It still makes me nervous to buy a physical copy of a Harlequin romance novel, or to be seen in public with it, though I force myself to do these things occasionally as a sort of private political statement. A lot of my erotica is electronic, partly because a lot of it is published in e-book only form, but also because it's a lot easier to buy Women Who Love Wearing Leashes Volume Three (*) when only me, my credit card company, Google and whichever technology companies are currently tracking me are likely to know about it.
But Nicholson is reminding me of how cool a physical object can be -- not just because it's nice to have something you can manhandle a little, but also because it can be sexy to think about who else has manhandled that very item.
See, for example, his discussion of My Secret Life (**):
published between 1888 and 1894, the great Victorian eleven-volume, two-and-a-half-thousand page, infinitely obsessive and detailed account of one man's genuinely extraordinary sex life.
Patrick J. Kearney ... says that My Secret Life "is probably the most collectible and desirable of erotic texts, but certainly not the rarest." It was first published in Amsterdam, though the book itself claims to have been published in Belgium. ... Previous owners of examples from that first edition are said to have included the Satanist Aleister Crowley, silent comedian Harold Lloyd, movie director Josef von Sternberg, and George Mountbatten, the second Marquess of Milford Haven. It's perfectly possible that some of these people, especially the Hollywood crowd, owned the same copy at different times. Today I believe there are copies in the British Library, in the Kinsey Institute, in the private hands of Karl-Ludwig Leonhardt, and in the library of the late Gerard Nordmann.
While it can be kind of disgusting to think of who might have pleasured him or herself with whatever sex book or object you're holding, in this case I find the trail of ownership pretty sexy, mysterious, glamorous, and so on. The forbidden nature of the object makes knowing about it or owning it feel like being part of an exciting secret society.
I don't think this is just about anonymously written Victorian literature. I once moved into an apartment that came with a stack of sexy romance novels left by the previous tenant -- the kind that, at the time, I'd never have had the courage to go buy at the store, but was very interested in reading. The mystery of the discovery, and the physicality of the experience, added to the appeal of the books. I've often wondered about that previous owner, who in my head was a knowing teenager with some idea of how much those books would be appreciated by a fellow.
I love e-books, not least for their convenience and the publishing possibilities they've opened for many writers today. However, passages like the one I quoted make me remember why the smell of paper can be so exciting.
(*) Not an actual book, as far as I know. Though go ahead and write or publish it if you want, because I probably would buy it.
(**) For those with a healthy sense of irony, My Secret Life is available for the Kindle, here. I also found a few copies of the paperback Grove Press edition of the book.