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.


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