Against Kindle

An avid squash player belongs to a private athletic club where he plays twice a week. There are other, cheaper courts to play on: the local JCCA and YMCA, his alma mater, which is only a five-minute drive from his apartment, and the high school he attended, only ten minutes from his apartment. All offer courts.

To be fair, his club is also a fine dining and social venue. It has a billiards room, a wonderful library, exercise equipment, a steam room, a lap pool, and an august membership. It is a very nice place, and membership dues aren’t negligible. But he doesn’t eat there. He rarely socializes there, never plays billiards, barely reads, exercises at a different place, doesn’t steam, and swims laps in a different pool. Yet he pays every month to play squash.

Why, friends ask; why do you pay the club dues and only use the squash courts, when you could play for free at any one of several other convenient locations every week? Because, he answers; because it’s nicer here.

And so it is with books. Books are wonderful, beautiful things. Their heft, smell, and scratchy-dry sounds are all part of the indelible mark they leave as we read. Reading a book is more than hearing a story; it’s a more subtle experience. A story is what a book is made to hold, but books are more than stories just as frames are more than the paintings they hold.  Frames can be works of art in their own right, and books too can be equally wondrous as their stories, equally dear, equally worthwhile in their own right. Imagine oiled leather bindings, crisply delicate pages, ethereal dust, illuminated typefaces, and all that… now you’ve got the picture.

Amazon’s terrible Kindle device, which downloads the text of books to an electronic tablet, is a photograph of a painting, without a frame. The basic gist is there: the words on the Kindle screen are the same as are on the pages of the book, but there’s no beauty left. There’s no experience to it, there’s no tactile sense to pressing buttons, there’s no magic. A photograph of a painting will give an idea of what’s going on in the painting, but the two will never be the same. Moreover, reproductive photography hardly conveys the subtlety of brushstrokes or the majesty of a gilt frame. And nobody pulls his favorite armchair in front of the fire, pours a drink, lights his pipe, and cracks open a dusty old… Kindle.

Like our squash player, whose goal is to play but whose experience is made nicer by quiet locker rooms, friendly attendants, and complimentary iced tea, so too is our goal of reading a story made nicer by the beauty of a book. To be fair, Kindle may revolutionize books like the printing press and save fortunes in many arenas. Students would certainly love to buy one Kindle and then download textbooks every term for one dollar each, instead of buying them at $300.00 apiece. But efficiency and cost-effectiveness are just that. They are not beauty.  


A poor substitute.


7 Responses to Against Kindle

  1. Noah Goldkamp says:

    This is quite possibly the dumbest thing I have ever read. In this era when avid readers are hard to find (and as a former high school english teacher let me tell you they are hard to find) anything that percipitates more reading should be lauded as an achievement.

    You are like the guy who after the printing press was invented sat there expressing grief over the fact that the books were no longer a work of art because the words were handwritten, all the while missing the great benefit this technology would bring to society.

    In short, anything that makes it easier and cheaper to read should be commended. And as for your book being part of the experience argument, never in my life have I cared what shape a book took. The important part was the story, dialogue and character development that occured inside the book. I mean haven’t you heard the fantastically cliche saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover”.

    • Andrew Eastman says:

      Thanks for your time and comments.

      The “guy who (sic) after the printing press was invented (sic) sat there expressing grief over the fact that the books were no longer a work of art (sic)” had it right. Books are great for holding stories, and they’re great for being works of art. When they’re both at once, they’re very valuable. Their beauty increases the pleasure of reading the words they contain. Watching a football game is nice. Watching a football game played outside on a brisk fall day when the leaves change colors is nicer than watching a drab indoor arena-league game. The game is the same and the teams may be the same, but the backdrop makes all the difference. So too with books.

      There are two sides to this argument, and both are valid: The first is yours, that making books cheap and easy to get ahold of is laudable. This is true, but will the Kindle help do that? It’s an expensive machine, and libraries offer plenty of free books to anybody who wants them already. Will people who aren’t regular readers already spend hundreds of dollars on a machine made for reading books? It doesn’t seem likely, and so it doesn’t seem likely that Kindle will spread literacy, at least not at its current price.

      The second point, equally valid, is mine: reading a book is a tactile experience which includes the words of the story, the book, and the setting in which it’s read. If your reading experience isn’t similar, you’re missing something. Buy a good book in paperback. Read it on a cramped, noisy train car with harsh, overhead light. Go buy the same book again with a nice leather binding. Read it in a quiet, old den, in a big chair by a fireplace. Think about which you’d prefer.

