Having recently purchased an iPhone I’ve been appreciating not only the myriad functions of the device itself but in particular Amazon’s Kindle application, bringing immediate access, in my case, to the Federalist Papers, the Book of Genesis, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and even some H.P. Lovecraft as the mood strikes. Enduring a long and crowded subway commute with precious little elbow room, the advantages of “e-books” speak for itself.
Upon reflection, however, I think it is precisely that simple convenience it brings to reading while commuting that appeals most. Whatever the perks, it still doesn’t hold a candle to picking up and reading (much less owning) what I’m inclined to refer as a real book: its reassuring weight; the crackle of the page; the pleasure of familiar words, read time and again. Not to mention the multi-faceted beauty of a well-stocked bookshelf (or two, or three).
Christine Rosen identifies the poverty of virtual reading in “People of the Screen” (The New Atlantis Fall 2008):
There are practical concerns as well: Despite Kindle’s emphasis on accessibility—get any book, anywhere, instantly—this is true only if you can afford to own the device that allows you to read it. You can’t share the books you’ve read on your Kindle unless you hand the device over to a friend to borrow. There are other drawbacks to the Kindle, more emotional than practical. Unlike a regular book, where the weight of the book transfers from your right hand to your left as you progress, with the Kindle you have no sense of where you are in the book by its feel. It doesn’t smell like a book. Nor does the clean, digital Kindle bear the impressions of previous readers, the smudges and folds and scribbles and forgotten treasures tucked amid the pages—markings of the man-made artifact. The printed book is the “transformation of the intangible into the tangibility of things,” as Hannah Arendt put it; it is imagined and lived action and speech turned into palpable remembrance. Such feelings of partiality to the printed book are impossible to quantify, and might well strike the critic as foolish attachment to an outmoded medium, as rank sentimental preference for the durable over the delible and digital. To be sure, “I just like the feel of it” is hardly firm intellectual footing from which to launch a defense of the paper book. But it is at least worth noting that these tactile experiences have no counterpart when reading on the screen, and worth recalling that for all our enthusiasm about the aesthetics of our technologies—our sleek iPhones and iPods—we are quick to discount the same kind of appreciation for printed words on paper.
And it may well be true that Amazon’s Kindle Library may boast over 300,000+ virtual texts, “auto-delivered wirelessly in less than one minute.” But I wouldn’t trade all the downloading in the world for the thrill of shelf-by-shelf exploration of my local library—such as my parents introduced me to when I was young, and I hope to convey one day to my son. (I trust we’ll still have libraries.)
On that note, for fellow bibliophiles and bookworms, here’s a feast for the eyes: “a compendium of beautiful libraries” compiled by the blog Curious Expeditions:
Tucked away on the top of a hill in Prague is the Strahov Monastary, the second oldest monastery in Prague. Inside, divided into two major halls, is a breathtaking library. The amazing Theological Hall contains 18,000 religious texts, and the grand Philosophical Hall has over 42,000 ancient philosophical texts. . . .
Shocked into a library induced euphoria, Curious Expeditions has attempted to gather together the world’s most beautiful libraries for you starting with our own pictures of Strahov. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do.
(By way of Alan Jacobs’ Text Patterns, who blogs on the technologies of reading, writing, research and knowledge: “what do we lose, what do we gain, what is (fundamentally or trivially) altered? And, not least, what’s fun?”).