Dirty memories of print media

BY COLIN GILBERT | JUNE 24, 2009 7:21 AM

OK, so I love reading Playboy. And I mean reading, now, especially the fiction. Don’t get me wrong, the middle sections are nice too, sometimes a lot nicer, but it’s a damn classy publication. I guess I care about the demise of the print-publishing world as a whole — what would mornings be without coffee over the newspaper or insomnia without a torn-to-hell paperback? — but what really has me worried is the prospect that my bathroom literature will also be sacrificed to the digital gods. I believe adult magazines of this caliber have earned object-status, and a full transition to the computer screen would violate their actuality with the airy stuff of pure information. Like digitizing a sculpture. The cybernauts out there are rolling their myopic eyes and clicking their Twitter tongues: “Oh, how sad, another one of them lagging in the Dark Ages.”

But something the geek squad seems to have overlooked is what I like to call “space.” That is, space through which our physical bodies move and the medium by which we can hold and touch and enjoy it for its very tactility. I prefer to interact with sense-stimuli that a computer frankly can’t provide, and Playboy certainly can. Cyberspace has a valid reality to it, but no actuality.

I saw my first Playboy when I was in eighth grade, back when I had even better reason to be afraid of girls (I hadn’t, you see, realized that I was far scarier to them, like a loosed snake who doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about). A Boy Scout summer camp, Camp V-Bar, I think it was in Mississippi, and the few of us who plotted it stayed up past taps and snuck to a more secretive corner of the woods to peer with flashlights at the centerfold. The articles we did not read.

I purchased my first Playboy in New Orleans when, tired of having attended prom stag, I made a screw-it impulse buy from a corner grocery on the way to the car. I threw the brown package in the back seat, drove it home, and tore it open. I’d heard of the quality of its articles, from the well-known excuse to Stephen King’s (useless) memoir On Writing, but I was surprised. I had, like all green writers, a subscription to The New Yorker, but this was the first of this kind of candor and wit I’d known. The girls were nice-looking as well.

I think I bought that magazine for its name. Infamous and mythic, Playboy has always seemed like a physical token of slightly wink-wink adulthood, and I wasn’t that into the kids my age who’d just performed yet another line dance, and there it was on the shelf behind the cashier, my fuck-you to high school (though really, high school already knows it sucks). But I discovered only afterwards its real contents, the sexy and artful photography, which seemed playful and respectful now instead of smutty, and the exquisite writing talent; it was necessary that I break through that aversion to its shrink-wrapped cover pouting at me over the counter.

In cyberspace these events cannot have happened. In the world of pure information these memories have no meaning beyond whatever nostalgia I’ve managed to ripen in you, here. I don’t want newspapers to crumble or books to burn, but in a very special way, I don’t want to see porno vanish into numbers. (Pointing and clicking on their photos feels a little invasive, too). Really? A VIP section? Pop-ups over a playmate spread? No, I want some kid in a world buzzing with technology to still be terrified of making so simple a statement as “I’ll take a bottle of Coke, this Butterfinger, and a Playboy.” How would he ever get the nerve to say in adulthood, “No, the new one”?

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