Ram Dass. (1971). Be here now. New Mexico: Hanuman Foundation.
I find this question tricky to answer… I am a self-professed lover of printed books (the whole look, feel, smell – sensory interaction thing). I find it nearly impossible to read texts through a screen (whether computer or e-reader). This bias is hard to avoid when it comes to evaluating the relationship between a text’s form and its meaning. I have a large home library – for me, printed, physical, very ‘present’, non-virtual books, they carry weight. They take up space, they have an emotional significance, and they are invested with meaning and memory. Almost no book more so than my copy of Ram Dass’ Be Here Now. Heavily used, well-loved, traveled, annotated, dog-eared, and bookmarked – it stands as a testament to my own personal and spiritual development over many years. When I see its iconic blue cover, I can remember glancing at it for the first time in Seekers Books on Bloor. The shredded bits of paper ephemera mark pages that have had particular resonance for me, some of which I have photocopied and pasted onto walls of houses past.
The middle section of the book, the thickest and most substantial, is recognizable by its illustrations printed on brown craft paper. The pages themselves are tactile – they have texture, roughness, weight. They flip and unfold. The pages of my copy have warped with moisture over time, giving them additional dimension. To read this section, the book must be turned vertically, and read like a scroll – with text and image blending seamlessly across both pages. Reading this book is an immersive experience.
Amazon tells me that you can purchase Be Here Now in e-book form, as an ‘enhanced edition’, including guided video meditations, a video retrospective of Ram Dass’ journey, as well as a copy of the first chapter of his latest book, Be Love Now.
I guess the issue here is this – I can’t imagine the physical form of this book being easily replicated in digital form, considering what would be ‘lost’. Perhaps this comes back to the issue, as Johanna Drucker puts it, to do with e-book design itself: “rather than thinking about simulating the way a book looks, then, designers might do well to consider extending the way a book works” (2009, 166). So, how would Be Here Now work digitally? Or, to put it differently, since it clearly already exists in digital form – how would it work for me? My web browsing has led me to a website where someone has scanned and uploaded each individual page of the book, and so, rather than flip through successive pairs of pages, the reader can simply scroll continuously (see: http://beherenow.dc7.us/corebook00.htm#THE HEART CAVE) – how does this affect/effect a different meaning?
I was fascinated to read Matthew Kirschenbaum and Sarah Werner describe the symbiotic potential between digital and physical forms of book production: “digital media cohabitate with the codex, not just in close physical proximity…but occupying conceptually coterminous textual and narrative space” (2014, 443). They note, too, that computers are “responsible for key aspects of what we might think of as a widespread renaissance in the appreciation of the book as material object” (2014, 445-446).
Similarly, Drucker suggests that “by looking to scholarly work for specific understanding of attitudes toward the book as literal space and virtual espace, and to artists and poets for evidence of the way the spaces of a book work, we realize that the traditional codex is also, in an important and suggestive way, already virtual” (2009, 174). Claims such as this help disrupt and broaden my understanding of the terms ‘physical’, ‘literal’, ‘virtual’, or ‘digital’, and what constitutes a ‘book’ or ‘bookishness’.
While I can’t imagine my experience with this text as distinct from the physical form that holds and delivers it, I can begin to think in new ways about how exactly Be Here Now communicates meaning, and how – while my own experience of it is deeply personal – through reading it in different systems and platforms, new readers might encounter a completely different effected/affected meaning – and I concede, that’s kinda neat.