I was walking late tonight to the local convenience store. In it I saw on a shelf with a lot of the type of cheap knickknacks American convenience stores carry: mint tins, cheap plastic toys, plastic costume jewelry and the like. On it were a few packs of Bicycle brand cards.
It reminded me of a passage by G.K. Chesterton, in What’s Wrong With the World titled “The Universal Stick:”
Cast your eye round the room in which you sit, and select some three or four things that have been with man almost since his beginning; which at least we hear of early in the centuries and often among the tribes. Let me suppose that you see a knife on the table, a stick in the corner, or a fire on the hearth. About each of these you will notice one speciality; that not one of them is special. Each of these ancestral things is a universal thing; made to supply many different needs; and while tottering pedants nose about to find the cause and origin of some old custom, the truth is that it had fifty causes or a hundred origins.
The knife is meant to cut wood, to cut cheese, to cut pencils, to cut throats; for a myriad ingenious or innocent human objects. The stick is meant partly to hold a man up, partly to knock a man down; partly to point with like a finger-post, partly to balance with like a balancing pole, partly to trifle with like a cigarette, partly to kill with like a club of a giant; it is a crutch and a cudgel; an elongated finger and an extra leg. The case is the same, of course, with the fire; about which the strangest modern views have arisen. A queer fancy seems to be current that a fire exists to warm people. It exists to warm people, to light their darkness, to raise their spirits, to toast their muffins, to air their rooms, to cook their chestnuts, to tell stories to their children, to make checkered shadows on their walls, to boil their hurried kettles, and to be the red heart of a man’s house and that hearth for which, as the great heathens said, a man should die.
(The paragraph break I added.) He’s saying that the old things, the basic things, are protean. They have many uses. He goes on:
Now it is the great mark of our modernity that people are always proposing substitutes for these old things; and these substitutes always answer one purpose where the old thing answered ten. The modern man will wave a cigarette instead of a stick; he will cut his pencil with a little screwing pencil-sharpener instead of a knife; and he will even boldly offer to be warmed by hot water pipes instead of a fire. I have my doubts about pencil-sharpeners even for sharpening pencils; and about hot water pipes even for heat. But when we think of all those other requirements that these institutions answered, there opens before us the whole horrible harlequinade of our civilization. We see as in a vision a world where a man tries to cut his throat with a pencil-sharpener; where a man must learn single-stick with a cigarette; where a man must try to toast muffins at electric lamps, and see red and golden castles in the surface of hot water pipes.
The new items fulfill single purposes and fulfill them well. But that is all: all the manifold uses of the protean, universal items are lost.
I thought of this looking at the cards. I can play poker or solitaire on my computer, alone or with friends. But the sheer physicality of a simple deck of playing cards creates so many uses that a computer program can’t hope to ever duplicate. I can palm a card and do tricks with it: guess the one you have chosen, or make it appear in a hat, or in a silk handkerchief. I can set a trail of cards on the ground for you to follow, or build a house of them, hoping they will not topple. A slim pack of cards can be used to play solitaire even when no power exists, or can be brought out to entertain among strangers sharing an airport. Or to while away a high school lunch period. I can toss them to see how far they fly.
But a computer card game can only do the one thing: play solitaire.The lack of physicality specializes it in the same way his example of pencil sharpener specializes one aspect of the knife. Most of the rest are lost.
There’s a huge dimension of the physical aspects of books that the e-book destroys. The e-book transmits information and transmits it efficiently. What it cannot do is exist in the many ways a physical book can.
I can walk to my friends house and see what books he has on his shelves. A random one may catch my eye, and a discussion start. I can borrow that book and tuck it under my arm, reading it as I walk home. I can see the notes he took in it, and see the faint stamp of a used bookstore he bought it from.
I can playfully smack him with it when I return it. I can tuck little notes of paper, dog-ear the pages, juggle a stack much too large for me walking home from the library. I can use a thick one as a prop to rest my head on, wrapping it in my coat.
I can walk to a store and spin a rack of them, surprised that a tiny campground has philosophy books for sale. I can locate them in rooms of my house, stashing them like hidden treasures.
All these things you cannot do with an e-reader, not in the same way. There are analogues, but they are bloodless: pictures on a screen. I will never see an e-book that smells old, sold at a flea market. Physicality adds so much to the experience, and makes new experiences possible. It reminds us that information does not exist in a vacuum, but is tied to a specific time and place. That many times it’s not just the information, but the object. It’s not just the love, but the lover.
Tomorrow I plan to go back and buy a pack of cards, placing them in the same bag as my netbook. And as much as I love my E-reader, my shelves are full of inefficient, analog books. There’s room for both, but the virtual will never supplant the physical. Efficiency is a good, but so is universality.
Game of 9-5 Pitch, anyone?