three things the kindle taught me about books

(Or, that one time a flight attendant told me, “Please turn off your book.”)

1. Weight is overrated.

I suppose it’s just a brilliant conflation of timing, convenience, my booklist, and the gift-giver’s identity (hi, Mom!) that made my first kindle read Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, which is only out as a heaving, two-pound hardcover. That’s four times heavier than the kindle. So yes, I was very thankful to have the latter. I lugged effortlessly tossed the book from Virginia to California to Iowa. I held it up, propped it open, and turned the pages with one hand. Honestly, I am rather missing this lightness now, seven pages into Apollo’s Angels, which has Freedom beat by over 100 pages.

2. Page turning is not, and neither are page numbers.

Is there anything more satisfying than turning a page, especially if it’s the last one? There is not, and the Kindle has not overlooked the importance of this mini-ritual. There’s actually two “Next Page” buttons, which seemed silly until I found myself using both. But a wag of my finger must go to Amazon’s stupid, inane decision to trade page numbers for “locations,” which I originally (and incorrectly) thought indicated line numbers and now do not understand at all. I know the text on the screen may not correlate exactly with one, printed page, especially when you consider enlarged fonts or margins, but seriously: No page numbers!? Not even as an option?? Bad call!

3. Books are about the words.

Here’s the truth: I have a book fetish. I really had no choice about the matter: my parents’ house has bookcases in every room — and for those keeping track, that’s two in the dining room, one built into the kitchen, one built into the basement plus three more freestanding, one per bedroom and four in the two offices. Oh, and one bathroom has two, too. The only person who might have outdone us was my Grandma in Kansas, whose shelves were filled with first editions — and the first editions themselves stuffed with the original New York Times book review and clipped “Collect First Editions!” newsprint ads, with the selling price circled.

I remember coming home from school and asking, “Do we have such-and-such by Baudelaire, or Moliere, or Rimbaud?” and my parents would roll their eyes and say, “We have about four.” One of my most salient early(ish) memories is sitting on the floor of my Mom’s office as she opened three moving-sized cardboard boxes filled with the complete works of Freud. “Are you going to read all those?” I marveled. “Well, maybe not all at once, but it’s just a good thing to have,” she said.

A good thing to have. Books are just a good thing to have. I love the weight of the page and the scraping sound of one turning. I love the look of a finished book — it looks like it’s done yoga, you know, the cracked spine, the loosened-up pages, the wrinkles from dog-eared corners.

But there is a moral here, one that your neighborhood book fetishist can sometimes, er, forget in the lovely smell of old pages: we love books because of the words. The book part is incidental. It’s like the place setting on a table: sure, it’s nice to have handsome flatware and plates, but that’s not the part that tastes good. And words, I firmly believe, do not give a whit whether they are transcribed in printer’s ink or pearl e-ink technology. (Side note: Believe the hype. A Kindle screen is nothing like a computer screen.)

Words work either way. You can click “Next Page” just as anxiously as you would turn a physical one. The categorization of “contemporary questions, like what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was is true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full-time? And had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer?” — it still works. And a certain scene that was nominated for (but did not win) the Literary Review‘s Bad Sex in Fiction Award remains quite as cringe-worthy, laughably scatological (or is it scatologically laughable?), and apt to trigger the gut reaction, “Obama is reading this, too??” I promise. Really, just take my word on it.

I’m not hitching my whole wagon to the e-reader train quite yet. But I’ve thrown a bag aboard. And really, an e-reader that makes you remember the entire point of reading, the whole life of books, can’t be all bad.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Megan on January 26, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    I love my kindle!!! I read so much more with it but I am saddened that JK Rowling will not yet allow Harry Potter to be put in ebook format.


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