Margaret, the Traveling Reader, Part One: On Why the Kindle and I Do Not Get Along.

I’m not a particularly skilled packer. When leaving for a trip, whether for a weekend or a semester, I tend to pack the night before, and by night, I mean, inevitably, 1 or 2 in the morning on the day of departure. But for a trip like the one I’m on now, a  trip without definite agenda or end, I decided that my packing probably needed a little more forethought than usual. Ultimately I still ended up tossing clothes into a backpack at 2:30 am, because the majority of my forethought centered solely around two packing categories: shoes, and books. The shoe issue was not resolved till late the night before I left (one pair red sneakers, one pair hiking-like shoe-boots, one pair acceptable-looking walking-oriented flats which have since proved pretty much extraneous). And as for the books, I finally settled on what to bring (and, with more difficulty, what not to bring) about ten minutes before locking the house and heading to the airport.

Trying to figure out which and how many books I could possibly bear to haul around in my gigantic backpack from country to country for several months gave me an excellent opportunity to consider one of the options available to the contemporary reader, and particularly tempting, I think, to the traveling reader: the electronic book, which to this point, though I’m aware there are other versions, I know of mostly as Amazon.com’s the Kindle.

Now, something inside me is deeply, deeply repulsed by the very idea of the Kindle, and, as I got to discover thanks to a fellow passenger on a recent trip to Alaska, I am just about as repulsed by the thing itself as I am by the idea of it. Still, it seems only right to consider objectively the merits of any given thing before passing judgment on it, and this is perhaps especially true of things I instinctually loathe. To that end, I did a miniscule amount of research and am prepared to admit that there certainly are myriad benefits to the electronic book, especially for travelers: it is extremely portable, not much (if any) larger or heavier than your standard bestselling paperback. It can be many books at once, carrying within its sleek metal body many more volumes than I can afford to stuff into the cloth confines of my backpack. With an internet connection, most any book can be downloaded to the Kindle from just about anywhere in the world (helpful when in foreign countries without English-language bookshops). Though expensive (in the middle of composing this entry, I got an email from Amazon telling me the Kindle now costs only $299, and I think one can spend considerably less for its not-so-well-known ebook brethren), the avid reader could quickly make up the price of the Kindle itself through the cheaper prices of the books one downloads to it, since they cost sometimes as little as one dollar and very rarely more than ten (as opposed to $12-24, or euros, or pounds etc. for actual books purchased from bookstores).

All these features (and I’m sure many others, as I’ve been quite brief) are in the electronic book’s favor, and these benefits are not negligible, especially to someone who would like to carry a personal library of say, at least fifteen books (some fairly hefty) with her everywhere she goes, just so if she felt like re-reading a particular sentence some sunny Tuesday afternoon, she could do so. It is hard to overlook the electronic book’s versatility and portability, since it would (I assume) allow me the freedom to do exactly that.

So why is it, then, that I still, really, really, don’t like the Kindle? What can I say beyond proclaiming myself a purist, a traditionalist, a moderate technophobe…What is it that I love about books that the ebook cannot, at least, offer or, at best, excel? Doesn’t the Kindle get the most important thing right? Does it not contain exactly the same words as the books made with paper and ink? And aren’t the words the book? Well, and if not, what more is required of a book than that it contain the words it was meant to contain? What, exactly, is a book??

…Clearly, at this point, I’ve gotten a bit carried away. Suffice it to say that I am not going to attempt to answer the question of what, precisely, constitutes a book, or not-a-book. A semester’s worth of Typography and the Book Arts only underlined for me the eternal openness of that kind of question (and delving into eternally open questions, though something I spend far too much time doing, seems a bit too ambitious a task for this blog’s first proper entry). But at any rate, not being a professor of book-hood, I’ve thereby established that I cannot heave, as a damning reply to the Kindle’s myriad advantages, the well-armored, matte-or-gloss-screen-shattering epithet, “But it is simply not a book!” Indeed, I think I have to admit that the Kindle very well may be a book, albeit of a new genus or species (those well-versed in biology should throw me a terminology bone here). And that leaves me with the sole, less impressive avenue of response, that begins with my saying that the Kindle is simply not the kind of “book” I want to own, and then goes on to enumerate some of the reasons why.

