A friend of mine asked me the other day: "So when are you getting a Kindle?"
I said, "Around the time winged pigs circumnavigate the frozen-over reaches of hell."
My friend was, to say the least, taken aback. He knows I'm not a Luddite. I work in the tech biz; both of my computers are up-to-date and quite nicely tricked out; I even got on the Blu-ray train quite early.
But the Kindle, even in its 2.0 incarnation, still makes me feel like I'm being cheated out of something. It isn't a substitute for a book. It can't be, because it is everything a book is not, and that is exactly the problem.
I've written about this before, and since then I've found my stance has only grown all the firmer. The changing of the number to the left of the decimal point doesn't change the fact that the Kindle is a chunk of plastic and electronics.
First, some praise. I like the Kindle as a way to get certain kinds of information. As a replacement for a pile of textbooks that you're just going to sell back to the store at the end of the semester, for instance. I fully expect it to become a killer educational device. Or as a way to get fast facts, or as a way to consume things that would normally require some recycling to stay out of landfills (magazines, papers, etc.). But not as a substitute for the technology that has served us in good stead for longer than the language I write this in has existed.
I don't think the Kindle was devised as a substitute for the paper book. I'm fairly sure it was seen by its inventors as a complement to it — a way to make reading a little less cumbersome. Now you don't have to lug around all those books! they say. But to me that just shows their prejudices all the more: if a book is good, I don't care how much lugging is involved. The fact that I have to lug the books around makes me all the more selective and deliberate about my reading.
Technology has given us movies and music to go, and that's all acceptable to me. Movies and music have always been a little bit abstract. The movie is over there on the screen — oh, wait! Someone turned off the TV or the projector. Now it's gone. Likewise the symphony or the White Album. Lift the needle or eject the disc, and it disappears. But reading has always been bound to its carrier, doubly so, like a painting on a wall where the brushstrokes can be seen in just the right light. The act of reading IS the book.
The very fact that you have to put a book down to get away from it is not a design flaw. It is its greatest attraction. A book is built to lionize the senses. It commands your eyes with its print and its design; its paper and edges enlist your sense of touch; and I doubt there's any serious reader who doesn't get a nice little perk at the smell of a new book, either. (A friend of mine, now dead, used to stand in the entrances of bookstores and take deep breaths in through his nose as if preparing to do his calisthenics. People stared; I laughed.) The Kindle's Internet connection and quick links to dictionaries and online encyclopedias only give you all the more reason to not let what you're reading fully command your attention. They are that many more ways to distract ourselves in the name of "extending the conversation".
A book, once purchased, confers ownership. It is yours until the pages falls out, and even long after that. The Kindle puts you in the position of being a perennial renter, at least as far as its Amazon-supplied media goes. What good is being able to take your library with you, when the can take it away from you just as easily?
I don't say this because I have an axe to grind against technology or computers or blogs. I savor all of those things. I also savor being able to leave them all behind. Sometimes I simply want to sit with something in my hands that could have been produced at any time in the past few thousand years of the history of our species, and use that as my method of transportation to places I could never go and people that no one would ever meet.
Before writing this, I was reading the second of the Moribito novels (I looked at the first one last year), and was marveling at how the publishers had created something I wanted to hold in my hands. Everything from the texture of the cover wraps to the choice of ink color — this book was designed by someone who loved books, and who wanted to make sure you picked it up and had as few excuses as possible to put it down. It didn't hurt that the book itself was a good read.
Irving Wallace, a writer I am not fond of, nonetheless managed to find it in himself to say in one of his own novels that a book was not just a wad of paper. It was humanity, civilization, life itself. Its very immutability, its very existence as an artifact and an end result, is not something to be resisted any more than a black-and-white movie is to be seen as a coloring book waiting to have digital makeup slapped over it.
I'm prepared to be proven wrong. But I reserve the right to have my reading in the form of sewn leaves that require only ambient light to be useful. Some things never go out of style, because they were never fashion to begin with. Andrei Codrescu once lamented how the onion, the fragrant little bulb that was the core of his Romanian childhood, was being chased out of the kitchen for being declassé and hincty. If we let them chase away the book for being bulky and primitive, then we get what we deserve.