in: Advice, Character, Featured

• Last updated: July 1, 2023

Culture You Can Heft

A man reading a book.

In 2004, the way I interacted with culture fundamentally changed.

That’s the year I got my first iPod.

Before my iPod, if I wanted to listen to music, I’d have to pop a CD into my car’s 5-disc changer or bring along my Discman. When one CD was over and I wanted to listen to another, I’d have to put in another disc. If I wanted to buy a new CD, I’d mosey on down to a music store. I’d often go looking for an album from one band, but after talking to the store clerk, walk away with one from another I’d never heard of, but ended up liking.

After the iPod, I had my entire music library at my fingertips. I could buy just the songs I liked on iTunes, and with a simple scroll of that giant iPod wheel, I could queue up any tune or playlist in an instant. I no longer had to make trips to the music store. The music store came to me.

My transition from consuming culture that I could heft  — physical, tangible, “analog culture” — to consuming ethereal, digital culture had begun.

In 2007, my transition away from analog progressed even further with the release of the Amazon Kindle. Now, I could have an entire library worth of books in a device that could almost fit in my back pocket. No more books taking up physical space in my room. No more trips to the library or bookstore. All I had to do was go to Amazon, and with a single click, I’d have a new book to read. Easy peasy.

Since 2007, the wizards of Silicon Valley have digitized more and more of our culture and have made it easier and easier to consume thanks to the power of streaming. With a service like Spotify, you don’t even have to buy individual songs. You can simply stream whatever song you want to any device you want. Kindle Unlimited now allows you access to millions of books without having to purchase them individually. You can get pretty much any movie or TV show you want and watch it anytime you want with Netflix, Prime Video, or Hulu.

In many ways, it’s an absolute golden age for literature and film, articles and music.

But, for the past couple of years, I’ve found myself growing increasingly dissatisfied with the digital way of consuming all this culture; the sheen of its apparently golden hue — and its accompanying thrill — began to wear off. I felt stuffed with all these options. Saturated. And yet strangely hungry at the same time.

I’ve consequently found myself wandering back into the world of “analog” culture. Instead of reading books on a Kindle, I prefer to read physical books. Instead of streaming music, I’ve been listening to old scratchy vinyl records. Instead of reading news online, I subscribe to the physical version of our local newspaper. I did this, not out of some hipster desire to be idiosyncratic, but simply because it felt right, seemed to scratch a certain itch that hadn’t gone away.

I’m not the only one who’s been making this pivot — a 360, I guess. Studies have shown that while ebooks were outselling physical books a few years ago, that trend has reversed; sales of paperback and hardback books have risen while the sales of ebooks have declined. The number of independent bookstores is growing and their sales are on the rise. Vinyl records have made a roaring comeback over the past decade.

What gives?

Why after obtaining infinite access to any and all culture via the cloud, are many people coming back to earth and picking up culture they can heft?

Here are a few ideas:

Culture You Can Heft Is Just More Enjoyable to Consume

Humans are physical creatures who for thousands of years lived every moment of their lives in interaction with a physical world. We like to touch, taste, hear, and smell our reality. There is something in the abstract, tasteless, textureless contours of digitized culture that fails to satisfy. Its weightlessness can feel disorienting, almost faintly nauseating.

Real books, records, magazines, newspapers — give you something to hold onto, to handle, to take in. A sensory experience. Our noses like to smell the patina of an old book, or the fresh print of a new one. Our fingers like the tactile feel of turning pages. Our eyes like to run over an album jacket as we decide what music to listen to. Our physical selves crave physical encounters, just as much with our fellow humans, as with the material world around us.

Culture You Can Heft Exhibits What Makes You, You

One of my favorite things to do when I go visit someone’s home is to look at the books on their shelves. With a quick browse of the spines lined up on each row, I can get an idea of what interests that person. It can also spark conversations. “Oh, Lonesome Dove! I love that book. What did you think of it?”

But when all of your books are on your phone, you can’t do that. Nobody wants to swipe through your Kindle library.

