Paper or Plastic?


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I just bought a Kindle. I am surprised at myself for doing so. Despite its cute retro name, the Kindle is mostly bought by people who are techno-centric, which I am not. It’s true that I now live with a large flat-screen television — but that wasn’t my idea. I also happen to have five computers in my home — but search me as to how they got there (for all I know, one of them procreated with the printer to produce the other four).

Of course, the Kindle was designed to fool people like me. The name Kindle suggests a homely frontier staple (re: spindle) with a spiritual patina (“let us now bow our heads as we kindle the Sabbath lights”). It’s clear the marketers were interested in attracting the Whole Foods crowd and a good swath of New York’s Upper West Side. But the fact is that the Kindle has to be plugged in, so dress it up as you may, it’s still technology.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those reactionary Luddites who hates technological innovation — I’m as lazy as the next guy and like labor-saving devices. It’s just that technology doesn’t agree with me, the way milk products or shellfish don’t agree with other people. In my family, the term used for this is dystoolia (i.e. dyslexia involving tools) and entails difficulty with devices having more than two parts. Dystoolia is probably genetic (think my mother and a vacuum cleaner) and, as disabilities go, there are worse. But this doesn’t prevent mine from being embarrassing and expensive. As a result, I tend to buy technological devices long after they were introduced into the marketplace. This is when the user manuals have been amended to accommodate the “what happens if I press this button?” people, and Customer Service has been smoothed enough to be moved to Bombay.

In the case of the Kindle, however, I broke with precedent and jumped in early. This was the result of a simple fact: my books could no longer fit in the space available — I’m talking serious clutter — and the Kindle can hold, as its promotional literature never tires of vaunting, more than a thousand books. If nothing else, this is a great boon to housekeeping.

Another incentive for my acquiring the Kindle was to alleviate the problem of deciding which book to take on vacation. It used to be that I had to spend lots of time considering the right-sized Trollope for my trip down the Yangtze (Trollope wrote enough books in enough sizes to make this sort of custom-selection possible, though he also wrote so many that there’s the problem of remembering which Trollope you’ve already read). With the Kindle I could take all 47 Trollopes with me and still have room for 953 other books.

Reading on the Kindle is easy — you just press the key labeled “Next Page” again and again; any moron can do it. However, if you want to find, say, page 93, that’s another story. Page numbers aren’t available on the Kindle, only “site locations.” I was told by the Customer Service rep — a gentlemanly fellow named Louis — that I could probably approximate page number if I did something with the site locations involving ratios. But as you may have already guessed, someone with dystoolia is not going to be able to do anything with ratios.

I will say that the purchase of books from the Kindle store is a breeze. I have already downloaded Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, The Complete Essays of Montaigne, and a collection of six books by William James. Brooklyn cost me $9.99 and the Montaigne and the James, 99 cents each. Even though the price disparity might suggest I’d been shortchanged a bit on the Tóibín, I’m OK with it, since Brooklyn is selling in stores for $25, and Montaigne and James aren’t really selling in stores at all.

The Kindle also allows for sampling before buying, a nice feature that enhances one’s ability to say one has read many more books than one actually has. Since very few books improve after the first 15 pages and most even go downhill, a sample can really save everyone a lot of trouble. So far, I’ve downloaded samples from The Handmaid’s TaleThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and The Lovely Bones — all of which I thought I ought to read and which, after sampling, decided I didn’t need to. I also sampled Roth’s Indignation, which I want to read, but decided to wait until he had moved further into posterity and joined Montaigne and James at 99 cents.

The Kindle also has a Text-to-Voice feature that allows a male or female robot to read the book to you at an adjustable speed. I would not recommend this feature unless you are driving across the country with a crying baby. Only then might you want to hear Tóibín’s Irish-inflected prose read to you by R2-D2.

