This past summer I finally got around to reading Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin’s award-winning novel from the mid-’80s. It takes the form of an anthropological treatise on the civilization that will replace ours once we’ve finished screwing up the planet, and the book is pretty well unmatched in the way it fleshes out an entire culture—the society she depicts is as complete and convincing as any real one you could study in the here and now.
The Kesh people aren’t perfect, but Le Guin’s vision of them is certainly Utopian, and one of the most remarkable things about the book is how positive and productive their relationship is with the landscape in which they live. Despite the far-future setting, Always Coming Home is very much a novel of place, and it’s impossible to think of it without visualizing the valleys of northern California.
Thing is, I will always associate the book with the south of France. I was fortunate enough to read it on vacation, so for me the Kesh reside in what was once America and also exist on a Mediterranean beach. Lucky Kesh, I know. Somehow the act of carrying that book, taking it in and out of my bag, and squinting at it through the sun etched it permanently in my mind. I may forget the details of what happens in the narrative, but I know I’ll forever remember where and when I read it.
This is one of the unsung powers a book possesses, the way it can capture memories not only of the story that it tells, but of the circumstances experienced by the reader who turns its pages. It’s the physical aspect of the process that enables this, or so science suggests. I became convinced of this myself back when I was taking notes in class. It was helpful not because I had them to look at later, but because the very act of jotting them down made facts stick. What was true about writing is just as true about reading.
Scientific American ran an article last year that summarized several studies, quoting Abigail Sellen of Microsoft Research Cambridge in England and co-author of The Myth of the Paperless Office: "The implicit feel of where you are in a physical book turns out to be more important than we realized … I don’t think e-book manufacturers have thought enough about how you might visualize where you are in a book." Not to disparage e-reading, but I simply don’t have the same relationship with a text when I’m flicking a screen.
Whether it’s currently being read or not, there’s a tangibility to a book that establishes a presence. My Le Guin novel still gives off a whiff of sunscreen and has sand in the binding, for example. Even without that, though, having the spine in sight on a shelf, peripherally or otherwise, triggers something in me. Every time I glance at it, I’m transported back to the beach and relive my summer vacation in some small way.
I still remember my ninth birthday party, when I sat at my kitchen table and a classmate named Greg gave me a beautifully illustrated hardcover copy of Treasure Island. I leafed through it then, but the nineteenth-century language didn’t grab me at the time, and I didn’t read it until much later. I lived with it for years, though, boxing and unboxing it when my family moved to a new house. Turned out to be a great story, of course—I’m sure Long John Silver would live in my imagination whatever my book looked like or however I acquired it. But I guarantee that I wouldn’t remember the details of that party, and probably wouldn’t remember poor Greg at all, if my Treasure Island weren’t a real thing that existed in the real world.
I download ebooks from time to time and certainly will do so more and more often as the years go by, but for the most part I want to have the same connection to my reading as the Kesh do to their homeland. A book is even better when it’s held in the hand as well as in the mind.
A version of this piece was first published at bookriot.com.