Klein: E-reading between the lines

A confession: I accidentally joined the so-called e-reading revolution. A few months ago, I was given a Barnes & Noble Nook: the Kindle’s uglier, uncool stepbrother. I took it to class; I downloaded to no end; it came with me on vacation.

But then I attempted to actually read on it. Slow, unresponsive and sporting a needless touch screen, the Nook was to a real book what Cup Noodles are to home-cooked meals. Yes, the words were there, but drained of immediacy, feel and fun. After a few valiant attempts to do class reading without margin notes, enjoy novels without page turning and read magazine pieces without glossy glory, I gave up. A few weeks ago, the Nook broke down, dutifully, of its own accord. I’ve yet to drag it to a repair center.

Much has been made of the rise of e-books. Apparently, we’re soon to shake our paper chains to the ground like dew and rise anew with snazzy electrophoretic displays. We’ll embrace pixels over pens, sending the News you hold in your hands the way of the abacus. At least, that’s the line coming from our ailing print industry.

The e-book has become something of a deus ex machina, sending legions of nervous writers into giddy hysterics. If the Internet can so nimbly destroy the business model for print, why can’t it save it, too?

Unfortunately, the iPad let them down. Instead of revolutionizing the industry as hoped and expected, it sold a few nifty, upmarket apps and hurt many eyeballs — hours of reading on a glossy, backlit screen is a bit like staring at a lightbulb.

E-books trump oversized iPod Touches when it comes to reading, but not by much. Environmentally, there’s little evidence that they’re greener. More often than not, manufacturing and disposing of the gadgets is a recycler’s nightmare. And why demonize the trusty bookshelf? As sustainability expert Don Carli put it, “Sadly, print has come to be seen as a wasteful, inefficient and environmentally destructive medium, despite the fact that much of print media is based on comparatively benign and renewable materials.” F.Y.I., Al Gore’s new book isn’t available in electronic format.

Thus far, e-readers aren’t much more than a niche luxury product: a far cry from the global appeal of the humble paperback or newspaper. But the e-book revolutionaries have another problem: No matter how good or cheap the tech gets, people don’t really like them. Call us Luddites, but there’s something irreplaceable about the tactile and aesthetic worth of a good, old-fashioned dead-tree tome. Since the plucky Egyptians rolled papyrus and Gutenberg laid down his Bible, physical books and publications have garnered too much emotional weight to be replaced by bits and bytes. Maybe I’m over-romanticizing, but my Nook taught me to sing the praises of paper.

With e-reading, what would happen to scribbling in books, annotating the best passages, turning down the pages? Where would the beautiful, carefully curated bookshelf go? How about handing a book to a friend for a week or two? Trapped in digital cages, books can’t become conversation starters. You can’t peer across a subway aisle and get a sense of the person buried beneath a paper cover. As one of my friend’s put it: Imagine coming home after a devastating break-up, at a loss for words, searching for that one, crucial, life-affirming passage in your favorite novel … by entering keywords on a Kindle.

Yes, all of these functions may be technically possible in the electronic realm. But would they be as fulfilling? The Kindlers argue that e-reading is to book-reading as MP3 was to CD: a format that people distrusted at first, but with killer app technology — iPod — became second nature. But there’s a crucial difference between music and words. You don’t hold a song in your hands, and never have. The tactile weightiness, texture and even smell of paper render the words printed therein tangible, physical and real. The arts of printing, typography and design are a testament to the simple pleasure of words on a page. With e-readers, all three crafts will soon vanish.

Of course, it’s convenient to carry around a whole library’s worth of books in ones and zeroes. But does anyone really need it? By encouraging us to jump back and forth between dozens of books, e-readers just contribute to the readerly Attention Deficit Disorder so characteristic of the e-generation.

Literature and thought needs to be held and felt, not downloaded and zapped into soulless, un-pencil-able existence. Reading shouldn’t be machinated, and for all the zeal of the niche e-book fans, paper is here to stay. Man up; lug your book bag around. Read with soul.

Alex Klein is a junior in Davenport College.

Comments

  • theantiyale

    Beautifully written.

    My kindle (2 1/2 years old—-an Oprah Special) is fun and I love the free books and it’s cool to be *au courant*, maybe even *avant garde* but one kindle with 200 books on it just doesn’t have the elegance of a wall full of books in your study. And if you live in a place with power outages (like Vermont) it’s as dead as a doornail after 12 hours max.

    The thing I especially like about this article is the allusion to dinosaurs of the past CD’s v. Mp3’s with the advent of the iPod, papyrus v.Gutenberg etc.

    Your nook experience reminded me: Not one of the hundreds of books in my study with spines and sewn pages has ever let me down. OK, a page comes off a glued spine now and then.

    But books don’t “break down”; nooks do.

    Generally, books outlast their human owners.

    “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away” said General MacArthur.

    Old books never fade away.

    They just crumble, page by page, like their owners.

    After 100 years.

    PK

  • Hitch2

    TLDR!