Times Up

Everyone has an opinion on the Kindle vs. print. What if you didn't have a choice?


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For several years I lived up a rutted, single-track dirt road on an island a 20-minute ferry ride off the coast of Maine. And each morning at my front door I beheld a small miracle of commerce: there lay The New York Times, neatly encased in its jaunty blue plastic bag, undeterred by distance, rough seas, or substandard road maintenance.

That miracle was repeated right up until the day my perpetually put-upon delivery person somehow got her car wedged crosswise in some ruts, then knocked over the neighbor’s garbage in the getting out, loudly sending a couple dozen beer bottles caroming across the road. When I pulled my newspaper from its bag that morning, a scrawled note on a scrap of brown paper fluttered out: “This road sucks,” it read. “I will deleiver here no more.”

She was good to her word.

I thought of her this summer, while living in another remote spot in Maine. I’m now farther north and more inextricably into the woods, close to the Canadian border at the end of a 10-mile dead-end road and a 40-minute drive to the nearest traffic light. I’ve spent the better part of each summer at this lakeside cabin for the past dozen years, and getting the Times has always been a matter of idle fantasy, like getting food that doesn’t come in a can. Obtaining a hard copy of the Times meant driving two hours to the nearest city, then driving back. (That only happened when I had to pick someone up at the airport; on those infrequent occasions the paper would be read and reread over the next week, and even Verlyn Klinkenborg’s pointless musings on rural life might get a second read.) High-speed Internet hasn’t made it here either, and with publications now larding their pages with animations and interactive graphics and all sorts of electronic how d’you do, I don’t have the patience to wait for downloading on the dial-up modem that’s my link to the outside. This means that for more than a decade I’ve spent the summer without the Times, which has been fine, except for the bends that develop when I leave in the fall and return to an overly rich news environment.

But this past summer another small miracle occurred. I arrived at our cabin with a Kindle 2 in my plastic crate full of books, and discovered that despite the map on the Amazon Web site’s assuring me that in no way would the device get wireless coverage here, it does, a feat my cell phone has never been able to duplicate. Now, every morning, the daily New York Times — or most of it, sans crossword, quote of the day, most photographs, and the occasional article — appears on a thin, white plastic device I keep on the windowsill. The Kindle is about the size and thickness of an instruction manual for a rice cooker, yet it delivers my Times every day quietly and without complaint. With coffee in hand, I now read the day’s news every morning sitting in a rocker on the porch, or down by the lake in an Adirondack chair.

And I’m not sure how I feel about this.

I learned much of what I needed to know in life during weekly trips to Gold’s News and Stationary across from the train station in Morristown, New Jersey. Here, my father and I went most Sunday mornings to pick up the New York Times, the Newark Star-Ledger, and The Morristown Daily Record. The lessons from Gold’s: A magazine exists for every interest you can think of, and many you can’t. You should never make eye contact with the furtive men reading the “special” magazines in the back of the store. If you’re helpful and carry papers to the car, there’s a better than even chance that a pack of Teaberry gum will appear in your future.

But the overriding lesson was this: news is not something ethereal, but bulky and substantial and even monumental. The Sunday papers were stupidly large and unwieldy things back when I was growing up in the 1960s. Papers at Gold’s stood stacked head high to an eight-year-old, forming great canyons of pulp up and down every aisle, and then spilling out front in great piles along the sidewalk. I developed my notion of abundance and plenty here, much as I imagine farm kids do during the autumn pumpkin harvest. I never understood why my dad needed three papers, but having all that newsprint spread around when we got home left me with a sense that news was something central and important, like oxygen, and to not have it around was to invite suffocation.

My Kindle was a gift, and I was at first greatly underwhelmed by it. It didn’t strike me as particularly millennial or revolutionary, despite all the hype and some of the really cool features, such as the ability to find dictionary definitions just by moving a little nubbin with one’s thumb. I downloaded and read two free short books in the first week, an experience I found unsatisfactory.

Mostly, the Kindle reminded me how much I prefer actual books — I like their heft, and the feeling that you’re making steady, plodding progress as the pages tick by one by one. (The Kindle has a line at the bottom that shows you what percent you’ve completed, but it’s not the same.)  The Kindle doesn’t have pages. It has “locations,” a term about as tone deaf as naming an electronic reader after a word that recalls book burning.

The Kindle has a black on gray screen reminiscent of my first-generation Mac, although it’s easier on the eyes. You can adjust typeface size on a Kindle, but you can’t toggle between, say, Bodoni and Caslon. I like the how typefaces change from one book to the next — some are serious, some a little less so. Also, I have the habit of flipping to the rear flap of the book jacket every so often, so I can study the author’s photograph for clues, seldom forthcoming, about what turns the book might take. (Susan Orlean — so wry and mysterious! Sebastian Junger — so in need of a functioning razor!) You can’t do that with a Kindle. Finally, I like how real books stack up on the floor and nightstand next to my bed, like cairns showing where I’ve been and where I need to go.

So when it comes to books I remain a Luddite — Amazon, happily, will deliver printed books to my post office box in remote Maine as quickly and cheaply as to my home in New Orleans.

