As a tween, summer always began the same way: Several nights in a row spent reading mass-market paperbacks until the wee small hours of the morning.
I spent as much time as possible at the local suburban Barnes and Noble, head cocked sideways, scanning the science fiction and fantasy section for new arrivals, or maybe an Anne McCaffrey book I’d missed that wasn’t one of Acorna the unicorn girl books. Hardcovers and trade paperbacks were fine, but spending money went further with a pocket-sized model. Once I could drive myself, I also frequented the romance sections of the local Walmart and grocery stores. Amazon was just a theoretical possibility, more useful as a place to read reviews than to order anything. After acquiring a new book, I would inevitably tear through it in roughly 24 to 48 hours and, after briefly scanning the ads tucked into the back for anything that looked promising, flip to the beginning and start it all over again.
As I got older, first school and then work took over more and more of my time—as did, increasingly, the various lures of the internet. My reading shifted, too; I still nonfiction in print, but most of what I once read in mass-market paperback—romance, science fiction, fantasy—shifted to digital. My phone is backlit, it’s always there, and almost any book I could ever want is instantly available and often dirt-cheap. The rise of self-publishing, too, means more diversity of authors able to do an end-run around traditional gatekeepers. Mass-market paperbacks take up space, their covers were often absolutely bananas, and they weren’t exactly made to last.
Lately, however, I have become intensely aware of a vague itch at the back of my brain. It’s a little clock ticking audibly somewhere out of sight, almost like a crawling, constantly disrupting my focus. Maybe this is the result of having a toddler and knowing that the quieter the house, the more likely something dire is happening. But it’s more likely the consequence of nearly a decade of working online, plugged constantly into Twitter and Slack, as well as the personal use of apps like Instagram, designed to keep me mindlessly scrolling even as I don’t even particularly see what’s passing before my eyes. That nagging feeling, I suspect, is my time slipping down the great, gurgling drain of the internet.
I have tried so many things to disrupt this cycle. I have taken up cross-stitching. I have instituted screen time restrictions on my phone. I have deleted the Twitter app and I have blocked Facebook entirely. I have repeatedly and loudly entertained the notion of getting into kayaking. But I still feel like a cat trapped in a room with a bug, my attention darting around.
And so, among all the rest of the attempts, I have returned to the mass-market paperback. Digital books, I’ve realized, have their downsides: It is in fact so easy to switch to other books that I find myself logging out of something I’m reading and scrolling through dozens of titles, often defaulting to skimming something I’ve already read. The clock is always right there, at the edge of my awareness, tugging me out of my reading experience. And then there’s the immense tidal pull of all the other apps on my phone. Reading on the most brick-like modern Kindle helps to some degree; the web app is blessedly so bad that you can’t get to Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter. But I always seem to let the battery die, and then my phone is right there.
A mass-market paperback is more demanding. It requires more light, particularly for my aging eyes. You have to plan—you can’t just decide at the last minute that you want to read it right then and immediately purchase it. The spines crack. Those particularly fat ones, the ones so big that they had to make the pages thin as a Bible’s, were prone to start shedding them as you got toward the end, and you had to make sure you didn’t drop an important plot-development hauling the book around. They are simultaneously less grabby—you have to actually heave yourself into the experience—and much, much more immersive. The flow of a plot-heavy mass-market paperback, particularly at night, sweeps you up in a way almost nothing else can—particularly anymore.
These books once loomed much larger in American culture. They were an important cultural force, important for disseminating new modernist literature through imprints like Penguin. By the 1980s, they were ubiquitous, an important element of the blockbuster model that saw huge advances for surefire bestsellers that would likely become movies or miniseries, selling even more books—think of Michael Crichton, Judith Krantz, and John Grisham. This over-reliance on bigness probably wasn’t good for the industry, but it’s easy to be nostalgic in the era of Amazon and the internet more generally. How much of every summer is now sucked into Facebook, as opposed to being plowed into Jurassic Park? There’s nothing really like the old fat pulpy books of yore; now a “beach book” is a mid-market literary fiction novel.
How often are any of us ever truly “off the clock” anymore? Truly unaware of the time, out of earshot of the internet’s perpetually roaring torrent. It’s like trying to pretend Niagara Falls isn’t there, even though it’s just through the tree line. I took two days off before July 4th, cobbling together a long stretch of time off, and counted down the days until hours and hours of leisure stretched before me. And yet I found myself totally unable to relax. It wasn’t until I fished out Deep Secret, an old Diana Wynne Jones novel set at a fantasy convention with a cheerfully convoluted plot, which I’d come across while rearranging my bookshelves, that I managed to slow my brain down. I read during my kid’s nap and after she went to bed, reading on until it was roughly 3 am and the book was done. It’s not that it’s the best book ever written; that’s not the point. It was well-plotted and funny and it had no references to the internet as we know it, having been written in 1997.
I didn’t look at the clock. I didn’t check my email. I didn’t pick up my phone to look up random things that drifted across my brain. I just read and read and read, focused on one thing wholly and totally, watching the plot unfold. When I put it down, the world around me was asleep. Everything—particularly my brain—was quiet. I closed the book and went to bed.