      Information can be sent around in many different ways, but we don’t collect information in museums. We collect beauty. There are hand-lettered and illuminated centuries-old books on display in private collections, at universities, and in museums across the world. There are no Kindles there. A book can both contain a story, and be a work of art. Being both at once is very special. That’s not something that the Kindle is capable of. And at its current price point, “percipitating reading” is not something it is capable of, either.

  2. Cornelius GoldKamp says:

    I invented reading, books, and the printing press.

  3. Cornelius GoldKamp says:

    I also took that picture, so take it down, or I will dominate you.

  4. Jenny Woulfe says:

    In Defense of the Kindle

    Books are a beautiful thing in the stories they tell and the way they present these stories. At least, if you are reading books made over 100 years ago when they still contained the beautiful artwork depicted above. However, the pages of today’s books do not look much different than the screen of a kindle. Pick up the latest John Grisham, and it’s not going to contain the beautiful artwork of old. It’s going to have text, plain and simple. Of course this still leaves the classics, but who actually has an original Dickens or Chaucer? Most likely you are reading a reprint that looks just as dull as the pages of any modern book. As to the lost ability to turn pages and feel the paper, I have to confess that sometimes my hand cramps, and I’m not particular enthralled with the ability to turn pages.

    But the artwork and the details of a book are not what create that reading experience which we crave. It’s the pictures we form in our minds, the story that takes place inside our head that makes the reading experience, and you can find that in any medium, be it a kindle or a 16th Century calligraphy copy of Don Quixote written by monks in some medieval monastery.

    So maybe we have lost something in the experience of reading in today’s society. However, whatever it is we lost was not destroyed by the kindle. It was destroyed when bookmaking stopped being an art form in and of itself, completely apart from writing the story. So today when I choose to kick back in my armchair in a den with a fire going and a glass of wine in hand, I’m going to kick back with my kindle and not miss a thing. And oh, when I finish that book but want to keep reading, I don’t have to wait until I have time to go to the bookstore or the library.

    • Andrew Eastman says:

      Thanks for reading, and for your comments.

      Certainly old books can be beautiful; new ones can be, too. But beautiful or not, any book with a little heft (and especially one with a few years on it) is worth its weight in experience. Words and stories are great, and certainly their conveyance is the primary purpose of any book… but they don’t have to be the only purpose, or the only thing you enjoy when you read.

      If your experience reading is strictly one of internal dialogue and there’s no pleasure in the weight and musty smell of a book, the crispness of pages and the scratchy sound they make turning, or the idiosyncratic way typefaces are inked… well, you might not be getting as much as possible out of your reading.

      I have a cell phone which can tell the time accurately up to a fraction of a hundredth of one second, based on electronic signals from space, at any altitude. It also looks just like every other cell phone in the world and in three years I’ll trade it in for another one, which will look just like every other cell phone in the world also.

      Despite its efficiency, the phone doesn’t contribute anything to my day which is unique, or which would ever be mistaken for character or personality. But my wristwatch does… it’s got the scratches and dings to prove its mine and not the same as everybody else’s, and it looks nice. I like how heavy it is and how it looks on my wrist. I like knowing old men in Switzerland put it together with tweezers, with their own hands, and that they wound the springs inside of it. The watch has a personality that my phone could never have, and it makes telling the time a pleasure.

      So too with books. You mention John Grisham… I have about ten old novels of his, all the good ones: The Rainmaker, The Juror, The Chamber, The Pellican Brief, The Firm, The Client and so on. None of the new ones (on purpose). I read them first over ten years ago, when they were new and the pages were white and smelled like a bookstore. I recently took one off the shelf to re-read on a flight; I think it was The Firm. Grisham is great in-flight reading.

      Though I should’ve expected it, when I cracked the book to start reading I saw that the pages had yellowed. They’d become thin and feathery. The book smelled old, like a cardboard moving box. The binding had cracked and become creased, some of the page-tips were dog-eared. Re-reading it, I realized the book was over ten years old, that I’d last picked it up when I was 15 and in high school, that I read it then with a completely different set of eyes and opinions and experiences. There was a sales receipt stuck between two pages, probably once a bookmark, dated July 30, 1995.

      In short, re-reading that old book was a pleasure in itself, and not just because of the words in it. There was something more. It had gotten better with time in a dusty, cracked, creased, faded way… a way, that is, a Kindle can’t.

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