It is July 5 in the year of Our Lord 2010 and I am standing in the electronics section of the Target store in Kalispell, Montana. One day after the nation observed its 234th year of independence from Great Britain, I am about to undergo what I think will be my own personal reading revolution. I am about to buy a Kindle.
This is not easy for me because I have publicly sworn my solid resistance to e-books, pledging my allegiance to the paper-printed word--the lovely-to-hold books with their velvety pages, their musty-dusty smell (when they're old), their nose-stinging tang of ink (when they're new), and especially the covers with their come-hither designs. I have been fiercely loyal to books (actual books) for nearly half a century. I cannot, I will not give them up.
And yet here I am standing in front of a Kindle display, my wife at one elbow, encouraging me to indulge myself, a red-shirted Target employee named Ethan at my other side, assuring me that electronic reading devices are, like, totally awesome.
I think of all the other personal revolutions in my life: the day I got a microwave and finally understood the mysteries of popcorn, the day I got a cell phone and untethered myself from a cord and a wall, the day I got an iPod and ditched 500 pounds of compact discs for something that could hold all that music (and more) in the palm of my hand. At those moments, the change had seemed daring and odd and frightening. Now, I cannot even start my mornings without first zapping a mug of coffee in the microwave for two minutes, or listening to music from a personally-designed playlist of 17,000 songs. These devices are part of the very fiber of my materialistic, consumerist being.
But at that point in my life--11:46 a.m., July 5, 2010--electronic books were not part of my life, thankyouverymuch. The Kindles and Nooks and Kobos stood on the other side of the fence, corralled away from the paper and cloth volumes I'd treasured for the whole of my 47 years--starting with that Little Golden Book of Pinocchio whose tasty corners I nibbled when a mere tot. By this point in my life--11:47 a.m., July 5, 2010--I was the happy owner of 6,213 books which filled the groaning shelves in my basement. I loved the way each of those 6,213 books felt in my hands--the hefty chunk of Don Quixote, the featherlight wisp of The Old Man and the Sea. I had been holding books, each one of different character and temperament, for four decades. How could I give all that up in one flick of a wrist swiping a credit card at Target?
"Go on, do it," my wife purred.
"You won't regret it, man," Ethan asserted.
As my wife drove us back to our home in Butte, I accessed the Kindle's wireless network and purchased my first e-book, The Passage by Justin Cronin. I held the creamy white device in my hands (which, it turned out, felt even lighter than my copy of The Old Man and the Sea) and I started reading, turning the pages with a click of my thumb.
O, brave new world!
I was absorbed into The Passage while the tears were still drying over my grief for the heavy, dusty, brittle volumes which waited for me back at home. If books could feel, surely they were rife with bitterness and betrayal.
* * *
I've been Kindling for nearly a month now and can't imagine ever turning back. I have no doubt that my choice of e-reading device will evolve with technology. I'm already seething with desire for the new Kindle (lighter! sleeker! crisper!), and there will be others which will soon make what I'm holding in my hand feel and look like a triceratops. But for now, I'm happy with what I have.
- the weight, or lack thereof (where was the Kindle when my wrists were breaking while reading The Crimson Petal and the White?)
- the fact that I can hold it in one hand and still turn pages with just my thumb (very convenient when snuggling with my wife in bed at night--try putting one arm around your lover while struggling to balance War and Peace in the other hand: impossible!)
- the portability of multiple books (to date, I have less than 10 books on my device, but more are coming soon, I'm sure)
- the anonymity of what I'm reading (that subway rider doesn't know if I'm looking at Delta of Venus or David Copperfield)
- the screensavers when I turn off the device (it's a minor thing, but I love seeing Alexandre Dumas or Agatha Christie appear on my screen; their eyes begging me to come back soon)
- the ability to search for words in any given book (typing "vampire" into The Passage tells me that Cronin uses it 15 times)
What's not so great:
- going from one page to the next, I often forget the connecting words and have to thumb back to "Prev Page" to acclimate my brain. Likewise, it's not easy to flip back through the pages to find certain passages; I'm a very visual person and I could often find what I wanted just by the visual layout of paragraphs on the page (however, the search function is a quicker and surer method of finding what I want)
- reading pdf files which haven't been converted to a Kindle-friendly format strains my already-poor eyesight
- the fragility of the device (I'm in constant fear of dropping the dang thing; also, no more Wednesday "Bath With a Book" nights)
Except for the words, of course. And here is the core element of e-readers which bodes well for us writers. Setting aside illustrated books and graphic novels for a minute, I appreciate how my Kindle has put me in closer contact with text. Gone are the distractions of book weight, slippery dustjackets, or deckle-edged pages; all that remains are the e-Ink words on the screen. Yes, I know "enhanced" books with embedded videos and hyperlinks are coming our way, but for now I enjoy the singular concentrated joy of the words on the screen in my palm.
I'm a reluctant convert who still feels the pull of paper-and-glue books, and if three months ago you'd have told me I'd be writing the words "I love my Kindle," I would have punched you in the face. The decision to make the e-book conversion was quick, but not easy. As I stood there sandwiched between my wife and Ethan the Target Guy, my pulse raced, my breath was shallow, and my loyalties were torn down the middle. Should I really abandon my library for the sake of weight and convenience? Will reading The Last of the Mohicans be a different experience electronically? Will Kindles make books more or less intimate objects? This is important, I thought. Potentially life-changing.
The clock struck 12 p.m. High noon.
I turned to Ethan and nodded slowly. "Alright, I'll take it."
And so, I have tossed a match on a pile of wood ("Kindle Kindles Kindling"). This could very well be the start of a new wildfire in my life.