Why Vinyl?

At Christmastime this past year my parents surprised me with a gift that had been on the nagging edge of my radar for a long time: a record player. That’s right, a brand new turntable for a media format long thought dead by the general public since the CD was introduced over thirty years ago. Not to mention, for today’s youth that grow up with constant access to the entirety of music history at the tap of a screen the notion of having physical objects dedicated to predetermined static content must seem barbaric.

Telling friends and colleges about the gift often elicits one of two responses: a lighthearted jab about my hipster status or a genuinely curious “why?”. While there’s nothing I could say at this point to dispel remarks of the former’s variety (owning a record player certainly isn’t helping my case), I can certainly address the “why”. But to do so I must first explain what happened to make me even consider something so peculiar.

I Used to Write

I was about halfway through my college career and knew just enough computer science principles to be dangerous. I felt for the first time completely in control on my digital life and was eager to digitize every conceivable aspect of the physical world to feed it. Everything from past time pleasures like movies, books, and music to calendars and study materials were digitalized. Even communication with far away loved ones transitioned onto electronic paths; nothing was safe from the runaway digitalization train of progress!

It was a particularly slow day in one of my free elective classes that set the wheels in motion to reverse this sad trend. By sheer whim, recent inspiration from Arcade Fire’s “We Used to Wait”, and just a dash of boredom I decided to do something off the wall, inconsequential, and most important of all distracting so I could ignore class: It was a challenge to recite a poem from memory, word for word, neatly on paper. Up to that point the little writing I did was in print, but I wanted this to be special so I decided to use cursive instead. I made short work of memorizing the poem, but upon my pen tip meeting the paper it dawned on me; I had forgotten how to write cursive.

Sure, I could scribble my signature out just fine but the lower case cursive characters not used in my name as well as the majority of the capital letter cursive characters were lost to me. That can’t be right, surely I know how to do it. Let’s try… no, that’s definitely not it. How about—no, that’s not right either. Instead of completing the quick, idle time-waster meant to soak up five minutes of my Philosophy class I was caught in a class-long struggle to access an ability that was now clearly lost after over eight years of cold neglect.

This proved to be an epiphany for me in retrospect, the moment I awoke to my indifferent slaughter of all tangible, physical good I possessed to further advance my digital desires. My modest library of treasured works from my youth was either given away or abandoned at home, the works now compressed down to sterile, white-room derivatives on my computer where I could no longer experience the smell of old paper, the tactile feel of leafing through pages, or the soothing spin of an audio disk. Gone was my ability to pick up a tool and gracefully etch out my heart onto paper with such character that only cursive could allow. In its place was blazing speed with standardized keyboard input delivering uniform text prioritizing raw efficiency over the human spirit.

I could relearn cursive, but that wouldn’t fix problem at its source. Something at a deeper level had to be done.

Restoring Balance

A cartoon of a vinyl record, iPad, hardbound book, laptop, and pencil joining hands together

As you’d guess, simply throwing away all my digitization progress would grossly overcorrect the problem and leave me in a similarly deficient state. The optimal solution was finding balance again by determining whether a given interaction or object was better served through physical or digital means given the context of the situation.

In my day to day life, I now apply these rules when making my choices:

I’m not the first nor the only person in the technology sector bringing analog back into their lives. Marco Arment (the original developer of Tumblr) has fallen in love with analog watches after initially starting with and abandoning the Apple Watch3. I think this excerpt from his post succinctly captures our thoughts best: “A big part of that joy, for me, is that this isn’t like anything else in my life, and the difference is refreshing”.

So, Why Vinyl Then?

Now that my reasoning for even having physical artifacts at all is established we can finally discuss why I prefer vinyl over CD or streaming services (when given the chance and a forgiving budget):

The Decemberists’s “Picaresque” lyric book, showing the page for the picture and lyrics of “The Mariner's Revenge Song”
Joanna Newsom’s “Divers” alongside all it’s included, supplementary lyric pictures

To reiterate, this doesn’t mean I “hate” digital things. I still love being able to listen to any music I want any time I want and would never want to give that up. That’s not to say though that it’s my preferred or only choice in all scenarios. It’s all part of my overarching effort to restore and maintain balance between my physical and digital life. And, inline with this effort, I regained my cursive ability after a few days of practice and did indeed finish reciting Wordsworth’s “My Heart Leaps Up” from memory. All things are better in moderation, in balance with each other, “bound each to each by natural piety”.

Wordsworth's “My Heart Leaps Up” written in cursive on paper

  1. Want to become a collector of quality mechanical pencils but don’t know where to start? Try The Wirecutter’s “Best Mechanical Pencils” Showdown where they compare and contrast many different kinds of mechanicals to fit everyone’s needs. ↩︎

  2. Want to become a collector a quality pens but don’t know where to start? Try The Pen Addict and The Wirecutter’s “Best Pen” Showdown↩︎

  3. In typical Marco fashion after a previous blog post he wrote in which he declared “dumbwatches” doomed because of the Apple Watch↩︎

  4. For those of you in Philly I highly recommend Long in the Tooth. The management are an incredibly nice couple and were happy to walk me through some basic vinyl care questions I had. While you certainly can order albums online, don’t miss out on an opportunity to support your local businesses. ↩︎