Books and Kindles: Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Eat Them with Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti

Image of Kindle with All Roads Are Circles onscreen

Yeah, thought I'd put my novel onscreen. Sneaky, eh?

Books, ugh, repellent things. The fluttering of pages, the implicit mockery of cold text, the muscle- and mind-straining weight of ideas. Better to corral all those meandering words and their unseemly punctuation into an electron pool, where you can sip from modest, reduced-page cups of their content, where you can make type sizes wiggle to your wishes, where you can search and highlight and transfer and connect and criss-cross and cannibalize and—whew! [Daubs fevered brow.]

Actually, I love books, those creaky old antiques. If you drop hardcover books on eggs, they make a satisfying squish. If you argue with their authors, you can fling them across the room with a cascade of curses and get a resounding “bang!” from the wall opposite. But the reason I’m even blithering about books is that before I left for a recent two-month stint in the Bahamas, I was given a first-generation Kindle, a discard from a fellow who now is proudly armed with an iPad.

The Salt Slime of the Ancient Reader
Taking a pile of books to the Bahamas was a no-no, mostly for weight issues. And because, having lived in the tropics before, I knew that all things material are subject to the insidious insistence from nature that solids return to goo. For instance, my host in the tropics had vast shelves of great books, which I eagerly scanned. But picking one (and another and another) to leaf through—ahhgggh! All covered with that strange salt-slime that adheres to anything that is stationary for a period in the humid climes. Most unpleasant.

Thus, I Kindleized my reading, and I admit to the pleasure of summoning up multiple books for chunky savoring in one reading session. All those good free Domino Project works, Poke the Box, Do the Work, Self-Reliance and more. And because I am a dweeb, Grammatically Correct and Portable MFA in Creative Writing (even more portable on a Kindle). And a mystery story collection. And my own novel, pictured so promotionally in the image above.

The Palm V—Looking Back Through Time’s Cracked Screen
But I’ve never been the Luddite sort regardless, railing about ereaders being the death of the printed word. Publishing is evolving in crazy, lurching ways, but I think it’s mostly to the good. I’ll frequent (and buy in) bookstores till the day I go blind, happy with the serendipity of the shelves, the sense of discovery and promise the stores afford, and the fine feelings I actually get from the fluttering of pages. But I wrote a newspaper piece, sometime around the Ice Age of 1999, about having jolly fun reading Mark Twain on an airplane with my Palm V. Petrol-based ink, soy ink or e-ink—it’s the ideas therein that make one think.

One disclaimer on this particular model of Kindle: Steve Jobs would have had the designer drawn and quartered. You can barely hold the damn thing without accidentally turning pages, backwards and forwards. Set it down at an angle, set it down on something soft, lift it to move it—your place is whisked to the next electronic edge. I know the newer models have corrected this egregious inelegance, but I can’t callously throw this thing against the wall like I might the printed Portable MFA.

One small coda: today, we renewed our subscription to the Sunday paper. I read a lot of news online (discounting whatever mind rot news-noodling provokes), but no matter the readily available onscreen/Kindle/iPad/ version of the paper, there’s still something about flipping through the physical sections of the newspaper, in bed with a second cup of Sunday coffee …

Writers (and Readers) Without Borders

Pay phone

Image via Wikipedia

The final notice that Borders has conclusively died, on its back with its eight legs faintly wiggling to the end, brought mixed feelings. As a lover of independent bookstores, which often have subtle and quirky relationships with a community rarely entertained by the big box stores, I felt a sense of satisfaction, tinged with the glancing guilt that occasionally pairs with Schadenfruede. But having found comfort in bookstores of every flavor for much of my life, that satisfaction was alloyed with the sinking feeling that bookstores as we know them are on their way out.

I’m not going to go into some quasi-nostalgic song of lament that touches on the uncanny combination of utility, reliability and romance that is the physical book—that blade has been sharpened by many word-whittlers with more gift than me. And if the physical book is wobbling downstairs on creaky knees, the jaunty trot of the ebook into the arena bespeaks a range of new possibilities of authors connecting with readers in ways unimaginable just five years ago.

The Electric Call of Books Unknown
What I will miss about bookstores is akin to the feeling you get when you are traveling, and you stop in an unfamiliar town and choose a cafe whose storefront beckoned to you in some elusive way. When you find out that they make a chile relleno with salsa that sings or a chocolate malt that is the milk of the heavens, that’s happy discovery. That kind of serendipity is similar to what can befall you when wandering bookstore aisles, having a title or cover magnetically draw your hands and then your head. There’s a gratifying sense of connection to author and idea that almost happens in a Malcolm Gladwell Blink, an electric recognition.

That tingle of connection from out of the blue can happen when browsing online, of course, but that’s a different experience, and doesn’t have the spark of sensuality I’m suggesting. Of course, bookstores won’t just disappear, at least not all at once. After all, we still can see a pay phone booth on city streets now and then, which can make a fine shelter for a sudden rain squall. Enterprising bookstores will continue to evolve, at least the ones that acknowledge and incorporate the ebook revolution, rather than denouncing it. And community bookstores will become more so, if they emphasize community.

Everything That Rises Must Converge
But for the more than 10,000 Borders employees laid off, that’s small consolation. Publishers will continue to tremble, with that vast arm of book purchasing quashed. And authors will quail too, particularly traditional print-arm authors, now bereft of acres and acres of shelf space across the nation. But enterprising people will still create, find, sell or enjoy their chile relleno and chocolate malt discoveries, no matter if the vendor is using street-corner sandwich-sign slingers or Net-enabled neon to attract the eye.

[Note: Author is not advocating ingestion of chile rellenos and chocolate malts at the same time. Though author suspects they might be pretty good together.]