What’s in your backpack?

September 14, 2010

I’ve just returned from a hiking trip in Utah where, one afternoon, I saw a young woman reading from a Kindle at Scout Lookout, a destination point in Zion National Park. I figured she was reading while her husband headed up to Angel’s Landing, an additional half-mile climb with shear drop-offs on either side. Observing the reading woman, I wished I’d also brought my book — Angel’s Landing was too frightening for me — but then, I was reading a 482-page paperback, Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. There was no room for it in the backpack with the rain gear, water and snacks.  Big points there for the slim Kindle.

That evening over dinner with my fellow hikers, I mentioned the Scout Landing  Kindle reader. A husband and wife jumped in to express love for their Kindles and the convenience of no longer having to carry print books. Their animated remarks indicated — as is typical for e-reader aficionados —  that anyone who rejects the e-reader trend is a Luddite

I didn’t mention right away that I had indeed done just that, tried and rejected the Kindle. When I eventually confessed, I could feel emotions heating up, as if we were defending rival political candidates. No matter what I said, my print candidate was stuck in the past and not the obvious future leader. Even my comment that I believe print and electronic books can co-exist was dismissed. My love of signed, rare books was acknowledged (they have them, also) but designated as valuable relics. Here’s the rub: The wife of the Kindle-reading couple works in the New York publishing industry.

I’m not against e-readers. I’m fascinated by how they’re transforming the reading world, clearly with major benefits that go beyond portability. The husband in this Kindle reading team suffers from bad eyesight, and he increases the font size not only for his books but also the daily newspapers he receives on the Kindle. It makes reading much easier for him. And when I recommended a book for his wife, she said she could download it that night. Who knows, someday, when the e-readers get worked out and priced right, maybe I’ll find one I like to slip into my suitcase and backpack.

That said, I only saw two Kindles/e-readers on the trip.  Everyone else on the airplanes and shuttles or poolside whom I saw reading had print books.  Which is to say, we’re all still carrying them around with us, no matter where we go. 

A woman in my group carried Father of the Rain by Lily King with her in the van that took us to our hiking spots. One day, while the rest of us were finishing lunch, she went off to sit on a log and read this novel that entranced her. (She told me she couldn’t put it down.)  Sure, a downloaded version on a Kindle would’ve been much easier to carry, as we shuttled around Zion and Bryce canyons, but I don’t think that would appeal to her. She told me she liked holding a physical book. Big points there for print.

Cleveland Library Lewis Carroll Room BookplateA few days ago, I participated on a panel about The Future of the Book.  I keep thinking about the comments of author Ann Hagedorn from the audience, confessing her fear and concern about e-books and e-publishing, yet also expressing a desire to think positively. 

I’d like to think positively about e-books, but I can’t get there. 

I’m a Kindle-owner, but I don’t like it, and the reasons can be chalked up to preference of book format – I’d rather read from a traditional book. I understand how others love the Kindle or another e-book reader, just as I can understand someone can love lima beans while I detest them. But that’s not what keeps me from the positive frame of mind. It’s the losses e-books will create, not immediately, but gradually, changing the literary terrain in a way that will leech it of the intimacy the world of books currently gives us in small but impacting ways.

With e-books, there will be…

  • No more giving books as gifts and inscribing them with messages (The other day, I opened E. L. Doctorow’s Lives of the Poets: A Novella and Six Stories inscribed to me by a long lost love, Christmas 1984.)
  • No more passing down books through generations (I have my grandmother’s set of Charles Dickens, each book inscribed similar to this one, Nicholas Nickleby, “From Papa. To Mamie H. Cooke, Christmas 1884.”)
  • No more sharing books (I have a friend’s copy of Siddhartha, and the first page notes where and when he read it, “Taipei, Taiwan, 17 Feb – 24 Feb 1974.”)
  • No more regarding books as friends, surrounding us in our homes, cars and offices
  • No more book bags to fill up with choice purchases
  • No more book stores to browse on a lingering Saturday afternoon
  • No more personalized book plates

Here’s another loss of intimacy, from Steven Johnson’s unsettling Wall Street Journal article, “How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write:” “Reading books will go from being a fundamentally private activity — a direct exchange between author and reader — to a community event, with every isolated paragraph the launching pad for a conversation with strangers around the world.”

I’m a nay-sayer because we’re heading toward one more exciting new way of living that likely, decades down the road, will make us nostalgic for the original, which made us happier and healthier, yet it will be too late to go back.  I’m a nay-sayer because companies that do not love books, like people love books, are creating an e-reader revolution and making us want it. Hyping its efficiency and convenience and coolness. Its readable screens and easy storage. Its instant purchase gratification. Its iPod readiness. This better fits our lifestyle, doesn’t it? To me it feels like more of the gradual downward slide that began with the mega bookstores, barging in and snuffing out the independent bookshop, including Chicago’s long-ago Stuart Brent Books on Michigan Avenue.  I’ll always remember Stuart Brent coming up beside me one day, as I pulled Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain off the shelf. He recommended that I wait until I turned 40 (I was in my 20s) to read the immense classic because I’d appreciate it more.  He also added a recommendation that I read Proust in my 50s.

The independents are still around and hard bound books will always be around, but as overshawdowed entities. The one, by monolithic stores whose personnel can neither make a knowledgable recommendation nor guide you personally; the other, by e-readers spewing out e-books that will mimic a website experience. It’s intimacy we’re losing with the e-book. Privacy, familiarity, understanding, feeling, solitude, fellowship, love. The stuff we crave but casually let go of in so many areas of this modern life. Do we have to let it go with our books?

Updated 5.13.11 with edits that tightened paragraph spacing.

%d bloggers like this: