I’m not sure if it is because the Spousal Unit and I are now empty-nesters or if it is leftover influence from that Netflix show called “Swedish Death Cleaning,” but a substantial portion of my weekends for the past few months has been trying to sort through and eliminate some of the “stuff” that has taken over the house.
There have been multiple trips to Goodwill and listing stuff for sale on eBay and Facebook Marketplace but we still have a long way to go. We have been in the same house for more than 15 years and both of us (and our daughter too, truth be told) are loath to get rid of stuff that we may eventually have a use for.
But through this whole process —and through every move of residence we have made in our 35-year-plus marriage —there is one category of stuff that has been off limits in terms of getting rid of stuff. Books.
We have a lot of books in this house. Spy novels, out-of-date school books, enough tomes by William Gibson and by Neil Stephenson and by Stephen King to fill a good-sized bookcase all by themselves. Plus, collections of Doonesbury and Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, a bunch of PJ O’Rourke and Hunter S. Thompson and more books on art and pop music than you can shake a not-paper-yet stick at.
The sad thing is that it had been, until quite recently, years since I had actually picked one up.
I still read a lot. I mean a LOT. But since about the time I got my first iPad more than a dozen years ago, my reading migrated increasingly to something done on a screen.
I didn’t stop reading books. At least not at first. I own a bunch of ebooks and as I was reading the latest Gibson tome a few years ago I finally got to the point of convincing myself that the screen was just as good as paper and ink.
But, Marshall McCluhan was on to something with his whole medium and message thing. You can see it everywhere. The availability of endless-choice streaming TV has created a world where 90% of the time I would prefer to watch a series rather than a movie. Popular music has been dumbed down and made increasingly bass-heavy because MP3 and the glossy formats that have succeeded it strip out both dynamic range and high-end harmonics in an effort to keep file sizes small and the music being released sounds best in that format. High resolution music streaming has only been available at all for a couple of years and after nearly two decades of hearing only squashed, simple crap, most people can’t hear a difference. And don’t even get me started on Bluetooth and AirPods.
Anyway, I digress.
Eventually, as should be expected, me reading everything on a screen had a big influence on what I was reading. Lots of news and politics, basically.
But about six months ago, on a whim, I subscribed to something new and kind of weird. There is a journalist for whom I have crazy amounts of respect by the name of Matt Taibbi. I have been a reader and a financial supporter for years. And Taibbi does a podcast with a well-regarded essayist named Walter Kirn. And Kirn had a project called “County Highway”.
It is ostensibly a magazine but presented in the format of an old-fashioned newspaper. And it is not available in any other format. The content is not online at all. I was intrigued and signed up and then… It came in the mail and sat unopened for two months. I was out of the habit of reading something that was not on a screen.
So I was cleaning stuff out, which is where this whole story started, and came across a book that I had bought some years ago and never gotten around to reading. I am a big fan of King’s “Dark Tower” series and fascinated at how bits and pieces of that fantasy universe can be found in many, if not most, of his other books and stories. The book I came across was actually a graphic novel (i.e., fancy comic book) that was a prequel to the series, telling a story from the titular Gunslinger’s childhood.
I put it aside thinking, I really need to read that and then go back and read the rest of the series again. Which made me remember that County Highway. And I picked it up. Over the next week, I replaced my morning reading time with that paper publication and eschewed the screen.
The fact that the writing in County Highway is superb helped the process, but over the course of just a few days, I noticed a difference. I actually felt less scattered for large portions of the day. Kirn says that the whole idea of presenting content in the form of a newspaper is that they want you to sit with it and maybe a cup of coffee and free yourself from the algorithms that have become the all-powerful traffic cops of our attention for a little while.
And it worked. The only drag is that County Highway only comes out six times a year. So I need some new stuff. I have that graphic novel lined up but that only kinda counts in my mind. And I discovered that there is another Dark Tower novel set in between the events of two other books that I had not known about. So I ordered a copy on eBay. It actually cost less than the ebook would have.
I’m open to suggestions. I should probably feel bad for whoever has to go through all of my crap when the inevitable happens and I shuffle off this mortal coil. Not only am I not getting rid of stuff, I am actually adding books —heavy, bulky, hard to store and move books — to what was already too big a collection.
But there is something about reading in a format where nothing is beeping at you or notifying you or trying to move your attention elsewhere. I think I’m gonna keep it up. And I need to go now and pre-order the next Gibson book. On paper this time.