Claremont, CA. When my mother came to visit last week, she brought a copy of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union with her. Before she departed for the airport this morning, she left the book on my shelf.
And just like that, it was the end of an era.
You see, my mother has announced that she wants a Kindle.
Oh, lots of people have told me about the little advantages of those little gizmos. They are lightweight. They offer instant gratification. They have features that may make reading easier for people with certain disabilities.
For those reasons alone – usually just for the first two reasons – many of the people I know have already purchased electronic book-viewers, or will be purchasing them soon. With both Amazon (maker of the Kindle) and Barnes and Noble (maker of the Nook) making hard pushes on behalf of their respective products this holiday season — “give the gift of reading,” says Amazon’s website — people have been snatching them up. In fact, Barnes and Noble sold out of their holiday-season Nook supply in mid-November. So it’s not hard to foresee a lot of these little guys showing up, wrapped and beribboned, during the next few weeks.
For those of us who are longtime book readers, though, this is the opposite of the gift that keeps on giving. It is the gift that keeps taking away.
First — oh, sadness upon sadness! — electronic reading-devices are going to take away book-sharing, book-trading, and book-lending. You just can’t share your electronic reader like you can share a book.
With one of these devices, you can’t start reading something, decide it’s not for you, and then give it to someone you think might appreciate the story more. You also can’t read something on one of these devices, fall in love with it, and then pass it around to your friends and family. You can’t finish a book on one of these devices and then donate it to a local library or school. You can’t pick up one of these devices at a friend’s house, start reading something, and then promise to return it in a couple of months.
I am a lover of reading, and I think of the times when I’ve shared a book with someone – or someone has shared a book with me – as a real form of communion. When you share a book with someone, you’re not just sharing a material item. You’re sharing an internal world, an imaginative space, a story. Sharing stories has always been a basic way in which humans share ourselves with each other.
The experience of reading may be primarily private, the intimate communication between author and reader. But for those of us who truly love reading, a large part of the pleasure that reading brings is in sharing it with others. Sharing books, lending books, borrowing books, donating books, inheriting books, trolling through used books at stores and sales, have always been among the loveliest aspects of reading culture. It’s hard not to lament the inevitable decline of all of these.
To add insult to this reader’s injury, these electronic reading-devices take away one of my other favorite things about books: the way that you can curl up with them in any hidden corner and will the world away. By comparison, I’m not sure I’d take a Kindle into the bath. Or to the beach.
The corollary here is that these gadgets take away your readerly independence – your “energy independence,” I might call it. Sure, I know that the Kindle’s charge lasts for, like, 30 hours (although it only lasts for four to five hours when you’re using its fancier features), but having to keep track of a battery meter is not something that I want to be doing when I’m trying to keep track of a plot. Forget the fact that if you ever go camping or suffer a power outage, those gizmos aren’t going to provide you entertainment for that long. They yoke you further to the grid, rather than release you from it.
And they make you dependent on more than electricity: I implore my fellow readers to remember that these electronic devices – made by the same corporate bookselling behemoths that have already devastated local and independent booksellers – will further take away traffic from the few of these businesses that are left. Their growing popularity will help to further concentrate all the power and profit related to book publishing and distribution in a small set of global corporations. I find it disheartening that the same intellectuals who disdain Wal-Mart for its evisceration of local economies are basically prostrating themselves at Amazon’s feet, mostly for novelty’s sake.
In the final telling, these devices can provide a bare-bones encounter with text that has, for most of us, only a couple of tiny advantages to offer in comparison with the book. But reading books, for those of us who really love it, has always been about more than a bare-bones encounter with the text. And on those terms, in the transition from books to electronic devices we, as readers, stand to lose much more than we gain.
One of my colleagues, a person I admire a great deal, said that we should all buy these gadgets to “free ourselves from the fetishization of the book.”
In theory, it sounds nice. But what I wonder is why anyone – any serious reader, anyway – should prefer to fetishize the electronic reading device.