I’ve also found that reading physical books in public is a great way to start a conversation. The other night I was reading The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle while Gus took a jiu-jitsu class. A woman sitting next to me saw the cover and asked, “Are you reading Aristotle for fun or for school?”

“For fun,” I said.

And thus began a pleasant 10-minute conversation with a stranger about reading philosophy and other great works of literature even if you’re no longer pursuing a formal education.

If I were reading Aristotle on my smartphone, that conversation never would have happened.

What goes for books, goes for music.

I’ve got a crate in my living room filled with my vinyl collection. Without fail, when guests come over our house, they’re magically drawn to that crate and to flipping through the albums. In so doing, they get an idea of my music tastes. When they come across my dad’s old copy of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’ Whipped Cream and Other Delights, it elicits a chuckle of joy, as they explain that their dad had the same album. Stories are told. Bonds are strengthened.

When all your music is in the digital cloud, that kind of interaction doesn’t happen. No one wants to scroll through your Spotify playlist.

Culture you can heft allows you to show others (and yourself) what makes you, you. When we show others what makes us human, we better connect as humans.

Culture You Can Heft Increases the Amount of Serendipity in Your Life

One of the pleasant surprises that I’ve uncovered since consuming more tangible culture is that I find myself experiencing greater surprise and serendipity in my life.

Culture of the cloud is, in theory, supposed to expose you to new books, music, and movies that you’d enjoy thanks to complex algorithms that make suggestions based on the books, music, and movies you’ve consumed before.

And I have indeed discovered new things to entertain myself thanks to these algorithms.

But these algorithmic suggestions never brought me any real delight for two reasons: First, they exclude things that aren’t at all related to what I’ve previously consumed — things I don’t know I’m interested in, because I don’t yet know they exist! Second, I know the discoveries I make through the algorithms aren’t true discoveries in the proper sense; a discovery doesn’t feel like a discovery if it’s dropped in your lap. Programmatic serendipity isn’t serendipity at all.

When you go to a bookstore, a library, or a record store, however, you revive the opportunity of truly stumbling upon a gem, because there’s no algorithm shoving book or album suggestions in your face. You have to do the seeking yourself, and are free to browse without expectations and predetermined limits.

One of my and Kate’s favorite tactics to get fresh ideas for podcast guests or articles is to simply visit a physical bookstore to peruse the shelves. Without fail we discover some book we never would have come across if we solely relied on coded algorithms. It always feels good to make those happenstance finds.

I experience the same thing whenever I visit the record store in downtown Tulsa. I never know what I’ll find there. Sometimes I strike gold and walk away with a used Les Baxter album and other times I walk away empty-handed. The uncertainty is part of the fun. Once I bring an album home, the serendipity continues; if I just purchased a digital single I already knew I liked, that would be the end of it, but by listening to an entire album, I can discover songs I didn’t know existed, but end up loving.

Ditto for perusing a physical newspaper or magazine — if I’m scanning a website, I’ll just click on headlines that seem compelling, and that the site is promoting on their homepage because they’re the most popular. But when I flip through a paper periodical, I stumble on articles I wouldn’t have known to look for, and get drawn into pieces I otherwise wouldn’t have thought would interest me.

You Actually Own Culture You Can Heft

Here’s a little secret the wizards of Silicon Valley, the middlemen of cloud culture, won’t tell you: When you “buy” an ebook from Amazon or an album on iTunes, you aren’t really buying it. You’re just renting it.

They still own the ebook or the digital album; you’re just paying for the right to read or listen to it.

If they wanted, Amazon could delete all of your Kindle ebooks and Apple could delete your iTunes library, and there’s not much you can do about it because according to their Terms of Service you don’t actually own the books or music you’ve bought. The companies do.

When you buy physical stuff, it’s yours. In perpetuity. You don’t have to worry about a corporation one day hoovering your books and music out of the ethereal cloud, because your culture is sitting safely in your home.

The other benefit of untethering your culture from corporate tentacles is that you negate their ability to spy on what you’re consuming (well, at least if you buy it in cash!). Amazon tracks what volumes are on your Kindle, what you’ve highlighted, and how far you’ve made it in each book. Apple and Spotify do the same thing with your music selection. While they’ll argue that this snooping is benign and allows their algorithm to better serve you, the Ron Swanson-esque individualist in me doesn’t like the idea that some multinational corporation is privy to what I’m reading and listening to. It feels Orwellian.

