NOTES FROM THE UNDERGRAD

To eRead or Not to eRead
Should I get over my crush on print culture and buy a Kindle already?

 

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By Sean Whiteman | When I was young and only partially literate, my mother began reading me the Chronicles of Narnia out loud, every night. We owned the entire set, and they still sit on a dusty part of my bookshelf, in a simple, light gold box. There are no marketing blurbs screaming praise, just the title and the name C. S. Lewis, in scripty lettering that evokes the fantasy genre. The illustration on the side is of a young boy, in a medieval-looking robe and stockings, atop a white horse stepping over a creek.

At some point my mother must have realized she’d accidentally committed to reading me all seven books. I was enthralled at once, as much by the story as the fact that I was receiving her unbroken attention for half an hour every night. When she got tired, slowed down and started to squint, I would beg and plead. When the fatigue was too much her eyes would close mid-sentence, and half-asleep she would begin mumbling nonsense, imagined passages. I had to stop her and insist that those were not the words on the page.

But about halfway through The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe we switched places. Soon I was the one getting drowsy as she pushed on, voice cracking, caught up in the adventures of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. During the exciting parts she would furtively try to read ahead, and fall silent as she scanned the next paragraph to see what happened. Again I would have to stop her, and insist she go back, and read it all out loud.

In the dedication, C. S. Lewis wrote to his goddaughter:

My dear Lucy, I wrote this story
for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grew quicker than books. As a result, you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still.

Lewis’s dedication seems quaint now. His timeline originated in a vanishing world of print, which could still imagine a book as the writers’ child, which grew from conception, through many drafts, to the day it was printed and bound together with string and glue, and finally met the world. Lewis’s goddaughter might have grown faster than his book, but the comparison now sounds nostalgic of a sturdier age, when books had very human frailties—the spine cracks, the glue becomes dry and brittle.

I came across the Chronicles of Narnia again the other day, book shopping in the pixilated marketplace of Amazon.com. (It was no accident. What does it mean, that Amazon “suggests”?) I was curious, I clicked. I could see my own copy sitting on the bookshelf across the room. Today it can be purchased in several forms, although the graphics on the box have been punched up dramatically. Thrifty shoppers can save 34 percent by purchasing the The Chronicles of Narnia Movie Tie-in Prince Caspian Box Set, whatever that is. On the side of that box is a rather harder-looking young man than the blond waif on my edition, encased in armor, holding a sword across his body that evidently emits supernatural fire. The only purchase option Amazon doesn’t provide, in fact, is the Kindle eBook version, although it does offer a button you can press to chastise the publisher for this oversight, and urge them to get with the program.

If—or let’s get real: when—the Chronicles of Narnia are converted to the Kindle format, will Lewis’s dedication be preserved? And what will it mean to the eager child who’s just ordered online and downloaded it wirelessly over the cellular 3G network?

The push towards eBooks isn’t surprising, nor of course limited to the Kindle, but this mass repackaging of our literature sets me on edge. In his essay “Why Bother?” Jonathan Franzen gets at the dilemma. “The consumer economy loves a product that sells at a premium, wears out quickly or is susceptible to regular improvement, and offers with each improvement some marginal gain in usefulness,” he observes. “A classic work of literature is inexpensive, infinitely reusable, and, worst of all, unimprovable.”

The marketplace now has a reply: while literature can’t be upgraded, the book itself can be. The Kindle’s major selling point, its most intriguing and seductive quality, is the patented E-ink screen, which is—depending on your perspective—either designed or marketed to resemble paper better than any LCD. Instead of a million tiny red, green, and blue flashlights beaming their harsh energy into your retina, electronic ink is a physical substance, microcapsules of dye pushed around by positive and negative charges. Sturdy atoms, not glistening photons. Amazon’s ad copy exclaims that unlike your smartphone, the Kindle won’t fade in bright sunlight. It’s remarkable that this claim is considered intuitive enough to stand on its own. Clearly, enough of us have tried to use our iPhones and BlackBerrys on the beach to make this marketing message effective.

But of course paper isn’t some distant ideal, it’s the status quo—although with Amazon stuck marketing the commonplace, they could have done a lot worse. “Doesn’t fade in sunlight” sounds better than “Kindle: almost as good as what you already have.” For $189, you too could purchase a blank screen, and then re-buy the books to fill it—books that can do all sorts of things your old books couldn’t, like crash, freeze, or run out of batteries.

But I can feel the ground shifting under my feet. Amazon recently announced that they now sell more Kindle books than hardcovers, and the price of the Kindle has come down under that magical $200 tipping point. Before, we readers could dismiss Kindle owners as “early adopters,” and lump them into that gadget-driven crowd. Like those crazy neighbors of yours, you remember the ones, who spent a thousand dollars on something called a VCR when it first came out. But now Kindle books are bestsellers, and I feel more and more like the folks who clung stubbornly to cassette tapes, while everyone around them re-bought their music on shiny compact discs. Part of me even wonders if I might actually have an obligation to own one, if only to see where this is all heading.

Still, another part of me fears the Kindle is a Trojan horse. Under that paper-like screen, its guts are still circuit boards and electrons. It looks good from the outside, and the sales pitch is well tuned: truly a gift to the loyal readers of the world, this device that can pack our library into a memory chip. So do I allow it into my home? And if I do, what happens on the day that UPS drops it off, and I lug the box inside and slice open the packing tape, and a bunch of angry Greeks come pouring out? What happens after they have devoured all my books, and eventually encased an entire library of fearsome characters and daring plots in a chilly, plastic tomb?
 
When I was less young, years after the Narnia books had been put aside, I used to listen to the radio at night, and fall asleep to the sound of NPR. I was an anxious child, and a voice in the darkness calmed me down. Generally this worked well, since for two hours I could hear the re-broadcast of an interview show that was just enough to hold my interest without actually being interesting enough to prevent sleep. Every once in awhile, though, I bumped into a short program with an inconsistent time slot. Selected Shorts was just a half hour of short stories, read aloud for a live audience, but I never once fell asleep in the middle. I still remember a few of those stories.

They were read by professional actors, but I don’t remember their voices anymore. Looking back now, I realize the sound in my ears was just another step in a chain. It had been scrambled into an FM radio signal, beamed through the air, and reproduced by my radio’s tiny speakers. What I found comforting in the darkness was more than the voice of a reader, it was the voice of a writer. It was a quality that went beyond sound: the way good writing allows us to feel that we know someone, allows us a sense of proximity to another human being, as though they are sitting by our bed. It invites us in, echoing in our mind even when we read silently to ourselves.

The two used to seem inseparable to me, the word and the sound, just as the experience of a novel now seems inseparable from the feeling of holding a book in my hand, the ink on paper, or the rustling pages. I would like to think that this intangible quality, which was resilient enough to survive the conversion to an analog radio signal, can also cross the digital threshold, to eBooks and electronic ink. And beyond my distrust for the Kindle, this is my hope: that someday even reading 3D text from holographic goggles won’t be enough to extinguish our need for good writing, or diminish the mysterious ability of language to create that sense that we are not alone.


Sean Whiteman is a senior majoring in English.

 
     
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