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E-books send one book lover running for cover

By Kathryn Geurin

Earlier this month, Amazon announced the upcoming release of Kindle 2, an upgraded version of the company’s original wireless reading device. About the size of an average paperback, but as thin as a pencil and weighing just over 10 ounces, the $359 device runs on a 3G wireless network, which enables readers to purchase and download books, magazines and newspapers, and page through them on the paperlike E-Ink screen. The Kindle makes it possible to slip an entire library into your coat pocket. It’s an innovation that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos claims will save reading.

Portability and convenience are the most obvious, but the Kindle’s advantages don’t end there. A search feature makes hunting for passages in your favorite works a snap, and a built-in New Oxford American Dictionary puts the definition of that unknown word at your fingertips. Kindle lets you add annotations within text, clip passages, bookmark pages, even edit and export your notes. Your daily paper can be delivered to your Kindle each morning wherever you are. Jetsetters can buzz around the world with a selection of hundreds of thousands of books just a click away.

It’s amazing. Human creativity and ingenuity harnessed to ease the exchange of knowledge and ideas.

And yet, when I hear the echoes of praise for the electronic slab—it’s been called a revolution, “better than books”—I feel the sharp, metallic fingers of the future brush the nape of my neck. My hairs bristle. I run to my treasured first edition copy of The People, Yes. I thumb over the rough yellowed signatures and frayed canvas cover. I tuck into my armchair and breathe in the brittle pages. I want to know my books are safe.

Raised by a librarian and a writer, I am a confessed bibliophile. Our small apartment has had a dedicated library since my husband and I first set up shelves together. I love books for their content, for the millions of worlds they open onto, the imagination, information, imagery and insight, for the connections and confessions they make about humanity.

You can download the words, the stories, the images onto a Kindle (in 16 crisp gray E-Ink tones). But if the wireless reading device is truly as revolutionary as critics claim, if printed books become nearly obsolete for the general public—gone the way of the 35mm camera, reel-to-reel home movies and record players—how much will be lost in the digital transition?

I have a digital camera. It’s phenomenal. More economical, convenient, reliable and crisp than film, I can snap a picture at Christmas dinner, upload the image, edit it to perfection and email a copy to everyone in the family before they tuck in for the night. And yet I often miss the chemical magic of the darkroom, or the communal rush of “getting pictures back,” everyone hunched around a single stack of memories, holding negatives to the light.

I have a digital video camera. It fits in my pocket. With the touch of a button I can preserve any moment, from the precious to the asinine. I can erase it just as easily. The sound and picture are clear, uploading and sharing is a snap. Still, I miss helping my father set up the wobbly movie screen and thread the 8mm reels. I miss curling cross-legged on the carpet for a grainy screening of the past, the dust swirling in the projected beam, the hum of the motor, the gentle thwack, thwack, thwack at the end of a reel.

And I have an mp3 player, but honestly, I really don’t use it. I prefer my record player, the snag of the needle catching the grooves, the bright cardboard sleeves, the scratchy grit of melody.

It’s not that I fear progress, or even the future. Innovation thrills me. I often daydream about what’s to come. What I do fear is that we are losing the complexity of experience, distilling media into digital form. Old media was multisensory and communal. New media is convenient and clean, almost sterile.

Scanning my library shelves, I realize I could cram this whole room of books into an eight-by-five-inch Kindle. I imagine it lying on the empty shelves, hundreds of volumes sucked inside it like ghosts, and I know books are one thing I can never give over to the future. For me, they are more than their stories. They are tangible memories—the pages of Yeats with my mother’s scrawlings in the margins, the Borstal Boy unearthed at a used bookshop one rainy night on the Irish coast. They are aging on my shelves like fine wines. One day I will give them to my children, and I will watch the pages come alive in their hands with stories and words and worlds.

So bright future, come for me. But get your robot fingers off my books.

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