Essays on Technology and Culture

On Kindles and Paper Books

For my 27th birthday, I received, to my pleasant surprise, an Amazon Kindle. To my unpleasant surprise, said Kindle was a lemon with a bad battery, but it’s replacement ((Which was acquired painlessly, and shipped overnight, all for free, a testament to Amazon’s customer service.)) worked perfectly, and in less than a week, it has utterly changed my reading habits for the better. I’ve read more in that time frame than I had in the preceding two months—and not all of it digitally! I have to wonder why this little device had such a quick impact on my reading habits. I hope it’s not the novelty of it; I don’t think it’s the novelty, either. I think it’s the convenience factor, that this little slip of a gizmo, can be a book of any length and yet not have the imposition that comes with carrying—or even looking at—a gigantic brick of a book. I still recall the weight of the hardback copy of Gravity’s Rainbow I had checked out of the library in my shoulder bag back in college. Between that, Infinite Jest, and Pynchon’s Against the Day, I don’t think my shoulder will ever forgive me.

Well, maybe it is the novelty, to an extent. This little device was made for reading and to be read upon. If I have a Kindle, I am going to have to read on it—it really is not good for anything else. So, if I am reading, I may as well read some of the physical books that I have on my shelf while I’m at it–the ones that have been patiently sitting and waiting for me to crack them open for the first time, or the ones that I opened, and then closed about a third of the way in lectio interruptus. After all, books on the Kindle aren’t free—for the most part—so, rather than repurchase books I already own, I’ll read them in hard copy. Still, to fully grasp why I feel my Kindle has reignited my love of reading, I should probably think about why I have not been reading.

The excuses I could come up with are myriad: too tired, too busy, too… Actually, I take that back. There’s only a couple excuses I’ve had for not reading, and the most obvious one is that I just don’t have the attention span. My last attempt at getting some real, good reading done, came about a month before I got my Kindle, slogging through the New Anchor Book of American Short Stories, with the logic that if I didn’t have the attention span for a novel, maybe short fiction would at least suffice for the time being. I made it through the first handful of stories, “Sea Oak” by George Saunders and “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” by by Wells Tower still resonated from the first read, but my progress was slow. Eventually, the book landed back on the shelf. ((Rather, it landed back on a table by my desk where stuff tends to end up.)) By comparison, within the first 24 hours of getting my Kindle set up, I got a copy of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, and tore through it in under a week. I also accomplished the same feat with a print version of Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—a book I started, then put down part way through.

Another benefit of the Kindle was using it to go through articles I had saved to Instapaper—a backlog of about 50 or so articles going back at least a year and a half. Instapaper is a brilliant service, but reading things on the web, with a bright screen, and so many shiny, distracting things proved to be a perpetually difficult prospect. Hence, the backlog. In my reading, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the things I had saved–articles on and by David Foster Wallace, a story about the resurgence of Jules Verne, Haruki Murakami’s musings on post-9/11 fiction… One article was author Alexander Chee writing about experience with e-books and rekindling his love of reading—both in print and digitally. “I was reading again in the way I’d always known… I wanted to cheer a little but I also didn’t want to disturb it either, and so instead I kept reading, which was perhaps the only right way to celebrate this. If I had in fact remapped my brain with my e-reader, which I suspected, the map I’d found had led me back here.” Upon reading the statement, I immediately understood and sympathized.

And all of those saved web articles, the copy of Rabbit, Run, a daily copy of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and almost any other book all appear, distraction-free, on a 6″ light gray screen with sharp text. I remember trying my hand at this “eBook” thing a while ago on my iPhone, and quickly being discouraged. The screen is too small, the options of things to do other than read was too large. That might be the crux of the biscuit: the Kindle is designed, from the ground up, to be a device for reading things. I can’t write on it. I can’t play games. I can’t go goofing off on Reddit, get sucked down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia, update Twitter, or try and hack it to do things it is not supposed to. ((Actually, I can do all of those things, but the Kindle is so bad at doing those things that it’s not worth the effort. I did, however, do a little software modification so that when it is turned off, the screen displays the words “Don’t Panic” in large, friendly letters.)) For all intents and purposes, the Kindle comes off as a unitasking device. When I pick it up, I am picking it up to read something—and I love to pick it up. True, though, I also love to pick up a real book, to actually flip pages rather than press buttons. There’s a visceral pleasure to an actual print book that the Kindle does not provide, and never can. Fortunately, I don’t have to choose one over the other. I am, however, more likely to cast a wary eye at any print book over a couple hundred pages, unless I can’t get it in the weightless etherial digital version. My shoulder has a long memory.