It has taken me a little while to come to that point. I am not some crazy pencil-waving technophobe like Wendell Berry but I just can’t see the purpose of an electronic reader. There, I’ve written it. For a while I have pretended to be interested in electronic reading devices but that was all it was: pretend. I don’t care about the features. I don’t care about how easy they are to read-even in direct sunlight. Lemme see if I can explain without sounding like a luddite.
For all of my reading life I have had a love affair with my books. Sometimes it was a simplistic love-like I bought something only because I loved the cover image. Other times it could be obsessive like the time I bought all of the new editions of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels cuz the new editions were sooooo cool. There have been some love affairs with specific books that I can’t rightly explain. I own a first edition of Klaus Kinski’s All I Need Is Love which has made every move with me from home to home I have done as an adult. While I pack my stuff I always know where my copy is. I still consider it the greatest mistake Random House ever made because I am sure they didn’t read it before putting it between boards. His narrative can be downright scandalous. In fact, when Kinski died I put his obituary in that book just for closure. I have my great secret love hidden away: a first edition of J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book I scored while in charge of the Children’s department at the Harvard Book Store back in the day. I didn’t think anything of it at the time I just needed something to give to parents who were coming in pleading for “something, anything, my 11 year old son will read.” I never looked up the value of it until just recently (holy moly!).
So, books have been my friends. These physical objects have meant more to me than almost any possessions I have ever owned…except my baseball glove (heck even I’m not that much of a nerd). I have used a copy of the complete Lord of the Rings saga as a pillow to fall asleep in a cemetery on a summer day. I ate two pages out of a book once to see if I could do it without getting sick. (Really.) I have always wanted to hollow out a book as a “secret spot” on my bookshelf to hide stuff but could never bring myself to do it-it would seem so much like murder. Wallpaper made out of a book-let’s say a classic French cook book-decorating a welcoming kitchen always made me jealous of the homeowner and more interested in cook books than I would ordinarily be. Before I was married, heck even now, I used to stay up later than I should organizing my books by size, shape, color, subject, read/not read, etc…you get the idea.
All of this is, of course, prelude to the real reason for love affair with books: the reading and the gaining of knowledge. I have read thousands of books in my short life. I was lucky enough to get a job at my hometown’s used bookstore the very afternoon I finished my last day of high school. It was I job I held for nearly 9 years before I moved to Cambridge (where I got another job in a bookstore). The used store allowed for plenty of reading and purchasing of books. Everything was cheap and, as the second in command of the shop, I got first pick of damn near all the titles before they went out on the floor. Hell, I have six B. Traven novels in individual volumes…that is quite an accomplishment, I’d say. Once the work was done for the day, there was always time to read and get paid for it (sorry, Larry). In Cambridge I worked at two independent bookstores for several years and once I got tired of the retail end of things, I went into publishing where I am today. So when I write that books have been my life, you know I am not just blowing smoke.
With the Kindle I just don’t feel that it does enough to convince me to replace the good, old book. My problems with it are manifested in one simple way: I believe that the book isn't obsolete. It just isn’t. Not yet. Let’s look at a few of the Kindle virtues (from the Amazon website):
Slim: Just over 1/3 of an inch, as thin as most magazines.
True, that has a book beaten. Even if I were going to read The Kindly Ones (which I’m not), it does weigh in at nearly 3lbs and 2 1/2 inches thick. Ugh.
Lightweight: At 10.2 ounces, lighter than a typical paperback.
See answer above.
Wireless: 3G wireless lets you download books right from your Kindle, anytime, anywhere; no monthly fees, service plans, or hunting for Wi-Fi hotspots.
Books, as far as I know, are not 3G wireless ready. Score one more for Kindle.
Books in Under 60 Seconds: Get books delivered in less than 60 seconds; no PC required.
Okay, that is kinda cool too. 4-0, Kindle.
Improved Display: Reads like real paper; now boasts 16 shades of gray for clear text and even crisper images.
Ah ha! Well, there is no reason for books to “read like real paper” because they are real paper. I don’t need shades of gray; I just need to have a light source. Black print on a white page works just fine. Yes, 4-1, Kindle.
Longer Battery Life: 25% longer battery life; read for days without recharging
Uh oh…now it’s coming on. Are there two scarier words in the English language than “battery life?” Books clean up here as you can read one anywhere, anytime. No batteries needed. Evah. I say. 4-2.
Faster Page Turns: 20% faster page turns.
I don’t even know what to do with this one. Who cares? This feature reminds me of the “wide-mouth” can phenomena. Was anyone having trouble drinking from a can with the old standard mouth? Maybe it matters when you are reading a screen but faster isn’t supposed to ever be part of the reading experience, is it? Kindle barely hanging on at 4-3.
Read-to-Me: With the new text-to-speech feature, Kindle can read every newspaper, magazine, blog, and book out loud to you, unless the book is disabled by the rights holder.
Um, ok. Weird, but ok. As I understand it, the voice sounds like a robot if you were pretending to read this like a robot. Seriously. All tied up at 4-4.
Large Selection: Over 240,000 books plus U.S. and international newspapers, magazines, and blogs available.
This one really rings hollow. True that you could buy any of 240, 000 books but if’n I stop into a good used store I can find hundreds of books I need for cheap (see below-9.99? You must be crazy). Sometimes as low as $1 (yes, I’m looking at you Joyce’s-Selected-Letters-I-found-at-the-Brattle-Bookshop-this-past-summer. Holla). If I want to buy something I can’t find, the library system in this country has access to over 15 million books from sea to shining sea. Books lead, 5-4!
Low Book Prices: New York Times Best Sellers and New Releases $9.99, unless marked otherwise.
Ugh. See above. I guess it is cool that they are cheaper than actual books but $9.99 isn’t exactly free now is it? Call it a draw because $9.99 per book is cheaper than new but still a helluva lot more than used. So, 5-4-1.
More Storage: Take your library with you; holds over 1,500 books.
This feature, which is much higher up on Amazon’s list was moved down because I have never, ever understood this selling point. I get it, 1,500 books all in one place. So what? Last time I checked you could only read one book at a time. Period. End of discussion. If you are close to the end of a book and don’t want to carry two with you here’s a tip: finish the first and then start the second…or if you finish the other book and don’t have another to start RIGHT AWAY, how about sitting quietly and thinking about what you have just read? You know, digest it? This isn’t the new Britney Spears song, ok, there is more to it than that.
In the final analysis it is about personal choice. I know this note seems a lot like sticking my finger in the crack in a dam…the Kindle is here to stay and sooner or later the book will go. I know this…. I just don’t need to like it. I am sure I could have come up with much more substantive reasons like Mr. Berry did about why he isn't buying a computer, but I don't have any substantive reasons that can't be refuted. I just know that "to believe your own thought, to believe what is true for me in my private heart, is true for all men..." I read that somewhere...in a book.