Monday, January 4, 2010

Defending the Kindle

Despite the title of this post, what actually follows is a defense of myself.

See, I've been a lover of reading from way back--since the first grade, when four other advanced readers and I were allowed to take extra trips to the school library each week to check out unlimited books in the fourth to sixth-grade section. Oh, it was like heaven! I would leave the library with arms piled with books--selections from the Nancy Drew series, Judy Blume, Shel Silverstein and others.

In addition to books, I was obsessed with magazines. Mostly Tiger Beat, Teen Beat and Seventeen, but also the Time and Life and Ebony and National Geographic magazines that my parents kept around the house. My parents were both readers and they instilled a love of the written word in me. And I did love reading. I read everywhere--at the dinner table, in the bath, in the car--whenever I had a spare moment.

My taste in material has matured, but I have never lost my love of reading. Reading has helped me learn, it has helped me grow, it has expanded my consciousness, it has sparked my creativity, it has given me escape. I am still never found without reading material in hand...ever. Just as I used to get in trouble for reading at the family dinner table, so my husband grumbles when we settle in front of the TV for a movie and I have one eye on the screen and one on a book or magazine. "You aren't even watching this!"

So, who is this saying I don't love books?

News of e-readers' growing popularity has appalled some reading fans. The e-reader market is expected to grow by 300 percent in 2010. And on Christmas Day, for the first time, Amazon sold more e-books than paper editions. But some purists accuse those of us who have adopted e-reading technology of maybe not loving the written word enough. If they do not say it directly, they imply it by their haughty monologues about how they really love reading--far too much do it using some cold and sterile machine. They love the feel of books...they love the look of books...they love the smell of books (Oh, how they wax on about book smell!)...they love the taste of books...they love to roll their bodies in piles of books...Okay, I exaggerate some, but not much: Writer Alan Kaufman compares manufacturers of e-readers with the Third Reich. (No, seriously...)

"The book is fast becoming the despised Jew of our culture. Der Jude is now Der Book. Hi-tech propogandists tell us that the book is a tree-murdering, space-devouring, inferior form of technology; that society would simply be better-off altogether if we euthanized it even as we begin to carry around, like good little Aryans, whole libraries in our pockets, downloaded on the Uber-Kindle."


Most e-reader foes aren't so ridiculous. But commenters to a Jezebel brief on the e-book trend included many "I love books too much to use an e-reader" types:

Every time I see a Kindle, I want to snap it in half. They terrify me.

I'm an English major with plans to get my MLIS and possibly my MAS. (I want to live in a library, basically.) I lovelovelove books - their smell, how the paper feels, the weight in your hands, everything. There's a wall in my room almost completely lined with my collection. All of this, basically, is to say that I don't think I could ever get behind a Kindle or the like for reading for pleasure. Opening a new book is one of my favourite things in the world, and you can't replicate that electronically.

I don't ever want to convert to a kindle or anything like that. I like book smell.

Okay, I cannot pretend that I don't understand. I do love books--the traditional kind with binding and paper pages. I like to haunt book stores, especially independent ones with tattered, stuffed chairs and creaky floors, and shelves and tables stacked with books--not just best-sellers by popular writers, but hidden literary gems. I like that first crack of the spine before you dig in to a good story. These things do add to the reading experience, but the most important part of books--as one Jezebel Kindler pointed out--is the words. What is important is the story. What is important are the ideas. The rest is packaging--packaging that adds to the experience, for sure, but packaging is not the crux of a thing.

I have read Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" many times in paperback. Sometimes I find it hard to wade through Morrison, but this book is different. It is moving and maddening and sad and I don't know a black woman who cannot understand Pecola Breedlove's pain. This classic book is available in electronic form on Amazon. Will Morrison's story will be less rich, less affecting, if I read it in e-ink? No. In fact, one nifty advantage to owning an e-reader is that there are a host of classic novels (much older than "The Bluest Eye"--pre-1930) available for free or nominal fees. I have Morrison and Lewis Carroll and Junot Diaz and Paramhansa Yogananda and Ayn Rand and Virginia Wolff and James Baldwin on my Kindle. None of their work is rendered less compelling by bits and bytes or whatever the heck makes my reader work. And my less cerebral reading? Consuming a good old vampire fantasy novel is no less fun on an electronic device either.

Following the charge of insufficient book love often comes an accusation of elitism. Yes, right now e-readers are expensive gadgets for book lovers with expendable income. But Kindles and other readers are not just non-essential toys. I have heard people who have failing sight talk about how the Kindle's adjustable fonts and text-to-speech capabilities have allowed them to continue doing something they love--reading. (Amazon is said to be working on making its device useful for people who are completely without sight.) I have heard people whose arms cannot bear the weight of heavy tomes talk about how e-readers have helped them.

