Sunday, March 20, 2011

Is Kindle an Agent of the Devil?

Thoughts on e-Readers and the Decline of the Book

Although I own more books than just about anybody I know and although the tactile pleasure of a well-printed, well-designed book still thrills me, I also am an advocate for Kindles and other e-book devices. Is this wrong? Am I agreeing to set fire to very church that I want to worship in?

My reactions are complicated by the fact that textbooks soon will be predominantly online (or will they? see below) and in using a e-book, one gives up a lot, including just the pleasure of the paper pages and the ease of making notes and sharing xeroxes of favorite passages.

Former AVC Writing Tutor Abbey Fitting was considering buying an e-reader as the platform for all of her required textbooks next term at CSU Bakersfield. As a lit major, many of her assigned books are available as e-book downloads. She wondered, should she make the switch? After all, the very prestigious WW Norton company has just released their latest writers’ handbook in a mobile phone edition, and supposedly Kindle versions of books now outsell regular editions.

Did she want to spend the money and switch over? The rest of this blog is guest written by Abbey Fitting, as she shares her reasons for the decision she made.

To Kindle or Not (by Abbey Fitting)

For the book lover there is nothing more pure, more essential to life, than a good book. That arrangement of language, whether in poetry or novel or essay form, moves us to tears and to laughter. At times it can frustrate us with complexity while at other times it soothes our hot and angry souls. For some of us it is an escape into another place; for others an inspiration to be more than we are.

Books are a source both of love and of constant anxiety. I always fear that I will end up somewhere without something to read. I am never far from a book and I have them even in my car (just in case, you know). I pack obscene amounts of them on airplanes for fear I’ll finish one or more before we land.

On a recent cross-country road trip I practically installed an entire bookshelf in the back seat, clearly worried that I’d end up in some mysterious part of the country where they didn’t have books and I would finish mine and be left empty-handed.

If were to say to another book lover, “Here, I’ve found a way that you can take your entire library with you, always and forever, it’ll never be more than a few inches out of your reach,” I might have expected them to hug me and award me the bookish version of the Medal of Honor. Yet if I say the above and then hand them an e-reader (a Kindle or Nook or iPad), they will probably cast it to the ground and shun me from the clan of readers. Heretic, they will say. Apostate. Be gone!

But WHY? I imagine myself shouting to them. It’s all there! After all, for books, it seems that if everything I have listed above still exists if it is translated into a digital format. The power of the story to sweep us away, the joy of an excellently written poem—it’s all STILL THERE. And consider the possibilities! No more traveling with just five or six paperback books, you could instead travel with one slim Kindle and have inside, magically, 10,000 paperback books! And (almost) anywhere in the world you could order a new book in your native language.

Never. Ever. Be without something good to read ever again.

It sounds like a small version of paradise. Why shouldn’t we embrace the digital book as our savior?

The answer, of course, is not simple. But I think I’ve got it figured out.

It is because our books, or I should say, the printed artifact that we call a book, are so much more than the words they contain. If mothers save clippings of their children’s hair at certain ages, and some sailors collect vials of sand from the beaches they’ve visited, then most serious readers collect books. Our books are artifacts of our lives. They are souvenirs of our changing personalities and tastes. From the copy of Harry Potter that you bought hot-off-the-presses in 1997 to your copy of Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human that you bought in 2007 for a class, these books are the history of ourselves. And not just a visible, tangible way to see the person-you-were vs. the-person-you-are, but also of the places—the physical geography—where you experienced those books.

In December of last term I spent a few weeks in Botswana doing the safari thing with my husband and a pair of friends. For that trip I took with me Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I’d read it before, but since I’m starting a writing project centered at a place featured briefly (though prominently) in the novel, I was re-reading it for the sake of research and, also, because I just liked the story. Into the daypack it went.

What does the book look like now, after that? Between four twelve-hour flights from here to London to South Africa and back, in between six bush plane flights and five field camps, it took on quite the patina. A thick section of pages came loose after a thunderstorm made the air so humid you could have gone swimming in it. The cover has been bent in a number of places, the spine is so broken at this point that it can lay flat (not easy on a paperback this size), there’s a shoe-print on one of the pages, there’s a dead ant embedded in another, and a number of dead are gnats preserved too. It has a faintly mildewy scent about it (though by now, three months back in the arid desert climate, it is definitely dried out, creating that wavy, pleated look).

In some ways this beat-up novel has taken on a different story, one not written by the author but written by me: Abbey’s travels in Africa. I read this book and heard hippos fighting over territories. I read this book waiting for a bush plane to come pick me up. I read this book and looked up to discover a group of giraffes (young included) moving into the camp, browsing the leaves high over my head. I read this book and looked up to discover a group of vervet monkeys were sneaking closer to attempt to steal my snack. It can do this because it is just one book. This is the book that I chose to take with me; this is the book I read while traveling in Africa.

This is what an e-reader will never be to us. This is what we mourn when we give in and buy one; this is what we shun when we hold fast against the pressure to do so. A Kindle holds 10,000 books, it’s true. It could, potentially, hold all the books currently stacked around my office. But because of that, it will never take on the patina of being “The book I read when….”

It will get scratches, it’s true, but you won’t remember the how or why or where, because it will go so many mundane places with you. And when it breaks, you won’t fight with yourself about replacing the way I do when I consider buying a new copy of a book that I’ve just worn the spine out on completely, because it’s like buying a new cell phone or a laptop: You expect to need to replace it. You expect the battery to wear out. You expect technology to leap ahead and leave it behind.

This doesn’t happen with our physical books. We buy new books, sure, but we love them or we pass them on. We don’t consider our books outdated; we don’t need to upgrade them. If anything, we love them more as they get older. We love how the ideas that had been so commonplace suddenly become stranger and stranger. We love that odd smell they take on, or that weird yellow color.

I suppose ultimately what I’m trying to explain is not why you should avoid an e-reader— please, buy one. I wish Amazon no ill will, and I have spent many days at Barnes & Noble, looking at a Nook. But rather, what I am trying to explain is why it is so hard for us to give up our real books. Why we fight so hard to keep them, and why, in our hearts, no matter how good the story is on the e-reader, we will always know that it is not really a book.

The book is dead. Long live the book.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks!

    Here is a related article:

    Can Libraries Survive in a Digital World?
    by Alex Hudson