A loving tale told by Kindlelight – but will it last?

Opinion November 17, 2010 0 Comments

by HUGH GILMORE
In the past few weeks I’ve tried to tell “book” readers about my test-driving a borrowed Kindle. I’ve met a lot of resistance from defenders of The Book whose minds are closed, absolutely closed, to the idea of electronic books. They didn’t even show curiosity about how the device works or why millions of readers have bought Kindles in the past two years.

Just last week The New York Times announced that it will begin listing e-book best sellers early in 2011. Never mind. The book defenders I met chanted the same mantra, “Me, I love books. I love the feel of them. I just love opening up a book and immersing myself in a good story. No Kindle for me.”

I’m here to tell you, gentle reader, of how I, a lifelong lover of books and reading, a person with a large, beloved collection of books, a person who makes his living buying and selling old books, a person committed to saving old, neglected books from the dump heap, a person who gives away thousands of books every year, a person who was a founding member of the Chestnut Hill Book Festival, and a person who has written almost weekly in this column about the pleasures of books (and “The Enemies of Reading”), I, dear reader, have actually tried a Kindle. And lived to tell the tale.

But first: on the issue of “book love.” Readers associate the physical object they hold in their hands with the pleasure they derive from its contents. They say they “love” their books as a result. Probably true, but this has nothing to do with the nature of paper, cardboard and ink. A blank book does not provoke love. The reader’s love is derived from habit and association. People love both the message and the medium that brought it to them. In time, they would love any medium. Kindle people now say they “love” their Kindle, for example, even though its plastic case is hard and neither fragrant nor yielding, like a book.

Some perspective: In the 1850’s, the French writer Gustave Flaubert dipped a quill into his inkwell more than a hundred thousand times and scratched out over 170,000 words on hundreds of sheets of paper. Afterwards, he took “Madame Bovary,” to a printer who created pieces of metal type to correspond with the letters of Flaubert’s words. Each resulting tray of type corresponded to a page. Coated with liquid ink, the type was pressed onto sheets of paper that were bound into a magazine, Revue de Paris. This journal was sold in monthly installments during the year 1856. People liked it.

The following year those same words were recast in a different format – still ink pressed on paper pages, but different-sized pages, bound together inside cloth-covered cardboard covers – what we English speakers call a “book.”

Books have persisted for more than 2,000 years as the best devices for relaying a writer’s words to other people. The personal reading book, especially for stories, has been made smaller, lighter, and cheaper, making it more available and easier to use. No other energy than light is needed to use one. Nothing needs to be plugged in.

One can hold the device and see the inked words – usually black type against a white piece of paper – and decode the various marks (“letters”/”words”) in a process called “reading.” A person who knows how to read (i.e. decode arbitrarily symbolic marks) can know what another person had to “say,” even when the speaker is not present. A great invention. Very convenient, but not without its flaws.

What if a device appeared that was extremely easy to hold, weighed less than a paperback, didn’t require you to use force to keep it open, had an easily read surface (on which you could change font size at will) and needed only a small thumb-press to “turn” the pages? Would you turn it down without trying it?

And suppose you just finished a book by John Steinbeck, or Ann Tyler, or Stephanie Meyer, and hungered to read another one by that author? Or wanted to read a biography of Babe Ruth or Amelia Earhart, but didn’t have one in your home library? Would you rather wait for the weekend so you could drive to a bookstore, or push a few buttons on a device that allowed you to start reading that book in about ninety seconds? No wires, either.

And what if you learned that, on average, authors are paid higher royalties for the “e-versions” of their books? And trees aren’t pulped to make paper to print symbols on?

If electronic books are “fads,” they’re fads in the sense that automobiles were fads back in 1910.

Next week’s column will describe in detail what I liked and disliked about the actual process of reading a book on a Kindle.

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