As school systems look at adopting e-readers, that may mean cheaper book purchases and book rental for cash-strapped students. There is some discussion that the Kindle's text-to-speech feature is useful to children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.

E-book publishing may open the door to voices who may have difficulty being accepted by major publishing houses. I have read that it is increasingly difficult for new writers to break into major companies. Some say e-publishing new authors may be a solution for risk-averse publishers, encouraging them to take a chance on new authors.

All that said...we are a nation that loves its non-essential toys. In a country lousy with iPods and Blackberries and XBoxes, you're telling me that devices that help people read more conveniently are evil?

My concerns about the Kindle have little to do with loss of book smell. The e-book industry has yet to solve the problem of digital rights management. Like the recording industry, the publishing industry will need to find a good way to guard against piracy. (Unfortunately, all signs show that the publishing powers that be, like their recording industry brethren, will keep their heads firmly lodged in their keisters, fighting to maintain the status quo rather than seizing new technology and reacting to the needs to consumers.) Ideally, pricing of e-books needs to be such that writers and publishing houses get their due and folks who buy e-books don't get hosed. Folks are still arguing over this. Can my nieces and nephews and their children inherit my e-books when I am gone? Will my e-library keep for the next 40 years? More importantly to me, if more and more information becomes available in digitized form only, then those without access to adequate technology may be deprived crucial information. These are the problems that need to be solved as the way we read evolves.

And the way we read is evolving. That is not a bad thing. The printing press changed the way information was distributed too, yes? When I hear all the hand-wringing about e-reading technology, I am always reminded of a character in Booth Tarkington's "The Magnificent Ambersons." He is a wealthy, spoiled defender of the way things have always been done who, upon seeing an automobile for the first time, is aghast and loudly proclaims that no one would ever trade the horse and carriage for such an inelegant bucket of bolts. By the end of the book, he is proved wrong.

I don't think books--as we now know them--are going anywhere any time soon. There is much to be fixed before the new way can best the old way of presenting written information. I still love books. When I buy them now, I focus on the ones that can't be done justice by my e-reader. For instance, I picked up an amazing coffeetable book of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs a few months ago.

Otherwise, I prefer now to do most of my reading on my Kindle. I am generally reading more than one book at a time and the device allows me to carry them all at once. Because my reading materials are always with me, I read more and I finish books faster. I am rediscovering classics and new authors that I can download for free. Most other books I find are cheaper than physical copies. I am exploring new genres. I can manage the stacks of books in my small house more easily. While I cannot afford a subscription to the national paper edition of The New York Times, I can afford the electronic version, which is cheaper. Unlike my laptop, my Kindle screen is not backlit; it mimics the way a book looks and is easy on the eyes. My e-reader is more environmentally friendly than my library of dead-tree books. My Kindle works for me (it needn't work for everyone) because I love to read and it makes reading easier. I doubt I will ever completely let go of books, though.

But consider that one day technology may advance such that paper books are relics of the past--honored relics, but relics all the same--like stories written on cave walls or animal skins. Such is technological evolution. But if this happens--if paper books are no longer the primary tools we use to read--as much as I appreciate books, they needn't be mourned any more deeply than clay tablets. For all their wonderful smell and feel and what have you, books are the packaging. The words, the stories, the ideas are the thing.


Reggie said...

I love to read and I like the feel of a book in my hands. I have read hundreds of books during my life and I plan on reading hundreds more. I have resisted the urge to buy something like this.

I have more than a couple of friends who have been doing this for awhile and swear by it, but I just don't want to do it at this time. I'm sure this is the future of literature, but I'd prefer to hang on to my paper a tad bit longer. I've always felt good about watching one of my children pick up a book I've purchased and read and start reading it. I like that. I'm sure somewhere down the road, I'll end up getting an electronic device........but I don't like the idea of it.

I'm sure there will be no difference in my Dan Brown or Bernard Cornwell novels, but it'll feel different I'm sure.

msladydeborah said...

You raise some good points in defense of the Kindle. I love to read and eventually I am going to purchase one myself. I think that people have to realize that having options is the American way.

I do a lot of audio books. I like to listen to stories while I am busy doing something else. They also are a great alternative to watching television. My mother is a devout fan of this particular reading medium also. There are stories that I have listened to that I might not have selected from the library.

I think that people who like to read can get into a story and enjoy it. We need to boost the language and literacy capacity of the national population. I see the Kindle as being a tool to help support this effort.

Symphony said...

I've flirted with the idea of buying a Kindle but always get hung up on the idea of not having that book in my hand.

I'm in the middle of reading three books right now and a Kindle would definitely be a plus.

Probably the biggest down side to the Kindle is that I like to write questions and statements in the margins, underline things and makes notes after researching something referenced in the book.

