True confession: I’m one of those people who is incapable of going on a trip of any kind–work, pleasure, a trek on which reading will probably not even be possible–without packing far too many, far too heavy books. Even worse, I tend to stuff them in my carry-on luggage so I can choose just the right book to match my mood on planes, trains and automobiles. I have been known to cram fiction, nonfiction and poetry right alongside the diapers and snacks. You never know when you might need to teach an impromptu survey course to the people in the row in front of you. I have also been known to unpack and arrange all my tomes on a bedside table at the final destination and then never open them.
And so it was with a lighter bag but a very weighty conscience that I embarked on a recent cross-country trip with Amazon’s new e-reader, the Kindle. One of its great innovations, and an improvement over earlier e-readers, is the Kindle Store, which is accessible on the device and where you can buy and download not only books but subscriptions to magazines, newspapers and even blogs. (Full disclosure: The Nation has published a Kindle edition since November, 2007.) You can shop anywhere there’s wireless service, so it’s possible to buy things at a moment’s notice, like when you suddenly realize you can’t idle by the pool for one more moment without the new Richard Price novel. With this almost magical power in hand, I felt safe enough to leave home without my usual pile. Even better, the Kindle automatically downloads your subscriptions every time you turn it on, which meant I could skip my usual panicked rush to the newsstand on the way to the gate. I didn’t have to struggle with an unwieldy newspaper in a tiny plane seat or drag a laptop along just for a peek at my favorite gossip site. I had all of this and more (the Kindle can hold more than 200 books at once) in a sleek 10.3-ounce device encased in a leather cover, which looks like a journal and belies the distinctly twenty-first-century gadget inside.
And indeed, as a marvel of technology, the Kindle is extraordinary. I strode blithely through the airport with a wealth of reading material minus the usual attendant backache, confident in the knowledge that I could add to my choices whenever I wanted to–a reader’s dream come true. I already had everything on my homepage, from Yeats to a sample chapter of a potty training book (another great feature of the Kindle: you can try things out the same way you would browsing in a bookstore), but who knew what I might have a taste for later? I’d recently started reading an excerpt from Michael Pollan’s new book, In Defense of Food, and the Kindle had saved my place so I could get right back to it whenever I was ready. I had even electronically “dog-eared” several pages for closer examination.
Once settled on the plane, after having knocked out my 2-year-old with an Elmo DVD and the promise of a lollipop when he woke up, I decided that I wasn’t really in the right frame of mind for Michael Pollan after all. Instead, I drifted away happily into early twentieth-century Manhattan, courtesy of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. I had packed a hardcover Kate Atkinson novel as an insurance policy (old habits die hard), but after a few initially awkward clicks on the “next page” bar, I didn’t notice that I was reading about the last great Gilded Age on a device produced during what has often been dubbed the latest one. As advertised, the Kindle really does “disappear” like a regular book once you’ve lost yourself in a story. It displays text on “electronic paper” that’s flat and soothing and has none of the eyeache-inducing qualities of a computer screen: you can read for as long as you want without reaching for the aspirin. (That said, I suspect my immersion in The Custom of the Country was as much the result of Wharton’s genius as Amazon’s technical wizardry.)
It was on this same plane ride, though, that I had a revelation about the limits of the Kindle. As the steward manning the drinks cart handed me a soda, he caught sight of it on my lap and asked, “Do you like that thing? I’m always thinking about getting one.” To which I replied, without really thinking, “I’d definitely buy one if I worked on planes.” I had, at this point, been living with my Kindle for about five weeks without managing to make it a real part of my daily routine. I still preferred to read the newspaper online or, if in transit or the comfort of my living room, on good old-fashioned paper. The Kindle displays only the text of publications, and I missed the pictures as well as the ability to read a whole article without clicking the next page bar every ten seconds. I realized I was accustomed to seeing headlines for articles on a variety of subjects all at once and then choosing which article to read first, something the Kindle makes difficult. I also missed the comforting rustle of the newspaper’s pages. As for books, even I am not inclined to pack more than one for something like a subway ride, so the difference in weight is negligible, and again, there’s a lot more text on one page of a paper book than one Kindle page-view.
Like many people, the other place I tend to read is in bed. Bringing the Kindle there seemed, in all honesty, like a violation. No matter its pleasures, ultimately, unlike a paper book–especially a loved one battered and cherished over time–the Kindle is a piece of cold electronic circuitry that seems alien to intimate environments. It’s beautifully designed but unchanging, and thus represents nothing more than itself. By contrast, when I stand and look at my bookshelves, I see books I’ve had since I was a child mixed in with titles from high school, college and after, all of them nestled alongside my husband’s books. My son’s chewed-on board books are next to some novels by Dawn Powell and the letters of Flannery O’Connor. Each volume has a personal history. As the poet Amy Lowell wrote, “Books are more than books, they are the life,/The very heart and core of ages past,/The reason why men lived, and worked, and died,/The essence and quintessence of their lives.”
None of which is to say that I have an aversion to the Kindle; even a bibliophile like me can grasp that the possibility of toting around all that reading material, of having choice without breaking your back, is a beautiful thing. For travel, it’s a near-perfect invention, and I can actually imagine never again dragging an overstuffed bag of novels down a narrow plane aisle. And while I confess that the sight of a children’s books category at the Kindle Store gave me a chill–I envisioned myself lying next to my son, reading him a classic like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, clicking over and over again as the screen faded in and out and telling him to stop trying to touch it–I’ve also decided to take a little advice from Emily Dickinson. “‘Faith’ is a fine invention/When gentlemen can see,” she writes. And then, challenging us to recognize that, as crucial as the old ways are to our understanding of the world, new technology can often be the mother of progress, she finishes, “But Microscopes are prudent/In an Emergency.” I first read these lines on my Kindle, where they seemed not only perfectly at home but also to speak from the screen with greater resonance than ever.