Dalton Delan | The Unspin Room: Still holding on to the material world

The Unspin Room


WESTPORT, CONN. — Beware the lure of the intangible. This month, if you've bought your books via the Microsoft Store for electronic consumption, you lost them all as it shut down. It is the eBook equivalent of your library burning to the ground. But hey, they'll refund your money. Likewise, they dropped music two years ago. And last month Apple announced that iTunes is being replaced. Well, as Bob Dylan sang, "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose."

What happens when the immaterial is material? Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were among the transcendentalists who sought in the area around Walden Pond to commune with nature and to prefer as individuals to be unsullied by society. Their philosophy, nearly two centuries old now, borrowed from the Upanishads and other Hindu texts. There is a through-line connecting uber-material America, with its great successes in the creation of middle-class comforts, and its rejection of them — for a time anyway — by the '60s generation.


Now, the emotional battleground between that which is tangible and that which is virtual is being fought over every source of mass media we know. First to fall was recorded music, as 12-inch vinyl LPs gave way to eight-track and cassette tapes, then to compact discs, then to intangible downloads such as iTunes — at least one still paid for them, and they showed up on playlists — and finally to nothing at all: streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora that act like personalized radio stations. With nothing physical to hold in one's hand, and sounds sliced and diced by "sampling rates" of digital audio, small wonder that music is no longer the heartbeat of our culture, replaced by food, which engages all our senses.

Books went next, as Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iPad supplanted the printed page for nearly half of all readers. Walk down the aisles of any public transportation in the air or on the ground, and there is nary a printed page to be found. In the days of readily accessible books such as paperbacks, cover art gave a feeling for the content within, just as album-cover art did for music. The texture of the printed page, and the turning of those pages, lent a physicality and apparent permanence to the words, even as acidic paper rendered those pages quickly yellow. If you were a note-taker, you could write in the margins far easier than on an electronic tablet. If you were an old-time collector, you could apply your bookplate. And if you had beautiful wood shelving, you might bind books in leather. And, yes, I've seen fancy cases for Kindles.

Now newspapers are giving way even at the paper-perusing haven of Starbucks to the shared media of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, where editorial and infomercial content blur. On a smartphone, the ads take up more screen time than the stories, as if on TV the programs were interruptions in the commercials — it may have felt that way, but content still dominated. Read articles on a smartphone and it is a back and forth with ads and eye candy.

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Perhaps most emotionally telling, the phone has become our camera too, and we share memories on a tiny screen rather than in frames or photo albums. Yes, photo prints can fade, rip and get lost, but you can't hang your phone on the wall. It may be that the fleeting nature of photo capture on cellphones better represents the evanescence of life itself, fragile and small.


Visiting my mother in the reduced circumstances of institutional living, I am struck by how such an aesthete and inveterate collector of clothes, art and antiques could be so happy now with so very few material possessions around her — happier than she has ever been. Maybe monastic living has broader application, and my mother's real-world stuff just gummed up her head. All that beauty is inside her now. It's the content that matters, not the medium. eBooks are still books. The song is ever sung. We could still choose an online version of the newspaper; it still trumps the echo chamber of Facebook.

Yet I can't escape the feeling that digital music is so much wallpaper, that books on electronic tablets have less meaning, that the morning newspaper held in one's hand is a grasp on the world, a physical correlative to a coffee cup in the other. What we touch does matter. I fear I'm the last man standing who prizes his photo prints, plays CDs in the car, adds more shelving for the constant influx of books, donates them, starts it all again, fills the recycle bin with local and national newspapers.

You can't take it with you, but it's fun while we last. Give Madonna the last word: "a material girl living in a material world."

Dalton Delan, a regular Eagle contributor, has won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.


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