* This essay was originally written on September 12, 2011.
As a gift for making it all the way through high school, my dad bought me a Sony rack stereo system. Up to that point I had enjoyed my favorite 80s music on a smaller unit, which was essentially a glorified jam box, although occasionally, when my parents were out of town, I sneaked a listen on my dad’s audiophile-quality setup.
This was just before the CD became popular, and the players were prohibitively expensive, so my stereo didn’t have one. But it did have a decent turntable, and from that point forward I purchased music only on vinyl because the sound quality of prerecorded tapes was vastly inferior.
However, using expensive Type IV metal cassettes and Dolby Noise Reduction, I could record my own mix tapes and arrange songs in whatever order I liked, and the sound quality was indistinguishable to the ear. At least to my ear.
To make these tapes sound as pristine as possible, I cleaned my records with a special brush and then shot them with a gun that emitted a stream of ions. These ions neutralized the static electricity generated by the friction of brush on vinyl. Yes, I know it sounds like science fiction but it really did work. My mix tapes were amazing.
As great as vinyl sounded, however, it was not a convenient format to use. I couldn’t play records in my car, and if I wanted to skip a song I was forced to get up and physically move the tonearm. And I couldn’t ever line it up exactly on the song I wanted to hear. And every time you play a record, you damage it ever so slightly. For this reason I didn’t actually listen to the records themselves very often. I considered them source material that I could use to make my own “perfect” mixes.
The engineers who developed the compact disc format were familiar with the limitations of vinyl and sought to eliminate them. Instead of scraping a diamond stylus against your cherished copy of Abbey Road, you could instead bounce light off it. Instead of having to move a tonearm, you could just hit a button, and the next song would cue perfectly every single time. You could play a CD in your car. It sounded exactly the same on the first play or the 1000th play. The dynamic range of a digital recording was vastly superior to any previous format and the noise and distortion were almost zero.
I’ve always wanted to believe the reason CDs overtook vinyl as the primary music delivery format was because of the superior sound quality. Objectively, when you look at the numbers, there should be no comparison between the sound quality of vinyl and lossless digital formats. In side-by-side listening tests, except on the very best turntables in the world, CDs sound cleaner, brighter, and more spacious. That’s what they were designed to do.
But the enjoyment of music, like life itself, is not an objective experience. It’s a highly subjective experience. The sales of CDs overtook vinyl not because of the supposedly superior sound quality, but because of their convenience. This is the same reason digital files have become the primary way to listen to music today. You can listen to your entire collection of music anywhere at any time. What’s not to like about that?
But the scrappy vinyl format never really died. Instead, it fell into the hands of hobbyists who claimed the sound of digital music was harsh and lacked the human, organic experience vinyl delivered. Over the years I’ve read countless articles in audiophile magazines about the debate between analog and digital, and I’ve always sided with the digital guys. The very thing the analog enthusiasts enjoy the most, the “warm” sound of vinyl, is in fact distortion created by the friction of stylus against vinyl. Sure, it’s a type of distortion many people find pleasant, but how could one make the argument that records sounded “better” than CDs when the digital format essentially eliminated distortion?
It’s not surprising that for most of my life I’ve been a digital guy. Almost every modern convenience we take for granted involves the use of computers. Digital technology makes nearly everything easier, more productive, and in many ways more enjoyable. It’s romantic to long for simpler times, before technology, but the reality is life before technology was difficult and grueling and left little time to enjoy much of anything. We modern day, developed-world folks are pampered like no other humans in history.
My own life, in many ways, has paralleled the evolution of the world from analog to digital. When I was younger, I was riddled with self doubt and in the mirror saw only flaws. I was such an introvert that I didn’t kiss a girl for the first time until I was nineteen. I was mortified of women, of social encounters, of almost everything that had to do with other people. But rather than be stuck with these flaws, I instead sought to eliminate them. Over a period of years I taught myself to be comfortable around large groups and with women. I changed my appearance by dressing differently and styling my hair differently and even having major surgery as part of a orthodontic procedure that altered my smile and face forever.
Not many people in my life are familiar with the old me, the analog me, because I don’t care to think about him much. I like the new guy a lot better, this digital guy I Photoshopped into existence. And lots of other folks seem to like him, too, so why even acknowledge the analog me? I put him in the attic years ago and he’s been collecting dust there ever since.
But a funny thing happened on the way to this supposed road to digital perfection. When I had everything I wanted, or thought I wanted, I noticed I wasn’t happier than before. I was publishing novels and living in a beautiful house and playing golf every weekend, but instead of feeling fulfilled I was bored. I realized I’d always seen life as a destination, or like a video game that with good enough play could eventually be won.
Even though there’s a love story in every novel I’ve written, in the early ones the relationships were mainly window dressing for the high concept plot. This is no surprise since, in my actual life, I’d always been more fascinated with the miracle of the cosmos and scientific exploration than with my fellow man. How could my feelings or anyone’s feelings compare to the grandeur of the universe and its very existence?
During the process of writing Thomas World, however, I discovered that knowing the answers to everything, knowing the truth, doesn’t change the essential nature of life. If someone told me today the whole world was an elaborate video game, or a joke, or whatever, I would still have to get up in the morning and eat and go to work and spend time with friends and loved ones. Having a peek behind the curtain wouldn’t change what was going on in front of it every single day.
