The Kindle Revolution

A Longtime Bibliophile Embraces The E-Reader—With Mixed Feelings.

A couple of months ago, I was seized by a strange and inexplicable desire: I decided that I wanted a Kindle. That might not seem particularly strange to you. After all, Amazon sold about 2.5 million Kindles in 2009 and nearly twice that number in 2010. Some analysts estimate that sales will rise to 8 million in 2011. (The company is secretive about actual sales figures, but these estimates come from a reliable source— Bloomberg Businessweek.)

Add to that the number of Barnes & Noble Nooks and Sony e-Readers that have flooded the market, not to mention the millions of people who are now reading books on their iPads, and you have some pretty compelling evidence that e-readers have become widely accepted. Indeed, I know a lot of people right here in Hampton Roads who love their Kindles unconditionally.

But I have to tell you—after using mine for about a month now, I’m a bit more ambivalent. Before you write me off as a Luddite or nostalgic sentimentalist, let me explain. When I was growing up, there were booksin every room  of my house—volumes neatly shelved in the living room; children’s books scattered across my bedroom floor; books in my parents’ bedroom, where my father, a librarian, would retreat on Sunday afternoons to read in solitude in a sun-drenched chair. A couple hundred paperbacks, meanwhile, had been consigned to the basement, near the pool table and the boxes of Christmas decorations.

Today, whenever I conjure images of those volumes, one in particular stands out: Balzac’s Droll Stories. As a child, I had no idea what “droll” meant. But the word, imprinted in gold letters on a maroon binding, frequently captured my attention. As I grew into adulthood, the book became a kind of icon for me: a symbol of my childhood environment. Indeed, when my father died in 2005 and it came time for me to decide which of his books I wanted to keep, Droll Stories was the first one I grabbed. I don’t think it had ever been my father’s favorite, and I had never even bothered to open it. But when I got home the night after going through his possessions, I knew I’d chosen well. The book’s opening line captures the very essence of the atmosphere in which I was raised: “Here is a book of the most succulent flavor ... ”

Inherent in that sentence is an idea that I picked up subliminally from my father— that books are not just collections of words, designed to inform or entertain. They are objects of art that appeal to the senses. One could take pleasure in their weight and texture, in the way they smelled (musty if they were old, like the Balzac, intoxicating if they were new), and in the way they looked—formidable yet reassuring, with their graceful fonts and elegant designs.

To this day, a home without books seems empty to me, and my own small apartment is a testament to this notion. I own about 2,000 volumes. Many are in storage, but hundreds line the walls of my living room, bedroom and home office. One reason I have so many books is that I regard them as the tools of my trade. I use them, not just as sources of entertainment and knowledge on a variety of subjects but for inspiration. I also turn to them frequently to help shape ideas on a particular topic that I’m writing about or for passages that I might quote to reinforce a point I’m trying to make. But they serve other purposes as well. They’re lovely to look at; their mere presence inspires me, and they add warmth and a sense of security to my living space.

So How Does The Kindle Compare?

Its primary appeal lies in its portability. There’s something enchanting about the idea of being able to carry all of the great tomes of the Western Canon in my inside coat pocket. Indeed, when it first arrived in the mail, I loaded it up with e-books that are free, or a dollar or two at most, because they’re no longer copyrighted. Within a couple of hours, I had e-versions of the King James Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Emerson’s lectures and essays, Walden, Middlemarch and other favorite classics.

The ability to carry these works with me wherever I go is not just an intriguing novelty. As a writer and a teacher of literature, I find that having a library in my coat pocket aids me in my work. I plan to use it in the classroom when I want to share great passages with my students—and of course I plan to use it when I travel.

It also has a lot of useful features. One is the ability to change type size. By some great good fortune, I still don’t need reading glasses at the age of 54. But I do find that my eyesight is not quite as good as it once was, and it’s nice to be able to enlarge the type with a click of a button. The Kindle also has a highlighting and note-taking feature. In an instant, I can pull up all of my highlights and notes and, with another click, I can see them in context. This proved to be especially useful while I was writing this column. The first new e-book that I purchased, for less than $10, was The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” by Nicholas Carr. Curious to see what he had to say about the Kindle, I simply typed the word into the search bar, and a second later I had all of his references at hand.

“The Kindle’s most radical feature,” Carr writes, “is its incorporation of links into the text. The Kindle turns words of books into hypertext. You can click on a word or phrase and be taken to a related dictionary entry, Wikipedia article or list of Google search results.” Again, pretty useful—right?

Well, useful yes. But what I do know is that e-reading is not as pleasurable as reading traditional books. The aesthetic experience is lost.

Not everyone feels this way—not even dyed-in-the-wool bibliophiles. Carr notes that Charles McGrath, former editor of The New York Times Book Review, has become a Kindle believer and has gone so far as to say, “It’s surprising how easily you succumb to convenience and how little you miss, once they’re gone, all the niceties of typography and design that  you used to value so much.” I strongly disagree with McGrath. I would miss the distinctive typography and designs if books disappeared entirely. And I strongly object to the notion that these are mere “niceties.” To me they enhance the beauty of language and profundity of ideas in some essential way. But would is the operative word. Books are not going away—at least not in my lifetime. I do like my Kindle—and in time I may grow to love it and become utterly dependent upon it. But for me it will always be a supplemental tool. I know for sure that it will never influence me in the same way as my father’s copy of Droll Stories.

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