Sunday, January 18, 2009

My Kindle for Kindling

My worst news from the recently ended Christmas season?

According to a Dec. 23 report from the New York Times, sales of electronic books are up. Though less than 1 percent of all book sales, they increased three or four times in 2008 compared to 2007. Some observers think it won't be long before ebook sales are 10 percent of all book sales. NYT on ebooks

Call me old-fashioned. Call me a grouch. Call me a troglodyte. But I see this as one more sign of the coming apocalypse.

Would someone please explain to me the advantages of reading a book on a computer, laptop, cell-phone, PDA, or dedicated reader, apart from the number of books each of these devices can contain?

The book, as others have noted, is a just-about-perfect information storage and retrieval device. It's hand-operated, requires no external power, etc., etc. Properly put together, with suitable attention to paper, type, and binding, it can be a pleasing aesthetic object.

As much as I covet tech objects--I'd be ashamed to tell you how many MP3 players I own--I can't say the same of the Kindle, Sony's Reader, or any of the other ebook devices available or soon to come.

You wouldn't want to subject them to sand and salt water at the beach. You can't take them backpacking and tear out pages to light fires, at once lightening your load and recycling the paper. Once the batteries go dead, they're useless till you can find an AC outlet and, while I haven't tried one, I suspect the screens are too dim to be much use in bright sunlight.

Then, too, there's this: We're on the verge of becoming an aliterate society, which gives lip service to the value of reading while discouraging the kind of deep reading--and thinking--only possible with real books. On the other hand, ebook readers are perfect for the kind of plastic, written-to-order literature that dominates best-seller lists.

I suppose some people may develop lasting affection for their ebook readers, though I doubt most will. Technology works against it, encouraging us to buy new and improved models every year or so, and plastic just doesn't wear very well.

Of course, you have to take care of your books, too. I own first editions of Wallace Thurman's Infants of the Spring and Jessie Fauset's There is Confusion. Neither is in the kind of condition that would make it a keeper for a real collector. I treasure them anyway, wondering ever so often whether they might once have been read by some luminary of the Harlem Renaissance.

Then there are books that have certain associations, like my copy of Literature in New England, by Van Wyck Brooks. It belonged to my mother, a gift from Sterling Brown when she graduated from Howard University. I never met Brown, but I like seeing my mother's name with his on the flyleaf.

I could never feel that way about an ebook. Which means they'll take away my bound volumes when they pry them from my cold, dead hand.

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