I think I may be one of the book-loving technophiles that John Hendron wrote about in this post. In fact, I spent most of yesterday morning culling and organizing my books. There are two boxes of hard backs to go to the library and two boxes of paperbacks to go to my exchange store. I’ve been thinking about some of the issues that John brings up as I’ve begun integrating my Kindle into my reading habits.
I love reading books on my Kindle because I can easily navigate and annotate. In addition, it slides right into whatever bag I am carrying and holds not just books but my subscriptions to The Washington Post and The Atlantic. For me, rather than books, the paper-based publications that could go away without my missing them would be the newspaper and most print-based magazines. I never got into the habit of reading the print paper and I have reduced my magazine subscriptions to just a few because I hate all that paper laying around demanding that I either store or recycle. In addition, other than ripping out articles, the print-based publications are nearly impossible to archive productively. Why tear out all those recipes from Southern Living when I can just log into the site and locate a recipe when I’m ready for it?
I wonder, though, if John’s colleague who was concerned about the loss of books was really referring to reading? Are we confusing the technology (the book) with the practice (reading)? I love books–the way they look on the shelf, the way they beckon me into new worlds, the way they encourage me to dialog with the author’s argument. But if a suitable alternative came along–and the Kindle is close–I believe I could make the move from print to digital without too much of a sense of loss.
My love affair with books is really a love affair with reading. And, I think I mean more than news articles or blog entries here, both of which I read exclusively in digital format. When I use the word “book,” it refers to something more substantial: a lengthy, researched treatise that goes beyond a more cursory look at something. It’s the difference between reading Tom Friedman’s columns and his books. The latter arose from the former but in the book, Friedman has time to tease out arguments. In terms of fiction, I can use the example of the book I just finished, Falls the Shadow, by Sharon Kay Penman. It is essentially a biography of Simon de Montfort, a 13th century noble who fought against Henry III to establish greater civil rights for the English. Certainly, I can learn about de Montfort at Wikipedia and follow the links to expand my general knowledge of that time period. But, when I sink into Penman’s prose, I am moving beyond just learning the fact of English history to get a sense of the people behind the history. Yes, I am aware that Penman has turned historical figures into fictional characters, but she has stuck within the essential historical elements and her books help those of us mired in the 21st century see our connections to them.
Does it matter if I read Penman in a book format, or on my Kindle, or on my laptop? No. It is a matter of determining the affordances and constraints of the technology. For me, trying to read anything of multi-page length is difficult on the computer screen. It is not a suitable substitute for the book. The book and the Kindle, on the other hand, are pretty close: portable and easy to stow. The book doesn’t require electricity so it may trump the Kindle if I’m heading someplace where I can’t easily charge the Kindle battery. And, as I mentioned earlier, the Kindle has some great affordances that certainly trump the book.
While I cleaned off my bookshelves, I took advantage of another technological approach to books. I listened to an audio book on my iPod. I won’t even start writing about how I could almost jettison the radio and television. I think the important point here is that rather than lament the loss of older technologies, we celebrate the widening choices available to use when we do find the time to read.