I'm a reluctant technophile -- working for a dotcom in the 90s made me not so much a technophobe as a marketing-phobe -- I enjoy new gadgets even as the utopian claims of advertising are an insult to the seriousness with which we regard the English language around here. So I greet the Amazon Kindle, a new e-reader that allows for the inexpensive downloading of books and newspapers, with a mixture of interest and disdain.
On the positive side, newspapers have long seemed to me a place where for both economic and environmental reasons, electronic distribution makes a lot of sense. It's just that I enjoy the experience of reading the piecemeal, web version of newspapers far less than the actual hardcopy. Something about unfolding all those big long pages is a lot more inviting than staring into my digital screen, which feels too much like sitting at my desk during the workday. From a business standpoint too, the big ole ads in a paper version of a newspaper are a lot more arresting, which is why they sell for a lot more than their digital counterparts.
It's just that everytime I take our weekly mountain of old newspapers out for recycling, I feel that twinge of Berkeley-induced guilt that this is a waste of paper, which as every environmentalist knows, requires a very dirty fabrication process. And I'm sure publishers like David Hiller, the LA Times executive whose entire raison d'etre seems to be downsizing his workforce, would love to cut printing and delivery costs. So a high-quality reader like the Kindle could be a way to combine the logistical advantages of electronic delivery while retaining some of the sensuality of reading a big ole paper, even if it means you have to mouse around a bit to see different sections of it. ( To take things a step further, the Christian Science Monitor has a cool service where for $8/month, you can get a daily "treeless" .pdf of the entire actual paper).
But I really can't see electronic reading replacing books, particularly given the way I treat my books. Can you imagine taking a $400 Kindle to the beach, or a cafe, or a bar? The possibilities for spillage are somewhat horrifying. And while I would certainly rather pay $10 rather than $35 for a new book, my own experience is that reading digitally is much more tiring than reading something on the page, for reasons that I don't fully understand. In my first grueling year of graduate school, I read Moby-Dick for literally about 13 hours a day to finish in time for seminar, and it's hard for me to imagine spending that much time in front of a screen, no matter how good it is.
Then there's the issue of marginalia, which I don't believe the Kindle lets you make -- but let's say that in a future version, it would When you're in a real push like I was that first year, you don't have the time or energy to make a touchpad register your note -- the point of marginalia is a note to yourself as a reader, underscoring a critical point, paraphrasing a tough argument, drawing a connection with something else you read. The last thing you want to do is have to fiddle with the technology.
Anyhow, speaking of marginalia, one of my favorite examples is Herman Melville's notation on an explication of King Lear, where he wrote: "Hold, hold, thou ass of a commentator!" I think I'll take his advice. But not before admitting I haven't tried the Kindle, so maybe it'll make a believer of me. In his review, Stephen Levy of Newsweek claims that reading books on the Kindle put him in a "trance-like zone," which he considers a good metaphor for intense reading (insert crabby English teacher wisecrack here). But I'd certainly love to hear from anyone else who has used the thing, and other thoughts people have on this.