About a month ago, my husband presented me with the new Kindle. It was not a gift, exactly. If there has ever been an issue in our marriage that might conceivably lead to divorce, it's my treatment of books. Or rather, it's his view of my treatment of books.
He accuses me of harboring a suppressed hatred for them, one that results in my bending their covers, dog-earing their pages, scribbling in the margins, leaving them outside, etc. I in turn argue that my abuse of books is in fact a sign of my love for them: to me, a well-worn book resembles a favorite, comfy chair.
The Kindle seemed the solution to this now 21-year conflict between us (one that began early on in our courtship, when I marked up a volume of his de Tocqueville; given what I know now, it's a miracle we made it to the altar after that).
And it has been, to some degree. I'm not sentimental about the book form: Some people comment, when they see me reading my Kindle, "Oh, I could never give up the look and feel of a book." Those are probably the same people who don't mind ink stains on their fingers from reading the morning newspaper (another habit we were warned the Internet could never replace).
I'm more than happy to swap an electronic page for a paper one, especially as the Kindle-makers have so splendidly reproduced the look, if not the feel, of a standard book page (and better: one in which you can adjust the size of type). And as Kindle owners know, you can make notes in the margins, automatically get the definition of a word, and, most amazingly, download a book or newspaper anywhere--including the middle of nowhere--in just a few seconds. I appreciated this last feature when a flight I was on had to make an unexpected stop enroute to unload a sick passenger. We sat on the tarmac for an hour, just beyond the reach of Boingo. I'd been cursing myself that I'd forgotten to get a newspaper before boarding, and I hadn't been enjoying the book on my Kindle. No problem. The Kindle could be operated from the cabin. I quickly downloaded that day's Washington Post and New York Times; then several more books, just in case. The delay passed quickly.
But here's my issue with the Kindle: It reminds me a little bit of those early automobiles you see on exhibit at the Smithsonian, the ones that are basically horse carriages with engines in them (the original hybrid). It's designed exactly for the people who don't wish to give up reading from paper, but who also aren't fully comfortable in the online world.
Thus it's neither fish nor fowl. It's too large to carry in a pocket, like a Blackberry or an iPhone, but nor does it offer the benefits of a laptop. It's graphics are quaintly black and white (and when it sleeps, a very beautiful etching of a famous writer appears as its screensaver). Even the downloaded newspapers appear in a rather old-fashioned form: yes, you are spared the dancing mortgage man in the corner and all the pop-ups, but you don't get photographs with the stories or the home page you are used to. There's of course no video. Instead you scroll through the articles of the different sections as if turning an actual newspaper page ("next article") rather than simply clicking on the stories you want to read. And oddly, despite being an electronic device, it has no backlight, which means you can't read in the dark (i.e. sleeplessly, in the middle of the night). Why, if you have a Kindle, should you also have to own a booklight?!
So in that sense the Kindle is just another piece of electronic equipment you have to carry around in your purse or briefcase, along with the phone, the laptop, etc. until the geniuses at Apple come up with the all-in-one we dream about. Kindle makers will argue, fairly, that it's job is to replace books, not computers--and indeed, it's a miracle you can walk about with a full library contained in a single, slender device. (For this reason I'm going to urge it on my husband, who lives in terror of finding himself stranded somewhere without something to read--and will pack eighty pounds of books for a two-day vacation).
But I can see that as an invention, the Kindle's shelf-life is limited. I can't imagine my children wanting one--and that's not because they don't read or dislike books. They have grown up in the online world, which means they are completely comfortable getting most of their information in an online format. Certainly they would have no issue with reading a book on their laptops. They would appreciate not having to lug ridiculously heavy textbooks back and forth to school. But they would not want a device solely dedicated to books. The very nature of the way we read--and the way the next generation is already reading--is changing by the second. And just as the early car makers couldn't envision a vehicle that didn't resemble a buggy, we can't yet see where the virtual literary world is going. The authors of the future will want to make use of the creative capacities of the computer and Internet; and certainly, their readers will expect it, not having grown up with "the look and feel"--and limitations--of printed books.
We might bemoan this. But you don't hear many people today saying, "I miss the look and feel of papyrus."