile of pulp and ink.” But it seems (to me, personally, and outside of me, anecdotally) that attaching that kind of meaning to a book, IF it’s warranted, is EASIER/more intuitive/more likely? compared to the abstract volatile “content pattern” of an ebook, which instantiates at your command with the flick of a switch, sure, but ONLY at your command. It has no “life of its own” and therefore seems ineligible for that kind of “real” meaning I’ve been talking about. That’s the part that this boils down to I guess: if that “having a life of its own” bit is meaningless, silly, or just not relevant to one’s experience, well then there you are. I personally don’t see the point in saving tons of old LPs when listening to mp3s is much easier, but then, I’m not the kind of person for whom LPs AND the music they contain embodies deep meaning.

      Many (but not all) of the books that I own have this kind of meaning — perhaps the less pointy-headed term is simply “sentimental value”!? — and so for me the thought of turning them all into ebooks someday seems like some kind of murder. And the thought that someday, I might not EVER be able to GET a new book which COULD have that kind of meaning to me in any other form BUT an ebook seems like some kind of disturbing “contraceptive” to that kind of meaning ever being born.

      Yep, I just used an abortion analogy, so I should really probably stop here. 🙂 By now I’m only talking about my experience/weird fears anyway, and not much that generalizes.

      • 3 Me

        To amend the whole “contraceptive” thing: if I found myself in that situation, I’d likely just do the “fixing” myself as an extra step (paying much, much extra for a physical copy of the book, hand printing certain passages myself, what have you). People do this all the time already; in fact, after being immensely moved by a copy of DFW’s “This Is Water” I borrowed from the library, I went out and bought a copy for myself.

        But what I like about physical books, and just cannot see ebooks ever doing, is making that “fixing” in some sense transparent, intuitive, and automatic. With printed books, you’re opted-in already; you get it “for free” with no extra energy/expense.

        So, this is why I don’t want books to go the way of LPs. Plus, I don’t want EVERYTHING to go the way of LPs by default, just because that’s the “forward march” of technology. In consigning the physical-ness of meaning to the dustbin, I think we’d definitely be losing something important, that hadn’t ever been lost in quite the same way before.

  2. I still have books I loved when I was younger. There’s something about touching the pages that takes me back to the feelings I had upon my first reading. Readings that are on my computer do not bring that feeling up for me. Between the thousands of pages in pdf articles and the ebooks I’ve recently decided to buy–the computing experience lacks intimacy in the reading of a book. Though I will say that there are nostalgic social experiences from online forums, chat programs and games so it is not impossible.

    I think that you are correct that there are many of us who will never quite feel as connected to ebooks as we do to our physical books. I agree with your argument and identify with that connection. But having found components of the computing experience that create that nostalgia I suspect that people will form the connections with their ebooks as well. I think perhaps the greatest risk is in writers/publishers not recognizing the value in preserving both formats.

    • 5 Me

      ” I think perhaps the greatest risk is in writers/publishers not recognizing the value in preserving both formats.”

      Yes, I agree. Of course, I also know that the last Xhundred years of cheap plentiful printed matter may not be “true” or “right” in the grand scheme of human culture and cognition, and that it was a historical accident of inspiration and economics just like every other damn thing. So if/when ebooks snuff out “real” books for the same structural reasons, I won’t really rend my garments, I’ll probably just think “c’est la vie” as I (not completely un-happily) line up to buy my iPad 23GS, or whatever is waiting for us in the future.

  3. 6 Michael Pick

    Interesting thoughts. I’d argue that the segue from codex to ebook is in some ways less significant than that from oration to stone tablet to scroll to codex; or from scribe-written copies to post-Gutenberg mechanized reproduction. That might cease to be true as the medium evolves – one historical precedent among many might be the theatricality of much early cinema as the medium found its feet. Moore’s law will need to speed us along a little to verify this, but I see one step further along the road to even greater dissemination of those essays, stories and poems that once had to make do with an audience gathered around a fire.

    In each case we lose something just as we gain something. The transition from oration to written word locks down meaning and begins the process of codifying language. Before that, each utterance of a story, a poem, a piece of news, transforms itself from telling to telling – arguably allowing the teller to imprint something of themselves into the retelling. Ambience is sacrificed to clarity and rapid dissemination. Couple this to pirated “software” and sub $100 kinetically driven laptops and the possibilities for education, or touching hearts and minds, become astonishing. How might science, literature, the sum total of human experience benefit from the unimpeded dissemination of communication?

