To Kindle or not to Kindle – A defense of books (the kind made of trees)

 

“It seems like reading is going in different directions than I ever thought it would. If you ever see me with a Kindle, shoot me in the back of the head.” – Pat Conroy

“I cannot live without books.” – Thomas Jefferson

Revolution is on the march, friends, and a New World Order is taking shape. No, I’m not referring to Egypt or Libya (or even Wisconsin). I’m referring to the much quieter yet no less insidious revolution sweeping across the land in the form of a 5” x 8” plastic device known as the Kindle – or the Nook, depending on one’s preference. They are electronic tablets on which one downloads and reads books. Upon first hearing of these devices several years ago, I remember feeling a confidence – Mubarakian in depth and scope – that no one would take an electronic “book” seriously (because it’s not a book!) and that within a few years it would go the route of the pet rock or the “man bag” or other such short-lived, ill-conceived follies. By Christmas 2010 however, Melissa was mentioning it as a possible Christmas gift item – for me! – which without fail caused me to launch – Gaddafi-like – into rambling, often incoherent diatribes about the virtues of books and the inherent failings of their electronic rivals. Though feeling a little badly about reacting that way to my wife’s innocent and well-intentioned suggestions, I felt a great satisfaction when, on Christmas Day, I opened one of her generous gifts – the third and final volume of Edmund Morris’ Theodore Roosevelt bio-trilogy, “Colonel Roosevelt” – an over-achieving door stop of a book, weighing in at nearly three pounds and 784 pages. I could feel the enemy approaching the gate, however, when Melissa’s sister, Lyn, showed us her newly-purchased Kindle over the holidays. While I took the opportunity to voice tired arguments to a new audience (You can’t dog-ear the pages… It doesn’t smell like a book… I like to underline certain passages… I’ve developed an inexplicable affinity for paper cuts, etc), Lyn went to great pains to extol the virtues of her new device while Melissa listened attentively, hanging on every word and exclaiming every few minutes, with an infectious enthusiasm that only she can produce, “that sounds AWESOME!” I remained dubious.

Let me pause here to make a few concessions. The Kindle is a pretty nifty device. Turns out you actually can dog-ear pages and underline passages (and though this feature is entirely unsatisfying from a tactile sense it is undeniably an impressive option). You can download practically any book ever written within 60 seconds (no more waiting for days or possibly weeks while Amazon or Barnes & Noble delivers your hard-to-find selection). The books are cheaper (usually half the price of paper books – often less), and with the wi-fi enabled version, you can download books practically anywhere you go. It holds up to 3,500 books (quite an impressive library) and – by far my favorite feature – there is a dictionary look-up option which allows you to highlight an unfamiliar word and instantly obtain a definition – admittedly a better option than lugging around a copy of Mirriam-Webster’s Dictionary. Beyond that, you can download magazines, newspapers, cross-word puzzles, games and at some point, probably movies as well. You can even download free previews of books if you’re on the fence about buying one.

Impressive, right? But here’s the thing… it’s still a 5” x 8” piece of plastic. And while there is something very cool, at least on the surface, about being able to download 3,500 books in an instant and never having to use a heavy dictionary, there is also something vaguely and disconcertingly robotic and surgically antiseptic about the whole affair. Books are pleasingly, comfortingly organic and, like us, will one day return to the Earth while even the most beloved Kindle will sit long abandoned in the local land fill thousands of years from now. The tactile pleasure of turning pages, of feeling the paper between your fingers and, yes, even seeing the smudged ink of newspapers and magazines on those same fingers cannot be replaced by even the most ingeniously-designed device. You can pick up a book read at the beach years ago and while thumbing through it’s pages, smell the faint aroma of sun tan lotion and ocean air. Sun tan lotion and ocean air would likely void the warranty of a Kindle. Old books, by their underlined passages and dog-eared pages tell us what was important to the reader years ago – they are histories of who we were and how we became the people we are. They are testaments to our time here on Earth. They are the histories of “us”.

Like most revolutions, this one includes intrigue and betrayal. After a visit to Austin a couple of weekends ago to celebrate Lyn’s birthday, we were again given the hard sell as Lyn professed her utter satisfaction with and loyalty to the Kindle. On the drive to an out of town restaurant one night, Lyn downloaded a trivia game and we all played it while passing time on the ride. This was the final straw for Melissa and within 48 hours of arriving back home she had ordered her very own Kindle. It arrived late last week. On the drive between Augusta and Raleigh on Sunday after visiting Dad & Joan over the weekend, she downloaded a compilation of New York Times crossword puzzles. Evidently the puzzles are increasingly more complex as the week progresses, starting with a relatively easy puzzle on Monday and escalating to the much celebrated and infamously difficult Sunday puzzle. After a long weekend, we were in a Monday puzzle kind of mood and we enjoyed ourselves as we teamed up to finish it while making our way through the mind-numbing wasteland that is I-95 in southeastern North Carolina. Without warning and to my mild annoyance, I found myself enjoying the Kindle. And lately I’ve found myself thinking that maybe, just maybe a Kindle would be good, if just for reading newspapers. I have a feeling though, that newspapers are a gateway drug – the marijuana of Kindle publications – and before long, I’d end up twitchy and electronically strung out on Hemmingway or the latest Bill Bryson effort. For now, I’m just saying no.

Revolutions rarely end pleasantly, and it remains to be seen how this one will conclude. All I keep wondering is, despite my reluctant warming to the device, had Thomas Jefferson lived to see this day would he have ever uttered the words “I cannot live without Kindle”?

I remain dubious…

7 thoughts on “To Kindle or not to Kindle – A defense of books (the kind made of trees)

  1. I must confess to purchasing a Kindle for my doubting spouse over the holidays. After his obvious lack of excitement and his reseach; which deliniated a plethora of reasons why it did not suit him, we took it back to BN. (Some battles are just not worth fighting…besides, a gift is not generally intended to annoy the recipient.) After discussing the merits and potential utilization beyond the obvious e-reader capability, we returned home with said device. I cannot recall the last time I saw him turn paper pages….I guess I share this to suggest never judging a book by the cover, even if it is plastic.

  2. My dear husband,

    Let’s check back with you in a year to see how you like the Kindle. Maybe a follow-up blog?

    xoxo,

    M

  3. Excellent post, Alan. I’m on your side. I spend most days staring at a computer screen and probably too much time otherwise with my nose in my phone. Curling up with a paper book is freedom from all things digital. Speaking of, have you read Franzen’s masterpiece? Best I’ve read since The Fountainhead.

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