catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 3 :: 2011.02.11 — 2011.02.24


A kindled imagination

I’m the kind of person that might reasonably be expected to hate Kindles and other e-reading gadgets; for me, the pleasure of reading has almost always been inextricably bound to the sensorial delights of books. I ignored my first-grade teacher’s admonition not to judge books by their covers, choosing and rejecting books based on whether I liked the cover design and the feel of the book in my hands. From the age of four or so, I could keep busy for hours penciling stories onto sheets of notepaper, then fastening them together with staples to make little books. In fourth grade, my friend and I rode the school bus to the next town to take a papermaking and bookbinding class. I’d be the only 10-year-old clutching her allowance outside the library at 8:30am on a Saturday when they had their discard sales. I loved the graphics of those discarded books — those printed in the 40s or 50s were my favorites, especially old Nancy Drews, and books by Beverly Cleary or Carolyn Haywood — as well as the softness of their pages, polished smooth by the hands of innumerable readers that had gone before me.

From time to time, though, the inborn human craving for stories impelled me to read even those books whose physical properties were less than enticing. I loved the tight cleanliness of truly new books (ones from the bookstore), but my speedy reading outpaced my book budget.  Besides, our house was filled with books-gifts from grandparents, aunts, and uncles, stacks cleaned out from someone else’s house, bags of outdated Christian young adult fiction handed down from parishioners whose children were grown and gone. “Read something that’s on the shelves,” my mother would say, and, though I’d gripe about the hideous graphics or the musty smell or the crumbling page edges and bindings from the days before paper was acid-free and binding glue remained flexible with age. Yet, I came to regard reading “something from the shelves” with a kind of reverence. The physical object: familiar, even detestable, taking up space in my house, just waiting for eyes and minds to collect them and make them come alive. People and places — some fictional, some not — became alive to me via paper and ink, proving to be so much more than the sum of their materiality, however pleasurable (or not) their design.

I first learned of the possibility of e-books in the summer of 2000, while sharing the Sunday paper with my boyfriend in the Peet’s Coffee & Tea shop in Philadelphia. (The boyfriend’s name was also Pete.) Harold Bloom’s simultaneous review of a Michael Crichton novel and an e-reading device grudgingly conceded that screens could disseminate information as well as or better than pages, and asserted that while e-readers might be okay for trashy thrillers, Shakespeare and Jane Austen — works of “wisdom and beauty” — “cry out for a more individual representation.” At the time, I heartily agreed; so did Pete; after all, our short-lived romance did involve many long hours spent at used book tables and library discard sales. Why give up the sensuous pleasure of holding books, smelling their odors, hearing their pages turn, to hold yet another electronic gadget and stare at yet another screen? Such gadgets have no history; they haven’t been read and brought to life by other eyes before yours; the books read on them don’t sit around patiently waiting to yield up their secrets and have no chance to impress you with the quality of their design and workmanship.

Sure, but when you’re thousands of miles from home, the books you own are all in storage elsewhere, and the local library carries only books written in languages that you can’t understand, a Kindle is an amazing thing. Ten years after my arrogant university-student self denounced e-readers as something for gadget-lovers, but not for book lovers, I was lonely, frequently ill or taking care of ill (and sometimes just ill-behaved) children, and utterly without a reliable source of reading material. My mother-in-law sent me a Kindle, and though then (as now) I qualify as a Luddite — not yet 30, I sent my first-ever text message just two months ago — it became one of my Favorite Things. Small and light, it contributed but minimally to that ever-present ex-pat anxiety about trans-Atlantic moving fees, and the huge library of free, out-of-copyright classics, not to mention the millions of books, magazines and newspapers available for sale meant that I was no longer stranded. I began devouring free classics, re-reading some and discovering others that had been lying around on my shelves (literally or virtually) forever, like A Little Princess, Pollyanna, A Girl of the Limberlost, and What Katy Did. I read all of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the first time, gritting my teeth when I realized what a crime it is to excerpt that novel in anthologies — please, please, read it whole, all of it. Delighted by it, I read as much Harriet Beecher Stowe as I could find, and The Minister’s Wooing remains my personal sleeper hit of 2010.  It was wonderful suddenly to have more books than I could read available to me, just waiting to be encountered.

All right — you DO have to plug the thing in now and then, and it doesn’t have a satisfying new or old book smell, or much of a smell at all. But, you don’t have to hold it open while you read, making it useful for those of us who try to read while knitting or tooth brushing (ahem) and perfect for those who read curled up in bed. Plus, you can adjust font-size at will, and the e-ink really is easy on the eyes — it feels nothing like reading from a computer screen, I assure you. Being able to switch from reading the Bible, to The Atlantic, to Wives and Daughters, to Marilynne Robinson’s latest offering without moving from your seat is pretty amazing — were the Kindle solar-powered, it would definitively change my answer to the “which book on a desert island” question. (Don’t ask me what my low-tech answer is; I find this question all but unanswerable.) For a person stranded, as I was, in a sea of German reading materials without the skill to navigate that language reliably through an instruction manual, let alone a novel, the Kindle was a marvel indeed — a library, a newsstand and a bookstore that I could slip into my purse.

Now, though, a little over a year later, I’m back in my hometown, with my childhood library just a few blocks away. In the interest of conserving paper, I subscribe to several magazines in Kindle format, but most of my book reading involves the nearly two thousand year old technology known as the codex, namely, sheets of paper bound at one side: books. There are lots of reasons for this, one among them being that you have to buy books to put on the Kindle; once bought, Kindle books can’t easily be shared. Plus, I like going to the library, and I go a lot. I talk cats with Jean, who’s been there since I was six, and Poppy, who read aloud to my third grade class on our library field trip, recommends picture books to my kids. Lisa, who remembers me (accurately) as a gangly thing with giant red-framed glasses teases me about the size of my interlibrary-loan pile and asks how my writing is going. The lady whose name I chronically and shamefully forget glances through my knitting books before I check them out, occasionally asking, “When you’re done with that one, could’ya leave it at the desk for me?”

So, no, I don’t hate Kindles — I’m grateful for mine, which kept me company through a lonely patch — but I do think that they’re potentially yet another tool that can make it possible for us to need each other less, to remember less each other’s presence, to be more alone and to be less present where we are. Last night, my mother sat with my son, reading aloud to him from the same worn but well-loved copy of Charlotte’s Web — her favorite book — that she read when just a few years older than he is now. Enough said.

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