The Achilles Heel of the Kindle

04/06/2011 03:42 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2011

I am one of those book lovers unsettled by Kindles. Some book lovers argue that the beauty of the Kindle is that it provides books in abundance. (For them, it is book-as-experience, not book-as-artifact, that matters.) Better yet, according to my mother, it does so in a format that renders her bi-focals obsolete. How can I argue with my mother? What motivates my anti-Kindle stance other than nostalgia, fear of change, the irrational worship of a sacred object, the love of the smell of dusty old books...? In the face of progress, what is all this but cheap sentimentality?

But now I think I've finally spotted an actual weakness in the Kindle. I sat next to a Kindle reader on a plane recently. (Let's call him a Kindler.) I turned the pages of my old-fashioned book (The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison), and the Kindler read his book of indeterminate origin (with the Kindle, gone are the pleasures of furtive glances at other people's book covers). We were both thoroughly absorbed in our reading. The difference was this: I had a pen in hand and was scribbling all over the page, and the poor Kindler could not scribble!

It is possible to annotate on the Kindle, but it requires the manipulation of the screen with a little joystick and then typing notes on a teeny keyboard. From murmurs I've heard, it is rather cumbersome. More importantly, since the Kindle does not have an interactive touchscreen, there is no possibility of, say, circling unfamiliar words, underlining beautiful imagery, putting stars next to significant passages, putting question marks next to perplexing ones, bracketing a line you want to copy into your journal or put on a postcard for a far-flung friend. While my Kindler Kindled (incidentally, without doing any annotating at all), I put a question mark next to a reference to De Gobineau that I needed to look up and underlined this lovely simile: "And the years folded up like pocket handkerchiefs," among countless other markings.

In the private high school where I teach English, we (the English department) insist on the importance of good annotating. Our basic hypothesis is that a good annotator is, by definition, a good reader, because annotations force you to actively engage with the text. We encourage our students to cover the pages of their books with notes, and we check regularly to make sure they're doing it. We strive to cultivate lifelong and prolific annotators. The futility of the mission suddenly strikes me: we are sending them forth into a Kindled world.

Kindle defenders will probably boast that annotating with the Kindle offers advantages that on-page annotations don't. You can save your annotations and upload them onto your PC. You can look up obscure words and references instantaneously. They may also argue that this technology is improving all the time and one day may feel as natural as taking notes with a ballpoint pen. But, beyond the ease and spontaneity factors, one thing technology can't recreate is the experience of picking up a discarded copy of a book at a library or used bookstore and discovering the annotations of a stranger, which sometimes tell stories of their own. (For a beautiful rendering of this experience, see Billy Collins' poem "Marginalia.")

As my plane began its descent into San Francisco, I discovered yet another untold weakness of the Kindle: it is one of the "electronic devices" that must be put away for take-off and landing. My Kindler had to abandon his (so-to-speak) book about 30 minutes before landing, while I got to read mine all the way to the gate.