Whitney Pow: The book experience we miss out on when we use Kindle

Fine Arts Columnist
Published September 28, 2009

I have a lot of problems with Kindles and e-readers — those e-inked, overpriced metal boards masquerading as books. The e-reader just seems un-book-like. While I can fit several thousand digital books onto this thing, it seems like the struggle of stuffing a hoard of six paperbacks in the back of a suitcase should be an inherent struggle of being a book lover — I will often forego packing extra shirts in favor of bringing Adam Gopnik’s “Through the Children’s Gate” or David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” with me.

Are e-readers adequate substitutes for books? The argument here is about what characterizes a book in the first place. Is a book about having pages that turn? Is a book about old book smell, that vaguely coffee-ground-like, musty smell? Or is a book, at its core, really about experiencing the thoughts of the writer and the information and insight contained within a book’s pages?

Here is the definitional divide between books as physical entities and books as informational vessels. A book could be defined as anything that can be read that results in information being passed on to the reader. This point was anxiously pressed into my head a year ago when I attended the University’s Book Publishing Workshop. Editors and higher-ups of publishing houses like HarperCollins were frantically trying to persuade workshop attendees that the definition of the book was changing and the bookselling industry honestly isn’t failing (even though the reality of the situation is quite different).

Even given this information, my downloaded copies of Virginia Woolf’s works are more PDFs than books, in my mind. Reading off of a screen (Kindle, computer or otherwise) is very much unlike reading from crisp, turnable pages. I know that with paper books there are environmental costs to worry about. I see that paper books are not always the most efficient or convenient entities.

But I’ll be damned if Amazon.com, the leader in the e-reader race with the Kindle, sets the precedent for books' future. The company is attempting to grab monopoly-like power in the digital book selling industry with its expensive e-readers and its Kindle-exclusive e-books, which are encoded in a way that no other e-reader or computer can view. In paying for a Kindle e-book, you are, in effect, selling your soul to that thin piece of metal. After you buy an overpriced Stephen King novel off of Amazon.com, you are forever forced to read it from the e-inked pages of your nearly $300 Kindle, or any other reader Amazon.com ordains holy. If the Kindle is an example of the way books are going in the future, with worries about ownership and viewer’s rights over one copy of a book, I want no part in it.

My frustration at Amazon.com overshadows a lot of the finer details associated with e-readers in general. The truth is this: There is a tech-savvy part of me that really wants an e-reader, despite my seemingly unflinching support of the paper-bound book. I held Sony’s new e-book reader in my hands yesterday and chokingly marveled at the e-ink in its strangely pigmented screen; it really did emulate the experience of looking at a crisp sheet of paper. The words were defined and visible without a backlight, and the cover was present on screen in a clear yet colorless grayscale. Even though the controls were difficult to navigate, it was thrilling to hold a metal sheet containing enough books to satisfy me without weighing down my luggage or arms.

No matter how persuasive the thing is, however, my verdict is that I will not buy an e-reader, even though it has seduced my utilitarian sensibilities. Given the confusing interface, the hefty cost and the screen’s limited color palette (I don’t think you can truly enjoy book covers when you are restricted to varying shades of gray and slightly lighter gray), effortlessly toting a thousand books around with me is not worth sacrificing the comfort or simplicity of a paperbound book. But if e-readers shape up to be more wieldy and user-friendly, I might just re-consider.

So the question is: Are books as we know them becoming obsolete? It all really depends on your attachment to the idiosyncrasies and experiences that come along with paper-book reading — sharing and borrowing dog-eared books, writing little notes to someone in front covers when book-giving, getting coffee stains on your book, which end up being more proud marks of use than defects. Books, for me, are just as much about the experience of turning the page as gleaning insight from writers and feeling the rhythms of the stanzas, the details contained in paragraphs. For me, those $300 hunks of plastic, metal and wires can wait.