Doorstops and Firestarter

Coaster and proud.
Coaster and proud.

If anyone is a believer in the transmutation of mediums, it’s me. I believe that our bodies and minds can respond in astounding ways to fuel in all forms. I believe there is sustenance in sound. I don’t know how to play an instrument or sing to save my life, but I can feed on music. I’m a dancer and I move in the presence of music in ways that I just don’t move in silence. I know plenty of runners who can’t train without music, who swear they run farther or faster listening to certain songs. Pump-up playlists of Olympic athletes are of prime public interest. We respond to certain sounds reverberating through our bodies more dramatically than we respond to drinking a Gatorade or eating a Powerbar.

Noise has calories; sound is energy to burn. Words are sound too, and spoken words can be weapons. Insults can slice and stab, gossip can erode confidence, and words of betrayal hit like Mactrucks to the back or boomerangs to the heart. We feel the physical impact of audible words; and we also react physically to unspoken words, to text on pages and screens. The silent written word can make us sick to our stomachs or break out in a cold sweat. Words as sounds and sights can cut us to emotional pieces, but they lack actual weight.

The one thing a 600 page book can do that a rude comment or snarky text cannot is knock you out cold. Books have actual mass, an irrefutable presence. You can ignore a conversation, but you won’t forget you’re carrying War and Peace in your purse. You don’t need to open a book or read a word of it in order to know it’s there. Ink on paper presents a gravity sound cannot. Spoken words can hover in the air and build an elephant in the room, but stacks of books can build a literal wall, can make shelves and desks creak and sag under their weight.

Books are useful not just for the words, ideas, and stories that they contain but also for their physicality. Their mass and shape and size says the same thing that skyscrapers, monuments, and miles of snarled graffiti on soulless interstate underpasses all do: “I’m here.” Books play many roles in our lives even if we’ve never opened them or read a single word they contain. Shelves of books used as décor communicate certain aesthetics (so much so that people make fake ones for show). Encyclopedias prop up tables and Gray’s Anatomy is used as a booster seat for toddlers at the table. We know that history and science are the heavy stuff of tomes for formidable tasks of holding open doors and windows, and gossip and politics come in the thin, disposable forms of magazines and newspapers perfect for kindling the fireplace.

You can fit hundreds of megabytes on a flashdrive that you can fit in your pocket, but those same documents in paper form will weigh you down. Books can give backaches. Digital information is awesome and convenient and much faster to share and cheaper to ship. Yet, there is still something about the creation of a thing, of turning weightless thoughts and words into an object that could bruise your toe if it fell off the table the wrong way, a something that a pdf just can’t do.

I would love to make When Coffee Speaks an ebook one day, but for now I’m happy that it exists only as a physical thing. Most readers will never get to meet the people who speak in its pages, but the fact that the book is kind of heavy is an indication of the reality of the people whose stories it contains. People take up space too. We aren’t figments, and for all the difference in influence and power and ability that exists between us, we all take up roughly the same amount of space.

Some people build bigger bubbles around themselves and their sphere of self extends to houses with lots of room and big vehicles, whereas some people sleep literally on top of each other packed into the same room, but if you line us up in a row, we all occupy relatively similar amounts of space.

The weight of When Coffee Speaks doesn’t come from one story from one really influential person who weighs down the whole book; the ink on the pages of an interview with a business owner is just as dark as the ink of an interview with an employee who can’t read the conversion of his own words from spoken sound to written text. The lengths of the interviews vary, but they vary according to personality of the speaker, not according to arbitrary assessment of importance.

Kickstarter mailing in progress
Kickstarter mailing in progress

The book has a physical weight that has become very real to me as I’ve lugged 130lbs of books packed in suitcases and backpacks on planes and buses around the world and hauled boxes of books up flight after flight of stairs. Every copy of the book that anyone has read so far I have carried in my arms and hands. Maybe I carried it in a duffle when I made four trips to the post office to send out Kickstarter rewards, or maybe I lugged it on a bus from Boston to New York (and got reprimanded by the driver for having an overweight bag). Maybe it traveled in my backpack to Costa Rica. Maybe I tucked it in my purse and hand delivered it.

Into the world! Pound by pound. The post office exists to remind you precisely how much things weigh.
Into the world! Pound by pound. The post office exists to remind you precisely how much things weigh.

My biceps are toned from carrying the paper manifestations of stories that I wore through several pairs of shoes to collect. How impossibly literary and romantic is that? Kindles and iPads and ereaders are seductive in the way that K-cups and single serve coffee makers are seductive, but I’m still wooed by the old school romance of bound volumes. I want When Coffee Speaks to gather dust in someone’s study and get moldy in a box in someone else’s basement. I want it to prop up a lamp or get soggy as a coaster. It would be nice if someone read it (especially if he or she read it on the subway; I can think of nothing cooler than to look across a train car and see someone reading a book I wrote. If I were Suzanne Collins I would do nothing but ride the 456 all day, just to revel in the guilty pleasure of seeing how many kids and adults missed their stops buried in the pages of my stories), but no one ever reads as much as they think about reading. We all have and know about a lot more books than we’ve actually sat with cover to cover. I want the stories of coffeepeople to join the ranks of other forgotten texts, living out their days as present, as there. Nothing more.

When I first unloaded the books from the printer and looked at the stack of 25 25lb boxes, of 16 books each to total 400, I was impressed that the sum was several times larger and heavier than myself and would take many trips to carry up the stairs. I kicked a stack of four boxes and it didn’t budge. My dad was with me and had just set a box of books by the door to hold it open as we carried them in from the curb. I looked at the stacks and felt impossibly proud, saying, “Well, even if no one reads it, at least we have doorstops and firestarter.”

Sometimes, one has to be practical as well as romantic.


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