Earlier this week Mark O'Connell posted "The E-Reader of Sand" at the Millions, a thoughtful and entertaining entry in the new and burgeoning genre of why-I-love-or-don't-love-my-Kindle articles. This, I guess, is my own entry in same.
Like O'Connell, I have too many books for the space I live in. Like O'Connell, this doesn't stop me from bringing more books into the house. And like O'Connell, this is a "source of mild tension" with my dear wife.
Also like O'Connell, I like--really like--the physical elements of a book: the slap, the weight, the tang, the space they take up. I also like something he doesn't mention but many others have: the way the unique physical characteristics of a book help to place a book, and your reading of it, in memory. (As a bestselling book I recently read in physical form reminded me, memory is strongly rooted in visual associations.)
And like O'Connell, I have a Kindle (in fact, thanks to my old job I was, if not an early adopter, at least an early tester). But unlike him, I don't really like mine. He writes as a fan of physical books who already finds the conveniences and Borgesian infinitude of the ebook reader tempting him away, and he worries that his own desires as a consumer will hasten the death of the old-fashioned books he loves. My own desires, by comparison, aren't there yet: if it were just up to me, we'd still be killing trees left and right so I could have a house even more crammed with bound paper.
There are a number of lesser reasons why I still prefer physical books (the object-ness of the book, the sense of ownership that you don't get with ebooks that are really just leased from Amazon), but the main reason is that the Kindle doesn't fit the way I read. The Kindle, as constructed now, is a very linear machine: you feel as though you are walking through a tunnel with a torch that's able to only illuminate a screen's worth of words at a time, and you can only go forward or back in one-page increments. (I know that's not entirely true: you can go to the table of contents in many books or, if you know the exact text you're looking for, search.) It's a very good way to read the only books I've read in full on my Kindle (actually in the Kindle app on my phone, for the most part): the three Stieg Larsson books. I've loved having them sitting on my phone as what my wife and I have always called, when we remind each other not to leave the house without a book, an "emergency sit-down," and it was a pleasure to whip through their pages.
But one of the underheralded beauties of a physical book is that it can be a linear machine, but doesn't have to be. If you've read a book already, you can jump back and forth in the blink of an eye to sections you want to look back at (sections your visual memory has a good intuitive sense for finding). And if you haven't read it yet, you can step in at any point and get a taste of it, with the better-than-random method that a longtime book reader has for getting the spirit of a book in a few well-chosen glances. And these days, much of my reading is done in one or the other of these ways: either I am reading a book hard, so I can write about it or just further think about it--not only reading the pages in order, but returning to some of them and jumping ahead to others; or I am reading it lightly, opening it from curiosity or in search of inspiration or distraction, without ever planning to read it through from A to Z. And the Kindle, as currently designed, can't hold a candle to the codex for either sort of reading.
Which gets back to my post from yesterday, and why I love having 3,600 books in my house. It's not just the fetishist and obsessive collector in me (though I confess both demons do exist)--it's that I love having so many books at hand for easy access. From the desk where I'm writing this I can reach over a hundred books without leaving my seat, and I'm a short walk away (well, two floors in some cases) from a few thousand more. Does that give me easier access than the Borgesian infinite elibrary that, in theory--though at quite a cost at this point!--could be contained in my Kindle? Hard to believe in the age of Google, but yes--the perfect complement to the searchable world available on my laptop or my phone is this collection of physical objects, which my visual-sorting and -remembering mind has surprising powers for navigating quickly through. I'm a magpie as a writer and a reader, and a magpie thrives on the chance discovery as well as the planned one. Having a large but well-curated collection close at hand provides an almost ideal environment to make such chance discoveries (or, even better, rediscoveries) fruitful and frequent.
Is that sort of movement within and between books possible on the Kindle? In theory yes, but in practice, as anyone who has tried to navigate quickly within their personal elibrary or within a particular ebook, not at all. That's not to say, though, that the creators of the Kindle, or some competing device, will not find ways to recreate electronically some of the features that I love about my physical library, through multiple windows, visual cues, note-taking, etc. I have no doubt that there are folks in South Lake Union working on that right now, in fact. But for me the Kindle as it stands can't offer the experiences of reading I like best, so for now my love of physical books still matches my base consumer desires, and the 3,600 will likely continue to grow faster than the eight.
P.S. That all said, as I was writing this post I decided to see if I could order a Kindle book or two to take into the woods for the next couple of weeks, along with the knee-high stack of books I already have packed (and, more importantly, to have as my next emergency backup books on my phone). I looked for some promising linear candidates (they call them "page-turners" for a reason), and ended up downloading Richard Stark's first Parker book, The Hunter, and the stranger-than-fiction skullduggery tale, Charlie Wilson's War. I'd still rather have the physical versions (and I'm sure I could find used copies of each for less), but in the interest of space, and further experimentation, and having a book to jump into when I'm stuck somewhere in line, I bit on both. We'll see...
P.P.S. As close readers of the previous P.S. might have guessed, yes, this will be my last post for the next two weeks, during which I'll be off the grid and, one hopes, reading.