This weekend one of my favorite authors – science writer James Glieck – wrote in the New York Times an interesting homage to books in this day and age of digitization and “fungible” storage.
“One could imagine the book, venerable as it is, just vanishing into the ether. It melts into all the other information species searchable through Google’s most democratic of engines: the Web pages, the blogs, the organs of printed and broadcast news, the general chatter. (Thanks for everything, Gutenberg, and now goodbye.)
“But I don’t see it that way. I think, on the contrary, we’ve reached a shining moment for this ancient technology. Publishers may or may not figure out how to make money again (it was never a good way to get rich), but their product has a chance for new life: as a physical object, and as an idea, and as a set of literary forms. ”
Gleick’s piece brought to the forefront an issue I’ve had since last summer. I’ve been a Kindle user since early September and have, to date, read the following titles through the $350 device:
- Baseball Between the Numbers
- Moneyball: Michael Lewis
- The Audacity of Hope: Barack Obama
- Oblivion: David Foster Wallace
- Genghis Khan: Jack Weatherfield
- The Glass Castle: Jeannette Walls
- World Without End: Ken Follett
- What is the What: Dave Eggers
- Execution: Lawrence Bossidy, Ram Charan
- Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen
I like the Kindle. Indeed I love it. But I can’t indulge my penchant for giving away books thanks to this selfish device. I can tell people to read “Moneyball” but I can’t back that up by emphasizing my desire to share that experience by giving them my copy. The Kindle, ultimately, is a selfish device that cannot be loaned. Last week, while driving my son home from college, I sang the praises of “Shadow Country,” this year’s National Book Award in fiction. But I can’t lend it to him and indeed, tragically, I don’t have a physical copy to park on my favorite shelf next to the previous three books in the Watson series.
Oh the agony of the modern bibliophile. On the one hand my wife isn’t yelling at me for bringing more bricks of paper into the house, heavy rectangles that need to be stored someplace. I also don’t need to cram them into my backpack when I travel.
But, now I have a plastic device in a leather sleeve that isn’t half as ergonomically satisfying as a book, one that needs electricity to survive, and which I can’t lend to other people.
So I am conflicted. Like Glieck, I am delighted Google is digitizing the world’s libraries, giving a second life to millions of titles doomed to acid based paper and the physical barriers of getting inside of the Widener Library at Harvard. On the other hand I envisioned myself retiring, a wealthy man, into a lavish library with a leather chair and a roaring fire, and no other responsibilities in my dotage than to read my collection while getting sipping expensive eau de vie and shuffling around in my smoking jacket, a snoring terrier at my feet. Instead I get a glowing panel casting, in the words of Tom Wolfe, a “tubercular blue glow.”