Despite the mantra “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” I’ll begin by saying that I love the way books look, and the way books feel, the way books are covered. I love all the myriad and versatile details of their physical reality…their varying weights and sizes, the different  methods of binding and covering, the choice of fonts, illustrations, photographs, colors. I love to test the way pages run from one cover toward the other, a kind of book-viscosity only apparent when the binding is opened or held at a certain angle and the pages allowed to fall together or stand alone as they please. I like the way books look, and the I like the way books smell. Sometimes I like to carry them into back pockets or manhandle  them into overcrowded backpacks. My books lead a haphazard life…on more occasions than I care to admit, I’ve dropped them in bathtubs, and dripped tea, cranberry juice, wine, rum or coffee on dozens of their pages. I’ve written in margins, bent corners, and (though quite rarely) underlined effusively. I do not think the Kindle could take such abuse (certainly the bathtub drop wouldn’t be good for either of us…).

I like that my books smell, look and feel different from one another. I do not want Les Miserables to be indistinguishable from the The Inimitable Jeeves, or The Scarlet Letter to look and feel exactly like one of Oscar Wilde’s plays. I think there’s something heftily appropriate about the substantial weight and girth of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and something equally appropriate about the minuteness of my pocket-sized Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson. I love the way books look arranged on shelves or desks, or stacked on coffee tables and countertops. I especially love bookstores, and shopping for books, or libraries, and searching for them. The one-click download just can’t compare to hours spent crouching down to search out the lowest shelves for the ideal copy of a sought-after favorite, or the joy of discovering, quite by accident, a soon-to-be favorite one has never heard of before.

I absolutely, utterly and completely loathe the idea of not being able to finish my book because it’s run out of batteries.

There’s something faintly apocalyptic about the idea of a world without bookstores or libraries of the actual, rather than  the virtual, variety; and if all books were suddenly to be contained in a single, slim metal tablet, my life would, at the very least, be in for some serious redecorating. Maybe I am unfairly projecting Fahrenheit 451 onto the Kindle. Certainly one could argue,  and quite persuasively I expect, that the electronic book doesn’t threaten reading at all, but that it is, rather, a tool to bring reading into a new age, an instrument meant to modernize and preserve, rather than antiquate and efface.

Now such a claim appeals to something I care a great deal about, because I love that there is a history to reading, a history of letters and pictures being inked onto paper, velum, papyrus, being carved into stone and painted on walls, or created by the pressure of an inked roller running over a block of type, or by the beating rhythm of keystrokes, the scratch of a quill across parchment, or the swift, messy movements of a ballpoint pen across the lined pages of a composition book. I like the fragile permanence these practices offer the written word, the permanence that writers chase after and have chased after for centuries.

Somehow this permanence, however illusory it may actually be, doesn’t seem to translate to the Kindle. It’s this, I think, that lurks deep inside my instinctual dislike of the electronic book: there is nothing permanent about words pausing on a screen for as long as it takes one to scan a page, and then disappearing to be housed in some kind of technologically-created, invisible, spaceless netherworld. There is something too transient about the download and discard kind of attitude about reading the Kindle seems to encourage,  something nearly disrespectful about the shuffling of one book in and another book out. Not that shelves are terribly dignified, but I’d rather be shelved than deleted.

It is a bit strange to be making this argument about permanence and transience in a blog, via word processor, each keystroke barely a dent on the dynamic and ever-unfolding skin of the internet. But I recognize in doing so that in my dislike of the Kindle, the reader in me is joined by the writer in me…we both don’t like the Kindle; we both love the book. Some may argue, and they may eventually be proved correct, that the Kindle is the next step forward in the history of the book…but I think the book still has a future of its own. So regardless of whether or not history ultimately deems that I’ve been looking forward or that I’ve been looking back, I think I’d like to keep turning pages, scribbling in margins, spilling tea, and reading in the bath. And if that means my load is heavier, so be it. Not all weight is dead weight, especially if you’ve chosen to carry books.