As a result, I use the Kindle exclusively for reading the Times, for which I pay $13.99 a month. (It galls me somewhat that Amazon collects 70 percent of this, and only 30 percent goes to Paul Krugman, but whatever.) My Kindle has become in my mind a single-purpose information appliance — the Kindle is the Times. I like this. For one, it prevents me from succumbing to that common and debilitating affliction associated with reading on the Web. I may start reading an article somewhere but 20 minutes later find I’m watching YouTube videos involving small pets. I can never remember how or why I got here, and I’ve often forgotten the article I started reading. Also, the Kindle downloads the paper just once a day, eliminating the need to constantly check the Web for the latest on the Michael Jackson estate.

What’s more, the “Kindle = Times” equation helps immeasurably in remembering where the information in my head has come from. With so much coming off the Web, it’s hard to sort out in my mind where things fall on the continuum between wild rumor and hard fact. That story about Dick Cheney: was it something I read on Andrew Sullivan’s blog? On somebody’s Facebook update? Was it a tweet? Or was it from a link to a Washington Post story I clicked to from Sullivan’s blog? Who the hell can remember these things? Web material always seems to emerge from some ghostly fog of shifting information. (I hope the next generation will grow up learning to sort this effortlessly, but I’m guessing the distinctions between rumor and fact will soon just seem quaint and outdated.)

Recalling the source is easy with the Kindle — there’s something pleasantly tactile about the click of the “next page” button that helps me establish a permanent mental link to the information source, the same way I can remember, in the analog world, oh yeah, the Dick Cheney story was next to the big Bloomingdale’s ad. I must have seen it in The New York Times.

In the first couple of weeks, I developed a comfortable routine with the Kindle, much as over the years I had developed a routine with the paper version of the Times. Each morning, I start on the home page and click on the magically downloaded Times via the thumb nubbin. (I like that I can still say I’m thumbing through the paper — no retronym needed.) The lead story then appears. I usually read that. The Kindle organizes its stories by section, and the first section is “front page.” I thumb through all the front page stories, scan the corrections (which, I’m pleased to see, is part of the “front page” and not stuck in some remote digital ghetto), then I search the day’s paper for “New Orleans” using the little keyboard. There’s occasionally a story about levees or crime, but more often a link to something about jazz or pop in the Arts section. Next, I go to the Op-Ed and editorial pages, see if there’s anything worth reading, briefly lament the unfulfilled promise of Maureen Dowd, then put the “paper” down and go about my day. Later, if I have time, I’ll return and scan through the other sections.

A few quirks have taken time to get used to. For one, it’s hard to get an instant sense of how momentous that day’s news is. The day’s newsworthiness was usually known within moments of unsheathing the paper from its blue bag — the size of the headlines and the seriousness of the photos conveyed the day’s gravitas or levitas. The front page of the Times is like a weather map, with lots of detailed information available if you want to study it, but also highly informative at a glance.

The Kindle isn’t readable at a glance — you need to scroll through, screen by screen. The headlines are uniformly sized, and the order of the stories within each section sometimes seem wholly random, especially in the feature sections. For instance, I’ll read the introduction to some story about ways to prepare chicken in “Dining In,” and then four stories later come across the recipes, as if the poultry is hiding out and hoping to go unnoticed. And when clicking through the Arts section, the screen doesn’t tell you instantly if you’re looking at a movie review or a dance review — I’ve developed the tic of looking first at the reviewer’s name before deciding to click onward or not. (Hello, Manohla Dargis!)

More serious kinks have also surfaced. About five weeks into my subscription, the Times stopped downloading without so much as a note telling me it would “deleiver here no more.” When I hit the sync button, the screen would report that I already had the paper on my Kindle, which I plainly didn’t, and then I would have to go to my laptop and call up the “Manage Your Kindle” page on Amazon.com — a tedious process using dial up — and download the day’s paper to my computer, then transfer it via USB cable. I did this for about a week, thinking the device would repair itself eventually. Then one morning the Tuesday Times took 42 minutes to download — probably something unusually indigestible in the Science Times — after which I finally called customer support. Someone helpful had me reset the device, then clear out some archives, after which it all started working fine again.

Still, my chief qualm is that there’s something offputtingly utilitarian and perhaps too efficient about the Kindle. Marshall McLuhan, or somebody like Marshall McLuhan, once said that you don’t actually read the morning paper, you slip into it like a bath. That about nails it. But reading the Times on the Kindle feels nothing like taking a bath. It’s more like getting a news douche.

I don’t believe news should be quite so efficient. There’s something deeply pleasing about the slouchy, tactile immersion of reading printed news. I imagine an eight-year-old walking into a cathedral in the 18th century and deciding to join the clergy, or through the Corinthian columns into a grand downtown bank in the 19th and becoming a banker.  I’m pretty sure Sundays at Gold’s, wandering through the canyons of newsprint, made me decide to be a writer, smitten as I was by the sheer physical monumentality of the news.

Will anyone growing up getting news through a Kindle — or some other reading appliance — have a clue about the great cathedrals of information we once inhabited? I doubt it. And that makes me a little sad. • 1 September 2009