Dichotomous Anonymous

Wherein I am delighted to welcome one of the best writers and poets I know, Kathleen Cain, into the Bloomsbury Blogging fold…


With a few essential exceptions, I disdain dichotomy. Either/Or. One or two. Up or down. Yes or no. Black or white. Blah blah blah. The world is so much more complicated, at nearly every turn. The answer could be both. All of the above. Sideways. Yes AND no. Gray.

Yet we insist on not just simplifying but also trivializing choices that deserve our most thoughtful attention. I track this way of thinking back to René Descartes—“Try to read his work as biography,” my humanities professor encouraged when he noticed how distressed I was to have to endure yet another dose of bifurcated thinking. (Sigh.)

Our hangover from (Des)Cartesian dichotomy shows itself even in our reading habits. One person vows to only read fiction. Another, nonfiction. English cottage mysteries or Patricia Cornwell. Chick lit or literary fiction. Speculative fiction or historical. (Period. The end.) On it goes. Admittedly, reading preferences are individual and can be no more accounted for than taste or the perception of beauty. Still, I wonder. The either/or’s seem to go on as the book lists lengthen. Well, what can you expect from a country that can only come up with two major political parties (in reality, with nods to all the oncomers) and still runs its religious discourse according to good or evil rather than love or the lack of love (one of the few essential dichotomies I’ll allow myself).

But, back to books. Even our ways of reading have lined up against opposite walls and are staring each other down as awkwardly as the way the boys used to stand and gawk from one side of the gymnasium and the girls, attempting poised nonchalance, from the other at high school dances.

Kindle or hard copy?
Nook or paperback?
E-reader or physical checkout (remember libraries)?

“I don’t care what anybody says,” I’ve often heard members of my aging yet still demographically prominent Boomer generation vow (even though the grandkids just gave them an e-reader for their birthdays), “I just like the feel of a book.”

If you were brought up with books as ordinary household accessories, there’s no denying the tactile experience: the rough or smooth skin of the paper; and sometimes even its smell, which inhaled deeply can recall the scent of trees, the whisper of turning pages. In the case of books wrought with craftsmanship and care: the pure heft in your hand, the beauty of blue marbled endpapers; likewise, the minor artwork of a hand-tooled cover; or the aroma of ink, tainted as any artifact with a whiff of the ages. There’s the ability to linger over a word, a sentence, or a paragraph and then return to one or the other—or all!—sometimes on the hunt with the eagerness of a child.

On the other hand, the multitasking digital generations often can’t be bothered by lugging around a heavy old thing like a book in a backpack, especially in a backpack overloaded enough to create a premature curvature of the spine before the age of thirty. And why should they when they can carry the equivalent of a major public library in the palms of their hands? The Enlightenment at their fingertips? With a shrug, a puzzled look at the thought of reading an actual book, and a still-lingering “whatever” from the younger crowd, the e-book device gets fired up.

Both books and e-books have come to be considered sacrosanct objects. But here’s a dichotomy-buster I like—one of many, but it’s my favorite—The Book of Kells. The original 9th-century manuscript, written on vellum in a delicious script known as “insular majuscule” and bound in four volumes, has, by contemporary definitions of time, long since been digitized; the facsimile edition was created by Facsimile Verlag of Luzern in 1986. I had the privilege of visiting the Trinity College-Dublin Library in the early 1980s when, to the delight of viewers, a page a day was still being turned (the volumes are now less often alternated for display). I also had the privilege of seeing the facsimile edition when the local chapter of the Irish American Cultural Institute brought it, along with Bernard Meehan, Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College Library, to the University of Denver for a special lecture and exhibition. So, as you can see, I have long been on the path of Dichotomy Anonymous.

But, without much transition, let me change directions for a moment (or at least a thousand words or so) and consider books as if not (shudder) tools, as at least utilitarian objects. Not exactly like a screwdriver but a tool nevertheless—for gaining knowledge, for entertainment, to scare ourselves, to travel to distant and imagined worlds or states of mind. A screwdriver is certainly more utilitarian than a book in securing the everyday world, of making it strong and whole. But when the battery-operated and then the rechargeable versions of this essential toolbox resident appeared, I didn’t toss my old reliable Stanley in the trash. Did you?

The electric screwdriver works great for all those straight-on, obvious jobs. But when a frame clip—one of the tiny plastic pieces around the edges of my security door—breaks off and has to be replaced, I don’t reach for Mr. Electric Head. I retrieve one of the mini Phillips-head handhelds. It fits the small diminishing space of intersection with the back door. Adapting a principle from art and architecture, and applying it, I’ve learned that circumstances determine any useful form.

This principle is easily applied to books and reading as well. If there’s a snowstorm that’s likely to keep me more or less housebound for a couple of days, having a good book to snuggle up with is a requirement. As the snow whispers its icy message outside, I can hear the lisp of pages turning while I am safe and warm inside, and inside the story. The heft and shift of the book on my lap—I like that. Maybe it’s even large enough to be propped up on my lap desk. During the quiet hour, when and if it can be taken in the late afternoon, likewise. Before bed, cozy beneath the covers, propped up on a pillow, even the multipound hardback of Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton is no burden. A delay at DIA because something is wrong with the plane? No problem. A paperback, a Kindle, a Nook—take your pick. On the wing or on the run? Likewise. I’ve learned to make the reading need fit the situation. It’s no longer an either/or world when it comes to books and reading. It’s a realm of and … and … and … . And, just as I finish writing, an article in The Wall Street Journal, weighing the results of recent reader surveys, advises: “Don’t Burn Your Books—Print is Here to Stay.”

Kathleen Cain is a writer and poet, transplanted from Nebraska to Colorado in 1972. She is the author of The Cottonwood Tree: An American Champion (Johnson Books/Big Earth, 2007), currently being used as a textbook in a nature-writing course taught by Dr. Sandra Maresh Doe at Metropolitan State University in Denver. She has poetry forthcoming in two anthologies: Turn (Uttered Chaos Press) and The Untidy Season: An Anthology of Nebraska Women Poets (Backwaters Press).




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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jay-Mandeville/100003741024162 Jay Mandeville

    Enjoyed this enormously…Thank you!

  • Dixie Darr

    I’m guessing you read the article electronically. :) I like both books and ebooks. I also like audio books. I try to avoid both chick lit and dick lit in any format.