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Charlotte Safavi Headshot

Burn the Books?

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Late last year as I walked my son to elementary school, I said,

"So, I'm thinking of getting dad a Kindle for his birthday. What do you think?"
"Isn't that something to do with starting fires?" he said, raising an eyebrow.
"Hmm, yes. But a Kindle--uppercase K--is also a thing you can read books on. Paper-free."
"Cool!"

As I psyched myself up to order an e-reader, I had mixed emotions.

I am an old school book person. I revere books; I have done so all my life. My father's library in Iran was my favorite childhood spot, where I sat on the floor nose-deep in Encyclopedia Britannica. As I later grew up in England, I swept through the classics by author, book by book. Now that I am living in America with my own family, books continue to be my bible.

But in our modest family home, the bookshelves are at full capacity, the book-baskets overflow, and a towering stack of hard and soft covers rises ominously in my bedroom threatening to topple at any moment.

Before I visited the Amazon website, I talked to a fellow mom who had an e-reader.

"I love it," she effused. "We went sailing this summer and I didn't have to lug any books. You can even read the newspaper on it."

Ka-ching. At the checkout I upgraded the Kindle to a model with global wireless. I threw in a black cover.

At first the clicking sound of pages 'turning' bugged me, but I got used to it. I also got used to my husband tapping out word definitions for me, as I lay in bed with a 1-pound weight on my chest. (I will not divulge how many pounds my Oxford dictionaries weigh--think ballast.) Whenever I finished a book late at night, I got the shakes. When he did, he hit download.

Early this year at the bookstore I walked smack into a Nook stand--and I am not talking about a nook of books. This Barnes & Noble e-reader joins the likes of Kindle and Sony Reader. And today Apple will reveal the much anticipated and undoubtedly slicker iPad.

We are on the cusp of a future already rewriting itself.

To me, Kindle is like the first Black and White TV that showed up in living rooms, the kind that streaked like a zebra in motion and crackled like a kid's walkie-talkie, the kind that required antennae-fiddling to get a clear picture and decent sound, the kind that families increasingly bought and sat around.

Radio as a source of entertainment faded fast. Of course, it is still around and has diehard fans, but the Flat Screen digital behemoth in my basement reigns supreme.

When it comes to books, I have come to terms with the fact that it is the written word that counts, not the medium upon which it is delivered. Is this excerpt from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass any less beautiful for being read on a screen?

"...It avails not, time nor place--distance avails not,

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many
generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd..."

I will read and love Walt Whitman's poetry type-faced in an antique book, scratched on an old wooden school desk, scribbled on a scrap of toilet paper. One day I too will read and love Leaves of Grass on a hand-held device.

In our ever-changing world, what we need to be concerned about as a global community of readers, writers and thinkers (that covers all of us, I believe) is content.

We need to preserve and protect standards of writing. In an online article in the New York Times today, a source familiar with the iTablet said of Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple,

"He believes democracy is hinged on a free press and that depends on there being a professional press."

Frankly, Steve Jobs could not have said it better. Let us treasure the written word by ensuring the survival of professional writers and the industries that support them.

Recently my son wrote a school paper about our attic, which happens to be his favorite place. He wrote,

"It smells like old books."

Will books, as we know them, be the norm in say fifty years? No. Does that mean we burn the books? Never. Should we conserve the well-written word along with the branches of trees? Absolutely.