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