Last week, I was reading a book on my Kindle. That statement, in itself, seems all wrong to me: reading a BOOK on my Kindle. I don’t use my Kindle for all my reading, but I got it because I like to read and I like to travel, a lot. Travel + books= remembering to choose and take books along; making sure I have the right book(s); having the correct number of books for a particular trip; having access to what I want; and then, the issue of schlepping the books around in my travel pack (further tweaking my back and shoulders)– none of this was working so well. For many years, I didn’t weigh these issues, because there were no other options. Want to read while traveling? Deal with the list above. That’s how it had been forever. Until the electronic book, the first of which was Kindle.
I’d given all of this a lot of thought, and I really wanted a Kindle and so had made it the big ticket item on my wish list for Hanukkah and Christmas three yeas ago… I figured that with both holidays, and my birthday in January, coming up, I was bound to get one. I’d mentioned it to every family member, just to be sure that Hubby didn’t miss the “clues.” Then, just before the holiday season that year, I went to hear the author Sherman Alexie speak at our high school. I love the man: the way he writes, the stories he tells, the easy and humorous way he speaks in public and, I generally agree with most of what he says. I’m a huge fan. So, when he suddenly turned to the audience and began discussing Amazon’s Kindle, I got a little edgy. Oops, I respect this guy, and he’s now explaining why he wanted one, how he liked it for a while and why he now hates them. Alexie discussed several issues that had come to bother him, but the point that really struck a nerve and came back to bite me later, was tying books to a tribal issue. With Sherman Alexie, most things come back to tribal issues, but even I saw the wisdom of this one.
He discussed the wonderful feeling he’d always gotten when he’d see other people reading a book he likes (or doesn’t). The shared books, brought connection to others. He gave the example of getting on a plane, right after a new Harry Potter book came out (back when waiting for H.P. to be released was a true event) and walking up the isles to his seat, as he noted that he (and his kids) shared the same book as 30-40 other people. Looking at others, H.P. in hand and smiling, each silently acknowledging that they belonged to the same tribe, of reader. I could see this image clearly; it resonated with me, and the idea that I might be messing with that, wiggled under my skin. I can’t deny it, I doubted my desire for that Kindle, for a few moments there. Little Man, who was sitting next to me, leaned in close and whispered: “Hey mom, isn’t it a Kindle that you want to get for Christmas this year?” “Shhh.” I applauded Mr. Alexie‘s talk, got him to sign my book and on the way home rationalized that he was missing some point, that all my friends with Kindles somehow understood. Sherman Alexie isn’t perfect, despite any previous statements to the contrary, that I’d made. (Note: This is me in denial. I adore Sherman Alexie and do in fact believe he is mostly perfect, but for the sake of getting a Kindle, I temporarily withdrew my allegiance.) ^^ Mr. Alexie signed my favorite chapter in our favorite book, The Lone Ranger and Tanto, Fistfight In Heaven. In our copy of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, he drew a hiking trail and book, after I shared a story with him about taking that book backpacking with us. He loved the story!
I began building counter arguments the minute we left the high school that night. I really wanted that Kindle, and I wasn’t going to give up on it, just because of one talk. My friends had been extolling the virtues of their Kindles for months, and I was beginning to feel like I was really missing out on expanding my reading experience. To avoid any suggestion of hypocrisy, I refocused my interest toward the travel angle. The Kindle seemed like the perfect solution to the silly things that were bugging me about traveling with my books: one reasonable item that would solve the entire list of complaints above. Not heavy to pack, access to any books I want, ability to switch gears any time and get a different one, and a long battery life, so that it would last for pretty much any trip I envisioned, it was obvious why I needed one. As I’d hoped, I got it for Hanukkah, and was excited to use it right away. I wasn’t going anywhere, so I figured I’d buy the (then) current book my book group was reading, and give it a try. The first book I ever purchased on my Kindle, was Petropolis, by Anna Ulinich. I know that because my Kindle keeps track of what I’ve read and has the list ready, with a click of the “home” button. Another perk.
At first, I loved my Kindle. My “book” was right there, wherever I went. It opened to my last page, with the flick of the another button. I could hit dictionary (same button, different option) and look up words I didn’t know, without going all the way to the kitchen to check our ancient Webster’s dictionary (1984). Hmm, I’d received two books in one, right off the bat; point, Kindle! The only real con I could find, at first, was that the screen didn’t light up, requiring the continued use of my mini-book light, which seems to cause conflict between my husband and I each time I use it. (Aside: So, if Hubby doesn’t want the big light on, and he buys me multiple mini-lights so that I can read in bed, when he wants to go to sleep, isn’t there some point when Hubby should suck it up, turn over, and forget about the incredibly miniscule amount of light, coming from my side of the bed/mini-light? Just askin’.) In fact, I’d just assumed that a lit screen would be a perk of having a Kindle. However, I got beyond that pretty quickly and just used the mini-light, as I always had. I was back to loving my new Kindle, still arguing with Hubby about reading lights. It went on like that for quite a while: pros and cons, but mostly pros, Kindle in the lead.
