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Isabel Cowles

Isabel Cowles

Posted February 10, 2009 | 04:41 PM (EST)

The Greenest Library, In Your Hands


Yesterday, Amazon revealed the Kindle 2.0. By all accounts, it seemed disappointingly similar to the original version, despite the new speakers, keyboard and rounded corners. The lack of innovation is surprising because, except for Amazon's claims that the original version is selling like it's going out of style, it was never in style. Overall Kindle reviews are negative, the price is high and the object is clunky and hard to use. What's more, it looks like a gizmo for sale in airplane catalogues or at Hammacher Schlemmer and is hardly a tool the hip literati would want to be seen with on a park bench or at the beach, as Amazon advertises.

I am predisposed to dislike the Kindle because I love books. To me these tech bibelots are a threat to the printed word. Books have a smell and can be underlined and dog-eared. They are physical accounts of the information in my brain. They collect character and seem like faithful companions.

Furthermore, they're made from organic matter, unlike the plastic, wires, batteries and LCDs of the Kindle that will endure long after curious consumers give up on the inefficiencies of the page-turning joystick. Yesterday, though, I started thinking seriously about the environmental comparison between print and technology and was struck by the potential advantage of well-wrought and properly made digital readers.

Like many people who enjoy reading, I hoard books. I still have college textbooks, not to mention all of the paperbacks I read in high school. Wherever I move, the books move, too. I've packed them in my car and driven them all around the country. But the practice may not be so charming after all.

I was alarmed to discover, for example, that I've lowered my MPGs by nearly 10% on all of the trips I've taken while hauling books to and fro, which includes traveling from Vermont to Texas. I've burned hundreds of gallons of gas just to keep my bedside table stacked with familiar titles and my kitchen full of pages of besmirched recipes I already know by heart.

I always hoped to collect enough books to build my own library. It would be a nice space, kept at a pleasant temperature and full of inviting lamplight. And that's just my little stockpile, tiny in comparison to the local, national and university libraries that require constant energy to heat and cool and huge amounts of electricity to illuminate and track with computer databases.

Even before it hits the storage shelf, each book has a long history of pollution. Last March, the Green Press Initiative investigated the environmental ramifications of the publishing industry, and their findings were daunting.

The 2006 study measured the carbon created in paper production and printing, energy use by publishers and sellers, book transportation, disposal of titles that go unsold and carbon storage lost when trees are felled. It found that in the 4.15 billion books produced, the industry had an annual carbon footprint size 12.4. That's 12.4 metric tons of waste, which translates to nearly 9 pounds of carbon per book. By those standards, my own collection is responsible for nearly 7,000 pounds of carbon waste--and not all of that is organic matter.

Add that to the waste created by newspaper and magazine printing, and you're looking at a big load of garbage, much of it unread. Suddenly, the e-reader doesn't seem so bad--especially if you use it enough to negate the energy it consumes by saving on book production, transportation and storage. (The ultimate profligate indulgence, of course, would be owning a Kindle and continuing to collect print.)

But, I'm still not going to buy the Kindle 2.0. I'm going to revisit the books I already own and cancel my periodical subscriptions--I can get everything I need through targeted RSS feeds and online aggregators. I will not feel guilty or responsible for the flagging sales of publishing houses or publications when I get my information online: people will always need information and there will always be a market for it, even if the traditional system has to change in unforeseeable ways. Digitization is upon us and industries as well as consumers will have to learn to accommodate that transformation, even if it means abandoning certain charms like glossy advertising, inky fingers and underlined passages.

In the meantime, I'm going to scour the tech pages for an announcement that the innovators at Apple have decided to incorporate a reader into their existing and wildly popular, multi-touch technology. I can't dog-ear an iPhone page, but I can have a telephone, music, maps, newspapers, restaurant reviews, online bill pay and almost anything else that at one time required its own electronic device or lots of paper, production and shipping.

Sure it's sad to abandon the dream of an old fashioned library, but I've got new ideas for how the space might look: it could be a seat on a train, my own jacket pocket, or a log in the middle of the woods. Why tear down the trees to build a new library, when the forest can be one, just as it is? In the end the landfills will be smaller, the air will be cleaner and I'll have all the information I want right at my fingertips.