by Chris Jackson
In yesterday's post about The Book in the Renaissance (or whatever that post was about), commenter Gelfling545 captured the point I struggled to make with one pithy sentence: "Romance is built of many sensory inputs," he wrote, "not just the content of the text you've swapped." Rereading it now, I wonder if there's some kind of pornographic double entendre going on there. Let's assume not. Anyway, the wisdom of Gelfling545 was affirmed by an enjoyably goofy piece in today's Times "Dining" section. I never actually read the "Dining" section (I mostly just eat when dining time comes around) but the photo accompanying the piece was sort of irresistible: a woman in red, lips parted, head thrown back, eyes slitted shut in ecstasy, pressing an enormous 32-oz bottle of dark soda with a red label to her cheek with one hand, while the other lightly held a can with the same red label by the fingertips. What? It was a cheering sight: this was clearly a woman in love with her red-labeled dark soda—not a grimly sipping caffeine-and-high-fructose-corn-syrup addict, no, a lover.
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The story was about how much better things taste when they are hand-delivered by a traveler from a distant land. As it turns out, the woman in the photograph, Anna Sturgeon, is holding precious containers of Cheerwine soda, a beverage she first tasted as a nine-year-old on a family visit to the Carolinas, which is one of the only places that Cheerwine is available. How does Cheerwine taste? "Imagine the sweetest marachino cherry you ever smelled, and multiply it by 100," she says. I hear that and I gag a little, but who cares? Anna Sturgeon loves it—she takes seven-hour road trips from Ohio, where she lives, to get a taste. Cheerwine, by the way, is also available for delivery on the internet. Not for Anna! "'The anticipation, it's the entire experience,' she said. 'It's walking into the convenience mart, seeing the display, grabbing one and cracking it open and it being so cold and refreshing. It cannot be matched by opening up a mailbox.'"
I've suffered from similar obsessions. There's a candy that I'll call the Fruity Berry here, because I still don't know what it's proper name is, that I was convinced was only available in one store in the world, in Canada, in Winnipeg, at that. I first tasted it while vacationing in Mexico with some Canadians who brought some along—in fact, I can still remember the exact moment, on a beach in the Yucatan, mid-morning, azure sky, light breeze blowing. One of the Canadians broke open a ziplock bag of Fruity Berries and insisted I try them; I did and immediately made the Anna Sturgeon face. I was hooked. When I got back to New York I scoured the city for the Fruity Berry and couldn't find it. I wandered the streets, scratching my neck like Tyrone Biggums, looking for a hit, but nada. For years, I only ate Fruity Berries when they were delivered by my Canadians, in those same small ziplock bags, that I'd have to ration out as long as I could. Which was usually about ten minutes. Since I couldn't eat them regularly, I spent my time talking about them, updating friends and strangers on my quest to find a New York outlet for Fruity Berries, explaining how, once found, the Fountain of Fruity Berries would change all of our lives. One birthday, my assistant, in perhaps one of the kindest, most generous acts that anyone has ever done for me ever, somehow found an internet candy retailer that sold Fruity Berries—how she even knew what they looked like, I'll never know. She ordered me an enormous box of them. After laughing and thanking her and skimming some off the top for my co-workers, I went in my office, closed the door and wept with joy. Then I ate about 20 pounds of Fruity Berries.
As you might imagine, having an endless supply of Fruity Berries took some of the romance out of that relationship. I won't get into details, but, here's a tip: never eat 20 pounds of anything made entirely of gelatin and sugar. Luckily my assistant refused to give me the name of the internet company that sold them, so I never had to repeat that ugly episode.
But this brings me back to Gelfling545's point: the romance of the seven-hour drive for Cheerwine or the bi-annual ziplock bag of Fruity Berries or mixtapes or first-date-book-exchanges is simply not duplicatable by new technologies. This is not an insult to new technologies; it's simply the truth. It's just the same way that the full texture and experience of a griot is not matched by reading a book. Does this mean I want to get all of my information by griot? Of course, not! Does this mean I'm scornful of the book? No! It doesn't have to be that kind of binary conversation. Every time I see someone mourn or even comment on some aspect of the physical book that is not yet matched by ebooks, there is a predictable rallying of internet commenters to defend Apple and Amazon's products against sentimental luddites who somehow don't get that the Kindle is "better." On the other hand, there are dedicated print readers who still go on about never reading an ebook because it ruins the experience (Metafilter forums are great places to see this fixed binary argument repeated every time an ebook post goes up). It's bizarre to me. Yes, yes, agreed, ebooks are fresh and new and great in many ways. So are mp3 mixtapes and overnight-delivered Fruity Berries and on-demand Cheerwine. But it's probably important for us to think seriously about what we're losing in the exchange, and what those hard-to-quantify losses to the texture of our lives mean, and how they will affect the complicated matrix that makes us recognizably human, without feeling like it's a for or against conversation about technology. It's really a conversation about humanity.
Also: does the idea of a marichino cherry times 100 actually appeal to anyone? Has Anna Sturgeon single-handedly ruined Cheerwine's business with that comparison?