No doubt, travel proved wonderful with my new gadget and all the benefits I’d imagined, came to fruition each time I got on a plane, packed my backpack, or took off for more than a couple of days. Bonus points were scored when I was able to download a new book on my way to Denmark, and then purchase another one for the trip home, finding one of the book stores at Sea-Tac (I’d forgotten my book). When Middle Man and I backpacked in India, I slipped my Kindle in the pack and brought along two different books to keep me reading for the full two weeks. This came in very handy on a long train ride to Varanasi. Middle Man even found himself clicking my Kindle on and reading sections of my book as well. It was my comfort item, as we went without so many other comfort items, over those two weeks. I’ve taken it on long trips and short ones, but each time, I’ve been reminded of why I love my Kindle: it’s the perfect (reading) travel companion. (^Kindle: on the train to Varanasi (sweaty, hot, hungry), and our only pool day, Delhi (cool, refreshed and feeling pretty damned good!)>)
However, I have also come to understand a lot more of what Sherman Alexie was talking about. At first, it was fun to see other people who had their Kindles out. We’d glance appreciatively at each other, both “techies,” but then… that was it. There was no further opening for asking what they were reading, it just didn’t seem “cool” to ask what was behind that sleek blank cases. I missed seeing the book covers, that Tribal thing that Alexie had mentioned. There is something briefly magic about passing a total stranger and seeing them reading something that you’ve read, are reading, or want to read. There’s an instant connect and (for me) that leads to a quick flash of other things: if he/she likes that book, do they then eat this food? Do they like to ski? Do they watch certain movies as well? Books say so much about a person, I think. So, that moment when you see someone reading a particular book, for me, is also the moment I wonder all those other things. We become tribe members through shared experience, via our books. The Kindle takes that away.
As time went on, other things began to bother me as well. I missed the weight, the comfort of my books in my hands. While the Kindle has an easy, aesthetic feel to it, and is fairly easy to manage, it’s not that same feel you get from a solid book. No doubt, everything I added to the negative column, works in Kindle’s favor as well. I can almost hear the counter-arguments coming my way. However, I was starting to add more points to the book column and more cons to the Kindle list. I missed turning pages, and started to find the click of the switch, each time I finished a page, annoying. I’m totally amazed that Hubby has not complained about the clicking at night (to his credit) as I have found myself ready to lose it some nights, listening to that click, click, click. I read pretty quickly, so sometimes the sound is non-stop. I’ve played with pushing it down slowly, as I approach the bottom of the page, to soften the click, but that just distracts from the reading. Click is part of the Kindle package, and I was missing the flip of the page.
Pages in general are something I miss. Turning them, feeling the paper between my fingers, the smell of the paper in both new books and old and the ability to flip back and forth from pages, when I want to check something or re-read a detail. That’s fine on the Kindle, if you’ve just read the detail, but if you need to go back and re-read something from much earlier in a book, I find that very difficult with the Kindle. I also find it frustrating to guess what the percentage point at the bottom really means. With a book, it’s easy to flip pages and see that you have X number of pages to go and figure out the percentage, simple math, but the percentage that the Kindle provides doesn’t translate as easily for this reader. When it says I’m 87% done, that could be a few pages or more than I can rush through. If you want to skim and move through sections quickly, it’s just not as easy on the electronic book as it is when you can skim the actual pages and see the ending sentence. Forget it if you have one of those delicious “aha!” moment late in a read, on a Kindle, and want to find the place in the beginning, when the author hinted at it. On the Kindle there is no back page or front flap, where you can look at the author’s picture, read their brief biography and make all kinds of guesses about why they wrote this book, and what they’re like in real life… based on said thumbnail and brief predictable biography. You can’t flip around period, unless you’re willing to click away and make a lot of guesses about where you want to land. That drives me nuts.