A distinctly positive attribute of the Kindle is that it’s easy on the eyes. It has a light grayish screen (scientifically designed to be restful) and adjustable typeface for those of us with a tendency to misplace our reading glasses. I find myself practically racing through my Kindle books, released from the sort of strain I experience with those Penguin paperbacks whose small print seems expressly designed to annoy me. I am puzzled, however, by how the Kindle lettering can be reduced to a very small size but enlarged to only a moderately large size. Are there actually people who want their typeface as small as telephone-book print? And what is one supposed to do when one’s eyes get really bad? I suspect this is an ingenious case of built-in obsolescence in which the aging user, rather than the aging device, dictates the need for an update. No doubt a “Senior Kindle” is being test-marketed as I write.

One of the presumed assets of the Kindle is that it takes the muscle out of reading. Not that there was ever much muscle in reading. People read because they aren’t good at throwing balls or building cheerleading pyramids. But muscle is relative—and when you’re trying to appeal to a sedentary class, the more you can cater to their essential indolence the better. Thus, a lightweight device with adjustable typeface is more conducive to the lotus-eating tendencies of the veteran reader than is a bulky paperback with miniscule print that can get pretty useless when dropped in a bathtub. Note here that you can take your Kindle into the bathtub if you put it in a Ziploc bag. I know this may be risky for someone with dystoolia (a Ziploc bag is technology, albeit of a rudimentary kind), but still, it’s nice to know you can read a thousand books in the bathtub if you’re very, very careful.

For all that the Kindle ostensibly makes a reader’s life easier, everything must be paid for, as the saying goes. I’m not just speaking about the high cost of this device, which will no doubt drop precipitously now that I have bought one. I’m talking about all the subsidiary sorts of “payment” that inevitably accompany our high-tech world of which the Kindle is a part. I really wish more people would acknowledge this. All these devices, with their multi-lingual user manuals written by guys who just squeaked through freshman English — is life simpler for them? Just to open my computer means navigating a thicket of boxes asking me if I want to update this or that (I always press: “Ask me Later” — though what new knowledge “later” will bring, I can’t say). Then come the pop-ups trying to interest me in breast enhancement or penis enlargement. That’s a lot of time spent pressing buttons and thinking about the right size for an organ I wouldn’t normally think about when Googling a recipe for cranberry relish.

In my household, we have a bowl in a corner of the kitchen filled with chargers designed for devices that have faded from familial memory. The devices are probably no longer even in the house, but there lie their chargers like so many high-tech shrunken heads.

My informal research shows that people wish technological advancements could have stopped at the point at which they felt most at home in the world. This usually corresponds to when they were in their mid-twenties (though the age may be falling, as technology advances more rapidly). A recent article in The New York Times notes that young people will sometimes favor lo-fi technology over hi-fi, which may reflect their nostalgia for a simpler time. At some point, we all lose step with the forward march of civilization; we get side-tracked by dirty diapers and mortgages, and then, one day, we discover the parade has turned the corner and we’re stuck in a bad neighborhood without a GPS — or even a map. To be sure, some people are good at keeping up and really annoying about boasting about it. I assuage myself by imagining them so busy reading pop-ups about penis enlargement that they don’t have time to read The Complete Essays of Montaigne, even if costs 99 cents on their Kindle.

As for me, I’d like to go back to the early ’90s. Give me a simple laptop and a cell phone without all the apps — though small enough to fit in my handbag, so I don’t have to carry it around on my belt as if it were a metal detector. I don’t want to return to VHS tapes, but I’m fine with DVDs minus the Special Features (who cares what Quentin Tarantino has to say?). Give me digital cameras before every schlub could download the photos — I don’t want to see myself all over the Internet dancing the hora at my third cousin’s kid’s bat mitzvah.

As for books, I’m not sure. The Kindle has its benefits, as noted above, but I’ve already had to call Customer Service twice. In both cases, the representatives spoke to me over the cacophonous din of other reps, which doesn’t bode well for the product’s ease of use. In my second call, the rep — a sweet fellow named Brian — admitted that the Highlighting feature I was asking about hasn’t really been perfected yet, which may be why I’m having so much trouble marking up my 99-cent copy of William James’ The Meaning of Truth. It was a relief to know that my dystoolia wasn’t to blame — but, still, why read The Meaning of Truth if you can’t highlight? • 7 January 2010


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.