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.