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12 thoughts on “Margaret, the Traveling Reader, Part One: On Why the Kindle and I Do Not Get Along.

  1. When I first heard you were writing a blog about the Kindle (and after you had explained to me what, exactly, the Kindle is) I had a pretty good idea of what your views on the subject would be. And I have to admit that as much time as it would have saved in helping you pack, I cannot imagine you pulling a tiny computer out of your bag and curling up in your hotel room at night to read.

    Although it is frustrating to watch you haul thousand page books around just in case you might have the urge to re-read one sentence, I cannot imagine the Kindle being a realistic solution to this problem. Part of the process in re-reading that sentence is taking out the book, looking at the cover, and flipping through the pages for the specific one you’ve been thinking of. Taking out the Kindle and simply pulling up the page you want, would, I imagine, be highly unsatisfying (especially for someone like you who generally has the sentence memorized anyway, give or take a few words).

    Since I have seen the process of you leaving the majority of your books somewhere, I can only hope that it was not too stressful or traumatic for you, and that you have all the books you really need with you.
    Oh, and I approve of your genus/species reference. I think its a reasonable way to explain the evolution of reading materials through time (but as a biology major I admit to being biased).

  2. While waiting for my laundry to finish, it occurred to me that you might have started a blog. So I checked the book of faces (per your comment way back when) and sure enough you had…

    I completely agree with your stance on the Kindle. My aunt was trying to convert me this past summer; however, I was a very hard sell. Actually, I was extremely surprised at my aunt’s love for the Kindle – being from academia and a purist; I thought she would’ve shunned it.

    When I asked her about the Kindle and why she liked it so much she told me that she was impressed by its ability to have a multitude of books on one single easy to use device.

    The concept, “easy to use”, is one that I’ve been wrestling around with for quite sometime. I believe Clay Shirky, in his book, “Here Everybody Comes”, really captures this odd paradigm shift that we are experiencing: Society will lower its expectations in a medium/device’s quality as long as the cost of using the device is less than what was previously established. For example, I loathe MP3s being an audiophile; however, I still have a bunch of them, because they are easy to store and put on a CD or iPod… So, in short, I believe your observation is part of a greater shift – society is exchanging quality for ease of use.

    Apropos to your comment about a Fahrenheit 451 situation: It has already happened. George Orwell’s 1984 was copyright protected still in the United States but nowhere else. It was sold via Amazon to owners of the Kindle throughout Europe. But when it was discovered that they were violating International Trade Laws – they removed the book from everyone’s Kindle, and refunded them without their knowledge. I do believe that Orwell is rolling in his grave right now.

    Apropos to starting a blog, I was talking to the famous blogger Daniel Lyons over dinner last summer North of Boston and he mentioned that blogs are unique because they allow for extremely unique vertical depth conversation. I find them strikingly similar to correspondences between academics, writers, and politicians during the 18th and 19th century… without the cost.

    • Actually, the day after I wrote and posted this entry, I read an article in The London Paper (I think that’s what it was called…one of those free papers they hand out on the street in the city) about the rise of e-books, and how while they’ve stayed mainly out of the mainstream, they’ll shortly be everywhere, and used by nearly everyone. I wish I’d kept the article so I could pretend I’ve done proper research and quote from it here…

      But sadly, the next day, I got my free copy of the paper only to find out it was the last copy ever! The paper folded after three years, I’m surely largely due to the ever-increasing “circulation” (if that’s what one calls it) of electronic news media. Reading the article on the rise of the e-book and then watching an actual-paper paper fold the next day was a bit depressing.

      And on a random note, what you said about blogs being strikingly similar, but less expensive, than previous centuries’ correspondence between academics and politicians etc. is interesting. I just discovered (though I’m sure I’d heard this before) that at least in Britain, politicians and other important people were able to send mail for free, while other non-VIPS had to pay to send letters and packages etc. I can’t say the fact surprised me, but it was interesting, thinking about communication as an avenue of power, and how that’s changing or evolving given the state of communications technology today.

