My Kindle and Me
Learning to Love It
I received a Kindle for Christmas along with a substantial sum of money with which to load it with books or purchase traditional volumes, at my discretion. This has swiftly become one of my favorite holiday gifts ever. I love it, even though I resisted it at first, and have not fallen out of love with physical, hefty, page-turners because of it. Both material and electronic books have a place in my reading life, and I am not willing to sacrifice one for the other.
Part of my initial resistance to the Kindle and other e-book delivery systems was a sensual one. I began reading before I was three years old, and so my entire life has been filled with the pleasure of reading and I cannot remember a day when I was not able to read. I first tried Winston Churchill's prose when I was seven, checking out the first volume of his history of World War II from the library, primarily because an old librarian told me that it was forbidden to me. I did not enjoy it then as I did later, but my father supported me in undermining the system, and I struggled through it with a dictionary and a pencil.
A lifetime of reading produces an attachment to books apart from their content. There is the paper, thick and rough, thin and delicate, matted white or yellowed with age. There is the weight of the volume in the hands. There is the smell of dust and old glue, the disorderly beauty of used bookstores in which undiscovered treasures are hiding among the dreck. There is the variety of illustration: color plates, diagrams, maps, sketches, photographs, reproductions of old documents and old works of art. Poetry has its special reality of form contributing to content on the surface of the page. These sensual aspects of the book are not successfully reproduced in e-readers, and probably will not be.
There are books I do not want to read on my Kindle, even though I love it. For me, poetry is not served well by e-readers. I both write and read poetry, and come to it with the specific demands of devotee who also creates. The traditional book serves poetry better than the Kindle, for it retains the author's intention, the length and internal divisions of lines and stanzas, the orthography, and the shape of the words themselves. None of these elements are successfully translated from the traditional volume to e-book formats at this point. I also mark my poetry books with marginalia and references which I want to see as I read the poem, not the indication of a note that exists somewhere apart from the poem. Poetry for me is best experienced in the old style.
Other books I prefer to read and possess in traditional volumes include history texts in which maps and/or diagrams are prominent and necessary. This is especially true of history texts I intend to reference consistently or compare to other texts on the same subject. I like nesting in the midst of competing texts, open to different passages, negotiating their contradictions and lapses. Contributing to my continuing nesting among these texts is a failure of technology: the Kindle just does not display maps and other graphic elements well. The printed versions are superior. Of course, this may be solved in the near future.
Now, I did say I love my Kindle, but have thus far only described the ways in which physical volumes surpass it. The Kindle is in some ways, and in relation to some books, superior to traditional volumes. It is lightweight, convenient, and very kind to the indecisive reader, such as myself. In pursuit of large projects, I have a plan of what must be researched, when and how, but in casual reading I do not. I may change my mind as to what I want to read between waking up in the morning and finally getting a chance to do so in the afternoon. Before the Kindle, I always had a book with me, but it was not always the book I wanted or the book I was ready at that moment to enjoy. With the Kindle, I do not worry about this. Just this week, I was happily alternating between Joseph Conrad and Kim Stanley Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt. I enjoy both authors for different reasons, and reading one is not a replacement for reading the other, for they diverge greatly in style and subject matter. The Kindle allows me the privilege of not choosing.
With the Kindle, access to books is vastly simplified. It is a convenient book-sized shell that allows me ready access to multi-volume works within the public domain, that I would find difficult to find in complete form on the local market or far too expensive for my child-limited budget. Collecting the complete works of a prolific writer can be financially daunting, and finding sources long out of popular view can be difficult. For example, as I am writing through my thoughts on colonial America, I am reading George Washington Williams History of the Negro Race in America from 1619-1880 , first published in 1883, and Slave Narratives: A Folk History of the United States by the WPA. I do not have a local source for these texts. I am able to carry them for free on the Kindle.
I take notes on much of what I read, especially regarding history, science and philosophy. Although the Kindle does not provide the perfect notation system for me personally, it has one that I can use without trouble. Therefore, I have the ability to mark and comment on what I am reading wherever I happen to be, without having to carry a separate notebook and keep track of it. This is a real convenience when I am reading in the park, at the coffee shop or anywhere in the open air.
The convenience factor is what really sold me on the Kindle. It is a perfect vehicle for novels and essays. It is lightweight, and that has recently become more important to me as I plan a vacation in California so that my son can separate his fifth year of life in the wonder that is LegoLand. I will not have to pack a separate suitcase of books for the trip. All I have to take is one slim device. Despite its small size, I will not run out of books to read while I am gone. And the car will appreciate the absence of pounds of books sitting in the trunk, as will the suitcases our family actually needs to pack to make this trip work.
When new novels are released, I can have them delivered directly to my Kindle. Waiting is a choice, not a necessity. In a strange twist on the usual nature of convenience purchasing, I usually pay less for a novel on the Kindle than for the more inconvenient traditional volume. Less money per book allows me to buy more books, and it leads me to consider untried authors with a more willing spirit. I just might buy a book by an author I have not read before, without any idea as to how they will suit me, if it sounds interesting while before, especially when only a hardback was available and the paperback not yet printed, every book required consideration and discretion.
My Kindle is more child and pet resistant than my traditional books, no small consideration in a household of one five year old, two cats, one dog, and one Jack Russel terrier puppy. I have had a Labrador puppy, far less rascally than the Jack, teethe on the second volume of The Gulag Archipelago while the household slept. I have had an especially mischievous and less than well-behaved cat urinate on a stack of novels recently brought home from the used bookstore, not a single one of them yet read. My son does not feel compelled to make my Kindle screen more colorful, as he sometimes does when considering a piece of paper, blank or not, bound or not.
The most exciting prospect for the world of books that the Kindle and other similar devices brings to my mind is this: there is no reason for a book to ever go out of print, become suddenly unavailable or difficult to access. When the publishing industry becomes fully involved in the e-book process, and this becomes a fact, not just a future indicated by the power of the present, it will be a great boon to readers, researchers and writers.
I have become a fan of e-readers without meaning to. Yet, there is something about a book...