When I crack open a physical book or slide a record out of an album jacket, no one except for me and the people in my physical vicinity know what I’m up to. And that feels freeing and a bit subversive.

Culture You Can Heft Channels Your Focus Into One Activity

Perhaps the biggest issue with digital content, is that no matter what you’re reading or listening to, another option for your entertainment resides but a finger swipe away. You’re reading a book on your Kindle, and get the itch to check Instagram; you’re listening to one song on Spotify, and if it’s just a hair off from perfectly fitting your mood, you shuffle to the next, and then the next.

When you’re reading a physical book, there’s nothing else within its pages competing for your attention. When you’re listening to an album on vinyl, it’s a hassle to skip a song, so you take it in as a whole. When you grapple with culture you can heft, you consume that culture in a less fragmented way.

Culture Can You Can Heft Will Always Be Accessible, A Decade, or a Century, From Now

Now this isn’t so true of music, which from the record to the cassette to the CD to the mp3, has gone through many iterations, each of which required a different device in order to be played.

But with hardbound books and other paper periodicals, you know that their format will be as accessible today as it will be a hundred years down the road. I’ve got centuries-old books and magazines sitting on my shelf right now, and I can read them just as well as their original owner could, and my children will be able to read them just as well I can.

But if all my books are on my phone, and that technology becomes obsolete, will my children be able to access them in the decades to come? Will the ebooks I bought in the 2010s one day require a special, outdated device to view them? If so, my children, and their children, will be deprived of the kind of serendipity that comes from browsing your parents’, and grandparents’, bookshelves.

Culture You Can Heft Has Defined Perimeters — An Actual End Point

I think the favorite phrase I heard this year came from John Zeratsky, co-author of Make Time: “infinity pools.” In my podcast with John, he described the digital kind of infinity pool this way:

“An infinity pool is any app, or service, or product that has an infinite and replenishing source of content inside of it. If you can pull to refresh, or if it streams nonstop, like the Netflix example of starting the next episode right after the previous one ends, that’s an infinity pool. We came up with that term because there’s always more water in the pool, you know? You can always jump back in. The level is never going to go down. It’s never going to go away. It’s never going to be empty.”

Websites where you can keep scrolling down almost indefinitely and pull-to-refresh apps like Twitter and Instagram, are infinity pools. As John says, you can never reach the “bottom” of them. You can never say, “I’m finished with this.”

That can keep you sucked into a vacuum of meaningless content; you’re not getting anything out of it, but you feel compelled to keep on scrolling.

With something like a book or magazine, you eventually reach the actual, concretely delineated end of it; you’ve read it in its entirety. You can move on to the next thing. You don’t keep turning the same wheel, and you get the satisfying sense of finality that comes with true completion.

Digital Culture and Culture You Can Heft Working Together

While I’ve increased my consumption of heft-able culture, I haven’t completely abandoned the digital variety. I’m just more deliberate about when I use one or the other, and about intentionally keeping a healthy dose of the former in my life.

I’ll stream music to my Sonos speaker in my garage gym. But if it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, I’ll have Gus pick out an album for us to listen to together on my turntable while we play chess.

I still use a Kindle when I’m reading books for article research because it allows me to copy and paste my highlights into a single doc for when I’m ready to write. But if the book ends up meaning a lot to me, I’ll buy a hardcopy version for my physical library. With books I read for the podcast (where I make highlights and notes but don’t need them transcribed), or that I read for pleasure, I always prefer to read a hardbound copy.

The Art of Manliness is largely a digital site, naturally, and we even utilize infinite scroll. But we also offer hardbound versions of some of our content, and we’d like to create more in the future for those who itch to take more of their reading completely offline.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Find a mixture that works for you, remembering that culture is not merely to be consumed, but experientially touched, handled, hefted.

Interested in this topic? Listen to my podcast with David Sax about what he calls “The Revenge of Analog”: 

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