I'm pissed. Nobody gave me a Kindle for Christmas. Okay, like most writers, I've been bad-mouthing Amazon for years. Indie bookstores I love have been disappeared in the middle of the night, hooded and dragged to the stadium, never to be heard from again. With no bargaining power in an industry taking a ride that makes any Six Flags roller coaster look like a punt glide on the Thames, no authors I know make enough money from writing to pay for more than website design and the refill on kombucha that gets them a second hour at the local café, otherwise known as the office. Whom can we blame for that? Amazon, of course.
From the moment it appeared in the marketplace, I disdained the Kindle. Its cold plastic box was freeze-dried fare next to the groaning board of my books. The schadenfreude I felt every time I read about how consumers hated that they couldn't tell when the book was about to end, or flip back for a character's patronymic, or make notes in the margin, gave me Asian wine glow. I didn't need acetaldehyde to bring an attractive flush to my cheeks: Amazon did it for me, by pushing a paltry product. My brother got one, and flourished it during a visit. "Get that thing out of my house!" I demanded. He had stopped in San Francisco on his way to a meeting with some Seattle bigwig; I think the guy's name was Bezos. My brother called me from SEA-TAC, frantic. Had he left his Kindle on my coffee table? He had. I chortled to myself as I stuffed it in a FedEx envelope for rush return, the bubble wrap bulging like a wet diaper. Books didn't need to be swaddled.
The first sign that the line of defense was crumbling came from within our own ranks. I'm part of the San Francisco Writers' Grotto, a community of writers and filmmakers. A veteran journalist and author at the Grotto whose work, and work ethic, I admire gushed one day at lunch about how much she loved her Kindle. "To the barricades!" I should have shouted, but I didn't recognize the danger. The Kindle crowd, it turned out, wasn't terrorist cell, but the masses. Within weeks, I realized that mine was the losing battle. Everywhere I traveled, I saw people reading on the Kindle, the way you see the exact same model and color of the car you just bought, like a private message from the universe: you are not alone in this world.
My sister-in-law got one. My preteen niece. A member of the True to the Mood Book Club, to which I'd belonged for twenty-five years. She's literature-crazy, my book club cohort; she can parley from Flannery O'Connor all the way to le Carré. Yet even she was showing up for our gabfests toting her famous red velvet cupcakes and that piece of gray plastic. The exact color, by the way, of the humane traps my husband sets out in the furnace room to catch the Mice Who Come In From the Cold.
I began to play with my niece's Kindle every time she came over. I snuck peeks over strangers' shoulders on the subway and the bus. The best practices of the San Francisco Muni--twenty minutes late, if the bus is coming at all--gave me plenty of time to study the rapt expressions of readers face-down to their Kindles. The text looked good; the portability handy. A horrible thought washed over me: I wanted one myself.
The device got better and better. The price plummeted. For what it delivered, the thing was absurdly affordable. The trouble was, I didn't want to give Amazon my money. I had spent a good deal of breath telling everyone how books were better than bytes. The platitudes came rushing: I had sworn to vote with my wallet, swim against the tide, preserve a way of life. To buy a Kindle for myself would demagnetize my moral compass.
I compromised, installing the Kindle app on my iPad. Only because I'm traveling, I told myself over a whiskey. On the road, I downloaded books, some free, some from the Amazon store. But the iPad wasn't as easy to read as the Kindle, and I couldn't slip it into my purse or pocket.
"Can I borrow your Kindle for my trip to Spain?" I asked around. The answer, resoundingly, was "no." The Hunger Games were afoot, and couldn't be interrupted. Like the president on Obamacare, I rethought my policy, and shifted my bottom line: wouldn't it be acceptable if someone else bought me the Kindle?
"I wonder how this would read on a Kindle?" I asked within earshot of my husband. I talked about shoulder pain, the overstuffed bag I carried. I mentioned to my children how a Kindle would be kinda convenient. I got very specific, naming the Paperwhite. The Kindles of all my loved ones I fondled with unabashed ardor. My hopes rose when my sister entertained me with a roll-of-the-eyeballs story about how my niece had redeemed their pocket change in a Coinstar kiosk not for cash or food but an Amazon gift card. It was a bucketload of change, enough to buy me a Kindle.
Hanukkah came and went. I didn't get the Kindle. No worries, I told myself. We're a multicultural family, and Christmas would soon be here. Everyone by then had surely gotten the memo. A last ampoule of guilt dripped into my traitorous veins. Making my moral bargain, I went to all my favorite bookstores to purchase real books by the bagful. This was more than a tepid gesture. I spread my custom wide: four counties, six bookstores, a dozen gleaming volumes. Hardbacks, full retail. I was atoning for the future, making prospective amends. I wrapped each book myself, and set my presents under the tree, offerings to the indie gods, a plea for forgiveness.
Santa is a big deal in our house. He brings good booty. Paper piled up; bows and ribbons festooned the floor. The last promising package was set before me. I tore off its wrapper. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, all 835 pages, weighing in at 2 lbs., 8.5 ozs. My husband beamed.
I suppose I should thank him. My purity's been preserved. I've circled a date in red on his calendar. Valentine's Day. I think he'll take the hint.
Kathryn Ma's debut novel, The Year She Left Us, will be published in May 2014 by HarperCollins.
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