I shall not be Kindled

To the author, printed books are works of art, multidimensional – and furniture.

Cyrus Mccrimmon/Denver Post/Newscom
An Amazon Kindle device - with a very retro page on display - overlays a pulp cousin.

Earlier in the decade, before the so-called "tech bubble" burst, then-Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan warned of "irrational exuberance" in the stock market.

I feel the same way about electronic readers.

If the reviews are any indication, these hand-held devices – such as the Kindle – are destined to replace the bound book, and print on paper will be evacuated from the libraries to the museums.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of books have been greatly exaggerated.

I have seen, held, and explored Amazon's e-reader, the Kindle. It piqued my curiosity in a moderate way and stimulated the same passing warmth I feel when holding somebody else's baby. But I immediately sized up the device and knew that, while it is "neat" and convenient, it is not, nor will it ever be, a replacement for the book in the way that transistors replaced vacuum tubes or electronic calculators, the slide rule. There are several reasons why, and I am happy to enumerate them.

First, books are works of art. They appeal to the senses – they're beautiful to look at, reassuring to the touch, and they even have an aroma, especially when first opened. This sensuousness of the book is the wild card that aficionados of e-readers are quick to pooh-pooh. But remember: In the 1950s, we were told that in the future our meals would be condensed into pills. That future came and went, and meat and potatoes are still king because, simply put, they taste good.

Second, books are multidimensional. By this I mean that they not only occupy space, but there is that incredibly warm affirmation of progress as one's bookmark makes its languid way through the text. With the e-reader, however, the world is flat, and one's only option is to stare at a single, illuminated page. No flipping back and forth with forked fingers, no opportunity to write comments in the margins, no dog-ears.

Third, books are furniture. They give a room a sense of embrace and extend an invitation to feel at home, to linger. When I enter a room that holds books, I always scan the titles, to gain insight into the tastes of their owner. The e-reader offers no such opportunity. It is not furniture, it does not warm. If it is reminiscent of anything, it is a vault – locked, secure, and secret.

Fourth, books age, and as such, they become old friends. I still return every now and then to the copy of "The Tales of Poe" that my parents bought me in 1965 when I was in fifth grade. The cover has lost some of its sheen, and the edges of the pages have yellowed, but the inscription persists – "To Robert, 12/25/65, from Mom & Dad." Whenever I pick up that volume I am the 10-year-old again, recalling that sweet shudder that ran through me when I first read the opening words of "The Cask of Amontillado" – "The thousand injuries of Fortunado I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge." With the e-reader, by contrast, everything is in the present, and one cannot claim an e-book as one's companion, because the words flickering on the screen are generated anew every time the "on" button is pushed, and when the device is turned off, they unceremoniously disappear.

I do, however, acknowledge a clear niche for e-readers: as space savers. When traveling, it's good not to have to pack several bound volumes when there exists a device that, in the palm of one's hand, can hold a small library. But this reduces the e-reader to the level of a convenience, like wet naps or microwave meals. And this, I believe, it where the whole business will settle out.

Or maybe not. Recently, at the college where I teach, a student had attracted a small crowd around his newly acquired Kindle. There were a few oohs and aahs, but the tone was mostly subdued. One of my students walked over to me and I asked if she were going to buy her own Kindle. "No," she said. "What good is it if you can't play any games?"

Gee, in all my criticisms of electronic reading devices, that one never occurred to me!

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