Our book group just finished A Visit From the Goon Squad, the Pulitzer winner by Jennifer Egan. If you’ve read this book, you can no doubt understand why a reader might want, no need, to flip back and forth as the book progresses, just to keep track of which characters are which, let alone what time period they are in. The book segues from distant past, recent past, future, and present, often with little warning. The characters appear in various settings, in changing forms, and it can be very confusing. Without pages to skim, this was extra frustrating at times! (I wasn’t traveling, but bought this one on Kindle, because I kept forgetting to go buy it.) Ironically, the chapter in Goon Squad that is written entirely in “texts” and digital imagery was nearly impossible to follow on the Kindle. These images were distorted and made less sense, on the screen, than seeing them laid out on a printed page, later. Strangely, trying to read that chapter at night, by the glow of my mini-light was nearly impossible! Something about the screen version of the images was especially distorted and then even harder in dim light. I reached over and borrowed Hubby’s reading glasses (something I don’t usually need) and even though the magnification helped, I still could not read it properly until morning, in full light. This particular chapter (which I can’t skim through now, to give the number for, because of the aforementioned un-skimability of Kindle) was more challenging for all of the book group members with Kindles.
Another major loss for me has also been a loss for the book/publishing industry as a whole. I was no longer going to buy my books, I wasn’t taking the time to visit my favorite bookstore, Village Books. On a bigger scale, buyers all over the nation, are doing the same thing, and that means big problems for little book stores (though lots of reasons for their decline, have been sited over time). With my Kindle, I could just click a button from home and have (nearly) instant gratification. The trade off: I no longer enjoyed the ritual of visiting our local gem, perusing other books, buying the latest issue of Poets and Writers Magazine, or checking out art books, in a comfy chair. I was staying home, and missing out on this visceral part of reading, which had always been an integral part of my reading experience. The growth of e-books has had an enormous impact on “physical” book sales for three+ consecutive years, and a projected decline of book purchases, at 5% per year, has made it hard for book stores and publishing, across the board. Big chains like Boarders have gone bankrupt (a combination of declining book sales and overgrowth of their chain) and smaller book stores are struggling to keep up. It’s hard to compete with the pricing and ease of e-books and corporate giants who making mailing and purchasing from home easy. For me however, I began to realize that I was missing something in not stopping in to Village Books, that could not be bought with a click of my computer or Kindle. I missed the people who work there; seeing Chuck and Dee, who have nurtured their community store since 1980; the friends I’d see coming and going; the feel of real books, that I could flip through and take home for my shelves. All of that was lost in the hard plastic ease of my electronic book.
For me, so much of the ritual that is part of reading, is somehow lost in using a Kindle, or any electronic book. Even if you simply sweep your hand across a screen (vs the click), as with the iPad, it’s not the tactile connection that comes from a printed page. There is not the variations in font and text with a Kindle that exists in physical books. All the work that authors put in to that decision is gone, when it’s marginalized for electronic use. Now if I finish a book and love it, and I want to share it, I can’t with the Kindle. It occurs to me that my beloved library: the beautiful stacks of books that fill my huge wooden book shelves, books that have histories and meaning, stories of their own, will not grow and flourish, if all the books I read are on electronic sources only. That of course is great for the environment, cutting back on paper use, but when I told a friend about A Visit From the Goon Squad last week and offered to lend it to her, I had to take the offer back immediately, when I realized that I was not willing to hand over the Kindle and wait to get it back.
So, while there have been both pros and cons, I think my Kindle will be semi-retired at this point, and only taken out for very specific missions: travel. It is ideal for that purpose and I will use it for that and that alone. On Friday, when we’d finished dinner, Little Man, China, and Denmark and I walked over to Village Books and I showed them this “very special place” in our town. China and Denmark walked around in awe and excitement, showing me the books they had also seen in their own countries (not surprisingly, Twighlight was universally recognized) and checking out all the cool options for reading. China got excited about a pile of recommended reads that the staff had compiled and we discussed which ones he could try, from our library at home, and which he might want to purchase. Little Man found another history book, with all kinds of esoteric facts, which he bought with his own money. As they were closing, we had to pushed out, all of us wanting to linger in the cosy space and explore our individual interests. It was an outing, an event, not a night spent at home on our separate computers.
In the end, one of the most compelling points for “real books”, is the fact that as a writer, who wants to see her own work published, do I want to see my words on electronic pages, or do I want to get on a plane and see passengers holding MY book? That is pretty clear for me. While I obviously want most to see my work published, and purchased in whatever format I can, ultimately it would be a real thrill to walk up the isle of a plane, and see my book in someone’s hand. I want people to buy my book, flip to that last page about the author and say, “Isn’t that…?”
Here are ten books that I adore:
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry
Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese
Peace Like a River, Leif Enger
The Whistling Season, Ivan Doig
Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
Possession, A.S. Byatt
Ahab’s Wife, Sena Jeter Naslund
Lord of the Rings Trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien
Birdsong, Sebastien Faulks
Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
Go ahead, blast away! All you Kindle, iPad and other e-book users, tell me why you disagree. Or, if you are a book fan, tell me why. What are you reading right now and what do you share with others? Five books you’d recommend?
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