    The shift from illuminated manuscript to codex, and then from hand-copied volumes to post-Gutenberg reproductions is arguably a much greater blow to ambience and presence than that of paperback (mass-produced, mechanized pulp) to ebook (post-physical, digitalized reproduction).

    But then, the transitions weren’t so much here today, gone tomorrow as coexistent for vast swathes of time.

    As someone drowning in books in a tiny Japanese apartment, and with an unhealthy love for typesetting and layout, I do fully appreciate your Proustian reverie on the inherent physicality and sensuality on the book as object, though. I took a year out of school at 17 and spent it in a library, reading. I learned and experienced more than in the previous decade in education – and not just through the information, but the experience of being surrounded by those dusty, smelly tomes. Scarcity also played its part – I repent at never having read the Greeks or anything outside of the last century in ebook format, while the library compelled me to do so, so this isn’t so cut and dried.

    I’d argue that the books that survive this transition will be those that make the most of the thoroughly sensuous, opulent experience of book-as-object. In short, the paperback is fucked. Again, Craig Mod provides some convincing meditations on the future of the printed and digital book to this effect, so I’ll abbreviate this comment-as-fifty-page-paper.

    What we’re looking at might be considered the analogue of Philip K Dicks’s animals vs. replicant animals scenario (i.e. real animals become the playthings of the grotesquely well-to-do while the majority of the population live among their artificial counterparts). More likely, books are going the way of the LP. But I would argue that this doesn’t mean death so much as specialization. There are innumerable collectors of vinyl that refuse to so much as sniff at an mp3, and instead invest in multi-thousand dollar vinyl and valve powered sound systems to indulge in their eccentric audiophilism . Biliophilic book collectors have existed for the longest time, too, and will likely be the lifeblood of the future of book-as-object. See also the cost of a Picasso vs. that of a “Picasso’s collected works”. Both ebook and paperback do little to reproduce the texture and tonality of the original article, which becomes more scarce for having become better known.

    That said, look to independent record labels, the current renaissance in internet-commerce powered screenprinting, poster making and etsy-fication of hand-crafted content and art.

    It’s never been easier to self-publish, either with affordable printing technologies or by making use of the rapidly strapped for cash artisans and technicians versed in these arts. See Craig Mod’s fascinating breakdown of his kickstarter-powered Art Space Tokyo.

    Lest you’re still awake, I’d conclude by saying that I don’t think of the future of the book is looking back, so much as looking to imaginative ways to transform its totemic, fetishistic component for those that still care for such things. Another medium, yes, but see how Matthew Dear’s latest album manifested itself in artisan-produced physical object, for instance, or turn to the delicious and as yet barely explored potential of personal computing devices made of wood, shell and biomaterials as touched on in middle-period William Gibson.

    I agree that the future of publishing, or disseminating information, can and should remain coupled to the sensuous experience of reading – at least where appropriate – but take umbrage at the notion that the ebook is a giant step towards the death of this experience, when the process of mass-reproduction has long been in force, and the future of the medium is still so raw and poorly imagined by those clinging to control of dissemination, or majesty of previous authorial victories within the confines set by the empire of the codex.

  4. 7 Jeff Perkel

    As a lover of books, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a B&N nook when they first came out. But since then: disappointment. The e-reader is great when travelling, but otherwise, it’s a much less satisfying way to enjoy literature. I can’t flip back and forth between pages easily (who is this guy again? where did he come into the story, etc); find favorite passages easily, and so on. And it’s a bit awkward to hold. I’m certainly not a luddite, and it works well enough, but all things being equal, I wish I hadn’t purchased it (except, again, for when I’m travelling).

    But more than that, John is right that physical books have a kind of history to them. I’m the kind of person who reads some books over and over again, and in those books, the pages tell a story — how did that smudge get there? Or, oh look, I was reading this book when I went on this trip, because the bookmark is ticket stub.

    Let me put it this way: I’ve bought a few books on my nook, and it drives me crazy that to get the physical copies, which is how I would prefer to re-read them — I’ll have to buy them *again*.

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