Telegraphs went. Bedpans went. The Ptolemaic universe went. Outmoded technology dies. After 18 novels, the iPad’s carbon footprint is smaller than that of the paperback equivalent. So why might physical books survive?
Buy these books. Hold them. Note their essential tactility. Tree of Codes is lighter than it looks. Like a milk carton you think is full and lift with too much force. House of Leaves is heavier, like a fishing weight or a bar of gold. (Does your Kindle adjust its heft when you download War and Peace?).
Tree of Codes is so light because Jonathan Safran Foer took a knife to it. He fileted The Street of Crocodiles, a novella written by Bruno Schulz in 1934 before he was shot dead by a Gestapo officer, and physically trimmed its words by the dozen. The result is the reanimated skeleton of a long-dead story. The pages are wispy, like winter branches, really just the outline of pages, a framework from which the remaining words dangle. It took months to find a die-cutting operation willing to take on the “impossible” task of manufacturing the book. Although turning pages on an iPad takes a fingerswipe across the glass screen, turning pages in Tree of Codes is like trimming toenails on a newborn. The story Safran Foer has exhumed simmers like the transcription of a half-remembered opium dream. It’s moody, suggestive, and feverish. When you finish reading the book (it only takes about 30 minutes), you’re more infected than illuminated.
If Tree of Codes is a fibrillary trace, House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski is radioactive dark matter. House of Leaves demands engagement. You can’t read the book without spinning it around in your hands, flipping pages back and forth, squinting and holding it up to mirrors. The story is a psychological thriller about a house whose inner dimensions are larger than its outside measurements allow. It is a horror story and a ruse and a book that is in love with being a book.
House of Leaves comes in different editions, each with different color codes. The original edition grew out of internet postings. Or rather, it outgrew its internet posting. The story is too big for the confines of cyberspace; it needs paper pages and colored ink and packed margins to be fully expressed. Get the blue edition, and the word House is always blue. Get the “incomplete edition,” and you get no braille.
This is a book that manipulates time. An action sequence, tense with adrenaline and unresolved conflict, is drawn out one line at a time across 40 pages. You flutter your fingers through them, sprinting to keep up with the story as it is leaving you behind. The pages announce themselves and in their paper presence they dictate your reading experience. This is not a PowerPoint slide show. This is you wrestling with an object, and the object is winning. The book is in charge, and you like it.
These are books, made out of trees, and they’re loud and proud about it. Tree of Codes seems to say: “here are words, and here is the absence of words, and I’m sorry this is all that’s left, but it’s probably all you have time for anyway.” Tree of Codes in its act of redaction is bigger than the sum of its erratically spaced words. House of Leaves, with its crammed attic crowdedness, cannot be typeset in binary. It’s a full burning spectrum of so much information that it has spilled into music, cult fan clubs, and international translations.
When pulp forests are left to thrive and bookshelves need only be as wide as a single electronic tablet, here are two paper books that people will still hold on to. They are more than the sum of their words. They are books, defiantly worth the paper they’re printed on.