With time I realized that I’d spent a lifetime striving for a destination that, in the end, was as pointless as it was impossible to achieve. I began to understand that instead of looking to some faraway place for fulfillment and happiness, I could look at the things right in front of me. Which seems obvious and trite, but sometimes life is obvious and trite.
Unfortunately, it was right around this time that the things closest to me took a turn for the worse. I was laid off from a company where I had worked for seventeen years, and my agent kept asking for changes to Thomas World, telling me the characters didn’t seem real or human or likeable. I began to wonder if I would ever sell another novel, that maybe the first contract was a fluke. Even when my agent finally did accept the manuscript, interest from publishers was minimal, and my savings continued to dwindle.
You think I would have taken advantage of all the free time to write another novel. After all, I already had a new idea. All I had to do was sit down and write it. Without a job tying up nine hours of my day, I could have written something in a few months if I worked hard. But instead, I frittered away the free time and sank into a very dark place. Honestly, I can barely remember what I did with the time. I was off work for thirteen months, and aside from putting the finishing touches on Thomas World and writing a screenplay adaptation (in three days), I accomplished basically nothing. When I was down to the very last of my savings, as I pondered complete financial collapse, the mood in my head grew darker still.
It was about this time that I met a girl. I added her on Facebook but made no real attempt to court her, because I was in no mood for it. But little by little we began to communicate, and the more I learned about her, the more I liked. She was (is) extremely intelligent, hilarious, has great taste in music and films, but most importantly she doesn’t take herself too seriously. She doesn’t take anyone too seriously, because she’s had a lot of drama in her life and now just wants to relax and enjoy each day.
She’s a very analog girl.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have met her. She looks at the world in the exact way I wish I did. She sees beauty in the spaces that most of us miss. Whenever I spend time with her, I learn something new about the world, about her, about myself.
Around the time I met her, almost to the day, I was contacted by a placement firm about a good job opportunity. Also around the same time is when I signed the contract to have my third novel published. In mere days, my fortunes reversed in almost every measurable way. This near-miraculous good fortune should have instantly cured my dark moods.
But old habits die hard. I couldn’t quite let go of the digital destination I’d always envisioned. For example, when my new book sold, instead of being thrilled, I was disappointed that I wasn’t paid as much as the first two. As the book neared publication, I began to feel an intense amount of pressure on how it would be received, on how it would sell. I tried to convince myself how fortunate I was to have sold a book at all, considering the economic climate and the state of the publishing world, but I continued to focus on what I hadn’t achieved, instead of enjoying what I had.
Eventually, all this confusion surfaced as a series of irrational arguments I started with my new friend. For those who know me well, this sort of behavior stands in direct contrast to my normal personality. Even as I was creating this artificial turmoil, and especially afterward, I could not answer why I had behaved so strangely. Especially not when everything in my life was now moving forward.
In the digital world, information is encoded in such a way that makes alterations easy to perform. You can retouch a photograph or add special effects to a film or create funny golf videos from original footage that isn’t funny at all. In the digital realm, with enough patience, you can exert complete and precise control over every facet of existence, you can send it wherever you like, play it in your car, play it on the other side of the world with almost no effort.
Things are different in the analog world. Complete control is not achievable. In the analog world, emails become handwritten letters, Facebook avatars become the real faces of your friends, and CDs become record albums.
Last week, after spending time with my new friend, listening to her record collection, I asked my dad to dig out his Bang & Olufsen turntable, circa 1983, from the attic. I found a stylus cartridge on eBay, and retrieved my record collection from my own attic. I hadn’t taken care to store the LPs very well and some of them were too warped to play properly. But most of them were salvageable, and I spent the better part of my weekend listening to those old albums. More than once I had to correct myself when I picked up the remote, intending to skip to the next song. And since I no longer own the cleaning brush or anti-static gun, the listening experience was not a fidelity level to which I am accustomed.
But it was beautiful all the same.
Do I think records sound better than digital music? I don’t think it’s a question that needs to be asked. They simply sound different. Records sound warm and pleasant, and listening to these particular records had an unintended effect as well: I was flooded with images and sounds and smells from that directionless summer after I graduated high school, the countless hours I spent erasing any trace of static from my recordings, when I spent far more time with my stereo than I did with other people; I remembered pounding out terrible short stories on my Royal electric typewriter, sending them away to this magical and foreign place known as New York City, where they were immediately rejected by faceless gatekeepers; I remembered staring at my face every morning in the mirror, at the angry, volcanic ranges of acne, not understanding how I was ever going to ask a girl on a date looking like that; I remembered the doctor who fixed my acne problem, and my first kiss, the first time I ever told anyone I loved them; I remembered the palpable discomfort I felt in bars and in giant college classrooms; I remembered sitting down to begin my first novel, a story I wrote in serial format, sending each new chapter to a friend suffering though Army Ranger training…with every crackle and pop and skip in those records I remembered my analog self, and a sort of calm came over me, and the darkness that had built inside me like cancer over many months seemed to bleed away, replaced with a sense of peace I had not experienced in a long time. On the blemished surfaces of those platters of vinyl I saw my own imperfections very clearly, how they will always be part of me, and even if I were to achieve every goal I could possibly dream, there would still be a lifetime of days to enjoy, one at a time, and understanding this means there’s no more pressure of a destination, of forcing things to be just so.
The other day you said, I can’t stand things that are perfect.
In that case, you must really like me.