I now have a “Kindle,” which is, for those who do not know this, a device for the purchase and reading of electronic books, or ebooks. In the course of familiarizing myself with the functions and uses of this contraption, I’ve had occasion to make the following observations.
The first thing I will note is that I have a great many paper books, collected over decades and beyond what I am able to house. We live now in an era that imposes on all, whether one is able to face it or not, a sense of guilt over the consumption of material resources. I suspect that many Kindles and such will be purchased on the assumption, likely false, that this will reduce one’s so-called environmental footprint. The appeal and apparent soundness of this fallacy, if indeed (as I suspect) it is, may be explained readily enough. A Kindle may store many thousands of books without need of paper, and since paper is a common enough thing in our lives, the idea of using less of it is quite simple to grasp. What no normal person can know from direct experience however is the nature and amounts of material resources going into the production of the devices themselves: the petroleum for plastics, and the electricity, and the rare earth minerals, etc. Nor is this problem limited to the Kindle, as advances in technology tend in general toward the replacement of more or less “transparent” objects, readily understandable, with opaque ones whose material nature eludes us. A book is made of tress and ink, but a cell phone, laptop, or ebook reader is made of who knows what, and in what measure, with what environmental effects?
The problem does remain however that books take up space, and that most are read only once and then afterward merely take up that space indefinitely, to no purpose. They may be donated to a library, given to a friend, or sold. There is also the option of borrowing books rather than purchasing them. Nonetheless it must be faced that a bookish sort of person is probably going to amass a library, even if only one composed with those must-have books to which he will turn over and again. The appeal of the Kindle, for me, is the reduction of space that such a collection will require. For the truth of the matter is that there are not a great many books among those I have read that I will ever read again, but I am forever reaching after something in a “How does it go again?”moment. It seems rather absurd to have shelfloads of paper sitting about for such occasions, when this is not absolutely necessary.
Here however I observe the frustrating tendency of new technologies to replace rather than accommodate what came before. As it happens, I already have a good collection of ebooks going back to the early part of the decade. However, they were formatted for something called Microsoft Reader and can not be read on a Kindle, which means I must either repurchase them or maintain several reading devices. (There are software programs to reformat the files, but none in my experience works well.) At least the paper books have not been rendered immediately obsolete, in the way earlier ebook formats have. The Kindle, by the way, reads a proprietary Amazon file format, “azw,” based upon an earlier ebook format developed by an outfit called Mobipocket. Then there are ebook formats such as pdf, prc, and pdb, some of which if I am not mistaken go back to the days of Palm Pilots. Nothing drives home the point that technology is quickly changing quite as the recollection of 2000, a suited businessman coming down from the bus with his $500 monochrome display 8mb calendar-and-memos Palm Pilot. How long before the third-generation Kindle is comparably antiquated, I wonder?
I was happy to discover I could read newspapers on the Kindle and that the experience of doing so was tolerable, even pleasant. Not as pleasant as paper, mind you, but good. It is possible to purchase and download many newspapers (and more are certain to be made available very soon), but I have found also that the Kindle resolves web pages quite well, and that one may therefore read them online if one so desires. This will soon change, as newspapers one by one force purchases of subscriptions upon would-be readers of the online edition. It is probably the newspaper, and not the printed book, which will undergo the greatest and most dramatic change in coming years. The principal reasons of course are the Internet and the common view of people under thirty that printed newspapers are outdated and therefore unnecessary, like the calèche à deux roues and your great-great-grandfather’s hearing aid.
No matter how earnestly and to what degree a person over, say, forty embraces a new technology, there will probably be a holdover of some kind. To put this another way: is it possible to grow up in a world of paper and typewriters and books and not have this leave an indelible mark upon one’s outlook and predisposition? In my own case, my interest in writing and in language is inseparable from my earlier interest in the material world of typesetting, fonts, cutting and pasting, ink-stained fingers, laid paper, book bindings, the click of typewriters, the smell of old libraries, and so forth. It is not that I am nostalgic for these things, but that my time among them has probably had an effect on me both as a reader and as a writer. Furthermore I can tell when I am reading something written by someone with none of these in their mental background. A person who has grown up among books, as opposed to blogs, tends to give that fact away. Note also that the Internet has now been around long enough that we have among us writers who, at least in theory, can have been formed under its influence. Whether this is bad or good, or a matter of indifference, I am unable to say. But it seems to me that this too will weigh in on the fate of the book.