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Pulitzer Journal: What is a book, anyway?
Book #1: Amity and Prosperity by Eliza Griswold
Early last week, I finished listening to Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America and entered it into my spreadsheet as the first finished title of this project.1
Eliza Griswold’s 2018 book, which won the prize for General Non-Fiction, is an eye-opening account of fracking’s effects on two small Pennsylvania towns called Amity and Prosperity.
The story was necessary and timely, the reporting was balanced, and Griswold broke through Trump-land stereotypes to give us a firsthand look at what happens when the energy extraction industry comes to town. It was an excellent and worthwhile listening experience.
Part of what struck me about that experience, though, was that I didn’t love consuming it in audio format. Though I’ve unabashedly become hooked on audiobooks in the last year, there’s inevitably something missing in the audio-only experience.
I can’t linger over lines or paragraphs that stand out, let alone underline them or add marginalia (which I love to do); I miss catching dedications, acknowledgments, and even end notes (these are included in some audiobooks, but not most); visual elements like maps, photos, illustrations, and even text formatting make for unique delights that quite obviously don’t translate off the paper (ebooks don’t do visual elements well, either); my mindset is even different while listening to a book — I’m far more in a mode of consumption than of appreciation for a well-written narrative work of art.
I enjoy audiobooks. I count them as reading and as “books read.” But they just aren’t the same. The same is true for ebooks.
Books, in their truest form, are printed on paper and bound between two covers.
As I was researching Pulitzer submission guidelines this week (I fully understand how ridiculous that sounds), I discovered that the Pulitzer board feels the same way:
All entries must be made available for purchase by the general public in either hardcover or bound paperback book form.
It bears repeating: I love audiobooks and I appreciate the convenience of ebooks — I take advantage of both formats frequently — but I’m also a firm believer that part of the charm of books is in their tangible form and multisensory experience: the cover art, the way you can dawdle and flip back and forth as desired, the gratification of turning physical pages as proof of your progress. (Finishing an ebook always feels so anti-climactic. “Whelp, you’re done! Move along!”)
Finally, there’s something to be said for giving your attention to a screenless object. I’ve made my career on the internet for nearly as long as I’ve been working. My workdays are irrevocably tethered to a screen. But, as we all know and observe, screenification goes beyond our jobs: our grocery shopping is done on a screen, chats with family happen via a screen, plenty of our family game time is spent with a Nintendo Switch. I could go on and on and on. None of this is inherently bad — in fact, those things I listed are convenient and fun. It just means that any non-screen time becomes set apart and almost sacred.
I’d love to create more of that kind of time in my life and this project might just be the perfect way to bring it about.
For my Pulitzer reading, which holds greater significance than my other reading, I’m going to stick to the transcendent magic of paper.
Though I’ve already read a couple of dozen Pulitzer winners, I’m officially starting my unofficial count at zero. It’s more fun that way. Plus there’s a good chance I’ll re-read at least a handful.