      • Daniel Lyons, a “famous” blogger (Fake Steve Jobs) and Forbes magazine editor, spoke at my alumni reunion about online news delivery websites (CNN.com, Forbes.com, WSJ.com, etc.), blogs, and how old world media companies are trying to create revenue off of these new delivery mediums.

        Lyons argued that news companies that switch to the e-delivery system are not fulfilling their (gasp) *moral* obligation to deliver quality news to their readers and are destroying journalism. The failure to deliver quality news stems from Society’s demands: 24/7 on demand news. News companies with falling revenue are being forced to appease society’s insatiable hunger for just-in-time information by churning out 8-12 news articles a day per “employee” a.k.a. overly ambitious, underpaid, and overworked fresh college graduate. This wonderful formula for “success” has created a, not so surprising, churn rate of 100% every few years.

        I fear for print media, and, more importantly, journalism. Recently I remember hearing someone (a know-it-all 30-something) in the hallway at work debating something with my good friend. I asked for the 30-something’s source and you would never guess his response … Twitter.

        I am not really sure what is to blame: New Journalism, Society, Corporate America, or just plain ol’ stupidity (I think this one might be the culprit), but I do know this – Johann Carolus must be doing flips in his grave.

  3. Also problematic… you can’t loan out a book you’re reading on a Kindle, so they detract from the social aspect of reading in a big way. My after school students would be very sad if my shelf of borrowable books got sucked into a machine. And I would miss the sight of them fanning the book pages toward their faces to get a good whiff (same thing I do in used bookstores) when they’re choosing one.

    I like this whole you-writing-a-blog business, by the way… :0) Miss you!

  4. Marg!

    The running out of batteries deal is unconscionable. I love the point you make about books’ personalities and the irony of criticizing Kindle on a blog.

    One majorly lamesauce aspect of Kindle reading, I think, would be my inability to take notes in the margins (or can you do that?) I know, you’re probably thinking me treasonous for adulterating the page, but really, I love to see how I evolve over time, as reflected by my comments. To me, the margins are (ironically) central to the reading experience.

    I’ve been reading novels on readprint.com because, like Kindle, it has a hearty supply of e-texts. Unlike Kindle, readprint.com is free, which means the eye strain and lack of margins are negligible opportunity costs.

    Will you tell us about your travels? I know your blog is about the art of reading but I’m super curious to have you share with us your reading of the landscape, the people. I read Wuthering Heights for the first time on the bed of my Cairo apartment, to the sounds of incessant honking and with intermissions for shooing away ants. What and where are you reading now?

    • Have you ever read Billy Collins’ poem, “Marginalia”? If not, you should, I think you’d like it. And I know what you mean about watching yourself change through the notes you’ve written in the pages of old books. I’ve got a copy of Mrs. Dalloway from high school that’s got three or four good solid readings worth of notes in it now, and it’s fascinating to watch myself grow up in the notes (though sadly the growing up hasn’t improved my handwriting).

      Right now I’m in London, reading Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. Last night I saw Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Globe! I’m leaving tomorrow on a 24+ hour train trip to Lisbon, for which I’ve got Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake to read. How about you?? Where are you (Amman?) and what are you reading?

  5. First, Wuthering Heights is one of my favorite books *thank you jeff simpson*.
    Second, I took the picture that is at the top of your blog … I can prove it too!

    … but yeah I just thought I’d post this lovely un-intellectual comment underneath the 4 comments that do pertain to reading and such … but hey, when have I ever tried to relate to anything you do?

    anyway I hope you are having a lovely time with Rachel, if you haven’t already tell her I say hi! College is fun… I actually understood and completed my physics homework well before it is due! go me…

    I find it very sad that I am communicating with you via your blog… oh well, yay technology!

    • Maybe I should tell Jeff Simpson about my blog…or maybe not. What do you think? I think he might laugh at me. And continue to think I hate Virginia Woolf and wish Mrs. Dalloway had been run over by a bus while going to buy the flowers herself.

      • you should tell him about it. then he can say that his technology skills have increased and he is now reading blogs! he recently sent a text message…or received one, I’m not sure which, so help him out all you can!

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