Great post Tami.

Tami said...

Hey Symphony...

FYI, you can highlight and make notations on e-readers. The system makes it really easy to find them, too. I have enjoyed this feature at my book club meetings.

Deb said...

Full disclosure: I am not just a reader, but a hoarder, married to a collector, part owner of a used bookstore. . . I have a lot vested and invested in traditional books! Having said that, I am fascinated by the kindle. I don't have one YET, but can see a real utility for them, particularly the idea that I could travel with a book for any whim, and clear up a lot of space on my night table! I don't know what the future will hold. . . the experience of "browsing" an electronic book will be very different from browsing at a physical bookstore, or the public library, and in that vein, how would an electronic lending library work? And in 100 years, will the something published electronically today be readable? Nothing insurmountable, but for now, I see a mix of paper and electronic. After all, while I might risk dropping my latest guilty pleasure fluff piece in the bathtub, I'm sure as heck not going to risk an expensive and delicate piece of electronics in the same conditions!

(PS-- your post just might be what pushed me over the edge to invest in the kindle lol)

Tami said...


If you decide to take the plunge, enjoy! You know I actually think the explosion in e-reading might be a good thing for small and independent book shops that provide a neat experience as well as access to books--indie and bestsellers. I don't particularly miss going into Borders, but there is (or was) this little, cramped book store on 57th street on the U of Chicago campus that I could spend hours in--e-book or no.

PPR_Scribe said...

I can't see myself buying a Kindle or other such devise because of my love of physical books and having physical books on my shelves. (Besides the experiences of holding, smelling, etc. that you mention).

But I used to say the same thing about music and now have an extensive digital music library and can never see myself going back to CDs, cassettes, or Lps. So who knows.

I wonder how lasting digital books will be, or at least, the technologies to read digital books. There are cave drawings and parchments that are hundreds of years old or more. I have my Masters thesis stored on a floppy disc that I can't even access any more. Plus I hate the idea that I would not be able to read my book if I ran out of juice--Just like I can't stand when I get the red battery icon on my Touch.

If those two issues are ever solved, though, I agree that a march to something other than paper books is pretty inevitable.

Symphony said...

Thanks for the info Tami. I want to ask around and see if anyone I know has a Kindle. I'd love to check it out before buying one.

anonlurkermom said...

I am an indiscriminate voracious reader who hesitated before making the Kindle leap this birthday. I am a convert. Never again will I suffer from "out-of-book-itis" (a disease first coined by my 10-yr old who eats books!) I fear my conversion will hasten the end of bookstores and paper books since the industry is not supported by the one-book-a-year purchaser but by the 200-300 books a year purchaser-me. This is what happened to record stores post-ipod and downloads. So, I feel guilty, but still jumped on the bandwagon.(Much like I felt when I used cloth diapers on my first-born in 1991 and it seemed I was alone trying to save the world. I know, not a healthy attitude for big stuff ... but.) Just found your blog and enjoy it.

Doreen said...

Tami, as usual I am with you on everything. I like the idea of Kindle but I can't afford it right now. That said, it'll be cool to own one someday, but nothing will ever replace books!

roslynholcomb said...

Symphony, if you can't get your hands on a Kindle, you can definitely try out the Sony readers at both Borders and Target.

As a writer of ebooks I'm always eager to convert others to them. I love them because I can carry my entire library around with me everywhere I go. If I buy a book and it's not to my taste, I can instantly pick up another. They're a tremendous time-saver.

vonnie said...

I can't wait to have my kindle. I really want one, just can't at this time, but that day will come! I'm an avid reader, have read thousands of books in my lifetime, and this innovation will allow me to have many books at my finger tips at any given moment, just like my iPod allows me to have my whole collection in one place. It amuses me to hear people try to fight the tide of change, wanting paper books to only be the norm. Really, music is now almost all digital and who these days has more printed out photos from film than digital photos? I can't even remember the last photos that I printed out, they usually are on a memory card and on a computer. These are the times we live in and I'm completely behind this change! Viva innovation :D

Sarah said...

The claim that the Kindle is environmentally friendly is still up for debate. If it follows the rest of the tech gadget trend, there will be a newer better version out there in 6 months. For some reason, Americans feel it necessary to purchase the newest upgrade, even if theirs is still functional. So, when you take into account the actual lifespan of one of these e-readers and the fact that what they are made of creates toxic e-waste, (And no, recycling your electronics does not fully get rid of this problem.) I don't think you will find these objects as eco-friendly as you think.

As to issues such as the text to speech function that could help people with dyslexia: That is the equivalent of supplying them with a crutch. If they do not learn to cope and work around their disability, how will they function when confronted with reading outside of the e-reader world?


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