Tuesday, October 26, 2010

An anecdote about a book.

Howdy. Usually when I take to these airwaves (whatevs) I do so to scold, make fun, or generally make an ass of myself by being outraged about this or that stupid happening in book publishing (I'm looking at you Justin Beaver). Not this time. Everyone knows I am anti-Kindle. I think the device is just plain, old, dumb but my previous posts on the matter have often been more of the "I love the smell of books and a Kindle doesn't smell like a book" variety instead of addressing the actual reasons why I think the Kindle (or any of its brothers or sisters) is dopey. Seriously, not this time.

Yesterday evening while walking around Harvard Square I happened to pass the front windows of the Harvard Book Store. I wasn't going to go in because every time I do I end up spending money I really shouldn't on yet another book (for instance, I own 4 different editions of 1984, ugh). While scanning the "New in Hardcover" display I spotted this book:

An Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will by Judith Schalansky, winner of the "Most Beautiful Book in Germany" Prize (who knew?). The title alone had me interested but it was more than that. 1) I love atlases. (Don't ask.) 2) I love islands (duh, who doesn't?) 3) I truly treasure reference books (I got nothin' on that one, I'm just a nerd). I stood outside in the rain thinking about whether or not I was going to go in a take a closer look knowing full well that my inherent weakness for book purchases could and would come into play. However, I felt I was safe because I happen to hate hardcovers (as we have documented here). I walked over to the New Hardcovers table and opened up what has to be coolest book released this year. The book is what it says it is on the cover. It is an atlas of remote islands accompanied by a small one-page piece of writing on the history/culture/mythology of the island in question. I was totally consumed right in the middle of the store. Judith Schalansky writes:

“The absurdity of reality is lost on the large land masses, but here on the islands, it is writ large. An island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature. What is unique about these tales is that fact and fiction can no longer be separated: fact is fictionalized and fiction is turned into fact....For me Atlases are the most poetic books of all, the body of the earth shown on a map.”
Ok, that is a little squishy but the point is that this book-which I explicitly told myself I wasn't going to buy-was in a bag and out the door with me a mere 10 minutes after first finding out about its existence. This post really isn't supposed to be about how great the book is but it is important that you see at least one of the maps in the book to get a sense of how beguiling the Atlas is. So, here is the page for the island of Diego Garcia, located in the Indian Ocean approximately 500 miles east of the Maldives.

See?!? Plus the text on the verso side of the page is...is...is...well, there really aren't words for it. Sometimes Ms. Schalansky writes of history, other times it is mythology, a few times she transcribes entries from a long lost journal belonging to a lighthouse keeper, soldier, or occupant of the island. You never know what you are going to get island to island. Totally amazing. But that isn't what I came here to tell you about. I have been typing this piece for 15 minutes; I can write about the book for 15 more. I'm not proud, or tired. But, I really did come here to write about the Kindle and why it should just go away.

I can't really counter all the claims made about the Kindle by the true believers. It really is handy. It can hold ten million books and fifty million magazines (I think). It is portable and very easy to use. So convenient. Yes, yes, yes, yes, everything they say about the Kindle is true and great. I think there is even a religious movement dedicated to the Kindle. However, what the Kindle cannot do, and why I will never own one even if it allows me to hold all the books of the Library of Congress in my pocket for the cost of a penny is that it doesn't allow for discovery...for an epiphany. For the first time in a very long time I was absolutely seduced by a book I hadn't heard anything about until I happened to be walking by the store on a rainy evening. Being able to go into the Harvard Book Store and touch the book, browse its pages,as well as become engrossed in its words will never happen with a Kindle. A Kindle is a storage device. Usually when I go into bookstore I am just looking around. I don't really care if I find something or not but I am always of a mind to get something if I can. Last night, a book caught me off guard and believe me when I tell you that I wasn't in the "spending $28 on a 100 page hardcover" mood. Once I got the book in my hand, however, I just had to. Everyone I have shown the book to in the last 12-15 hours has also been completely in its thrall. So there, after all my public denunciations of the Kindle, my final rejection of it comes from an anecdote not a point by point dismantling. The Kindle will never give me an spot in time, that fleeting moment when everything else is shut out around you...it just isn't capable of that in the way that an unknown book by an unknown author about a subject I , myself, didn't know I was so interested in, on the shelf of the local bookstore I love did. Perhaps that isn't the Kindle's mission but if not, that's sad since that is ultimately the whole point of a discovering a book you didn't know you'd love - lighting the fire of an idea in your mind while wandering the streets in search of a beer.


Connor said...

Agreed, it's a beautiful book. But instead of stumbling upon it at a bookstore, I've discovered the work by hitting upon your blog, hopping onto Amazon, and downloading a full-colour PDF sample.

That's kinda neat, right?

Aaron said...

I think Connor's comment, while cheeky, misses the point about the anecdote: those of us who read Christopher's story will not have the same experience with this book, but we all have experiences like his: times of discovery when we stumbled upon a book that was an unexpected surprise; that punctured the inflated banality of our everyday lives by suddenly teaching us about what else a physical object could be. That's not an experience Amazon offers. Amazon offers product. Amazon offers instant gratification. Amazon offers a ton of reviews so the possibility you might be disappointed or surprised is eliminated. Amazon offers content for an e-reading device that is equipped with proprietary code that prevents lending your e-book to a friend with a Nook. All these things force readers to think about books as nothing but content; Christopher rightly and eloquently urges us to think about those aspects of being a book person that the Kindle can never accommodate and Amazon cannot monopolize.

Anonymous said...

I am very tempted by the Kindle, but only as an awesome *storage device*. (I did not make the jump yet.) For books I already have (and that I need to consult at random times for professional reasons). I think the only point of view that truly makes sense is to embrace the complementarity of the two modes of consumption.

Judith Tingley said...

The kindle is a plastic gadget and Americans are very fond of plastic gadgets. You can download a text into this gadget, but this text is but a ghost in the machine, trapped inside its plastic shell. A real book is also portable, but does not require any outside energy source apart from your very own brain. And most importantly, a real book will last for generations if treated well. Meanwhile, this year's e-readers will wind up in landfills when the next gadget comes along.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, you can't stumble upon a new book or piece of writing via Kindle? (Or via HTTP protocol, for that matter? Or amplitude-modulation radio waves?) Honestly, you can't conceive this? Please think outside your sight-senses, your sidewalk-steppings, and imagine---world is bigger than we think! Enjoy!