“But these innumerable little volumes, bright, identical, ephemeral, for they seemed bound in cardboard and printed on tissue paper surprised her infinitely. The whole works of Shakespeare cost half a crown and could be put in your pocket. One could hardly read them, indeed, the print was so small, but it was a marvel, none the less.”
Those were the musings of Orlando—the gender-bending protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s novel, “Orlando”—on seeing hardback books of his (or her) day.
If she’d stared wide-eyed at the new books that appeared in her era, at their compactness and their lightness, I wonder what she’d think of the 21st century e-books and the devices they’re read on. She’d be transfixed, I’d bet.
On the subway, when I see a silver-haired, octogenarian, seated next to me, peering down at her Kindle, I too, am transfixed”—but for reasons other than that would, in theory, baffle our friend from the past.
I am “transfixed” by the device’s surging popularity. I’m “transfixed” by its arrival into the mainstream. I’m “transfixed” by the fact that books will soon become the new vinyl.
One doesn’t have to scan the business and technology sections of the Wall Street Journal to know that in the books business, the drift is definitely toward the digital.
For the record, swiftly but steadfastly, the sales of e-books have overtaken that of paper books. In the beginning of the year, Amazon.com announced that for every 100 paperbacks, the e-retailer had sold 115 e-books. A Forrester Research report forecasts that spending on e-books will touch $2.81 billion by 2015.
The soaring numbers tell me it’s time to own a Kindle. The Kindle, svelte sleek, and handy, is doubtlessly, an extremely versatile tool. It is not a tech bauble.
It lets the user play around with the text size, change the orientation of a page, choose the number of words that appear per line, highlight a section with a gray underline. It can clip an entire article from a newspaper or a magazine, and store them. It can read aloud a book, by converting text to speech. It affords one the luxury of listening to music as one reads, by linking one’s audio files. It even summons up the meaning of a word one is stumped by.
Now, consider the iPad in its e-reader avatar. The iBooks store is a flawless simulation of a faux wood bookshelf polished to a celestial shine where a title can be summoned with just an ethereal tap. Its dust-free rows of evenly spaced volumes that neither have the tendency to lean sideways nor slide downwards are a librarian’s vision of utopia. It is an enchanting gateway to the world of letters.
E-books can be bought in a trice (in under 60 seconds, on the Kindle), and are cheap into the bargain (costing anywhere between 99 cents, in the case of self-published authors to $15 for publishers’ titles.)
What is there to complain? But there’s much, I feel, I could lose from gaining an e-reader.
Each time I look toward my bookshelves, I feel crestfallen as I envision myself callously shoving rows of my books into a trash bag and stowing them away in the attic, as Andy did in “Toy Story 3.” The fact is I can’t discard them.
Well, if that’s gooey sentimentality, hereon, it’s hard reality.
Does the emotional effect of “downloading” a “content” file come close to the joy of purchasing a book, and then, experiencing its heft and its unique scent? Unlike physical books, e-books all look the same, unvarying in their in dimensions, texture, and finish. They all “switch on” to life on the screen in an identical manner. They conjure the image of an army of cloned stormtroopers from the “Star Wars” series, in all their dull uniformity.
Imagine curling up with a Kindle, or an iPad, or a Nook, on a cold wintry night. I see some incongruity in that picture.
Take a book to bed with you and doze off, and it’d still be loyally waiting by your pillow the next sunrise. With an e-reader, you’d have to switch it off first, before you crashed, lest you drain its batteries.
A paperback or a hardcover will gladly accompany you on your journeys without ever wondering about how long you will be gone, or if there is a power outlet where you’re going. You couldn’t possibly keep your e-reader unfed with an electric supply for over a month.
A book is magnanimous enough to forgive any callousness on its owner’s part. Turn its pages without care and it won’t stare back with an e-ink stare.
Spill steaming coffee on it absentmindedly and it still won’t bawl. Give it a gentle push and it’ll take it in its stride, happily gliding across table top or floor. You can roll it, bend it, twist it, and it still, will not be deformed. By contrast, an e-reader is not resilient.
Accidentally, if you drop a book on the floor, you can always bend down, dust the dirt it off, and toss it in your bag. With an e-reader, you’ll likely have to pick up its smashed bits, and order a replacement at more cost.
Disappointingly, the Kindle is not the “Library of Babel,” an infinite library conceived by the Argentinean author in his book of the same name. Alas, mechanical memory is vast, but not limitless. So it won’t save an eternity’s worth of reading matter—forever.
With the Kindle, once the storage ceiling is reached, one needs to beam an e-book or two up to the cloud, and re-download it as and when needed. Older issues of subscription-based media are automatically deleted to free up space for newer stuff.
A book without a cover is like granulated honey in a bottle. Call me old fashioned, in this regard, but I don’t think there’s anything quite like a ambling up to a wall full of books, lifting a book and leisurely riffling through it.
A quick glance at how deep in the book a bookmark is tucked in, one gets a spatial sense of how much of it one has read. That’ll never happen with an e-reader, without flipping it on. A paper book, unlike an e-reader, won’t “freeze” or require troubleshooting.
To invest or not to invest in a Kindle is the question that I’ve been turning in my mind for a good long time now. Admittedly, the most affordable version of the Kindle costs $114. But that comes at a price, and if you’re a traditional bibliophile, you won’t like it: You’ll have to put up with ads. But is it any consolation that they’ll just confine themselves to the “home page” and the screen savers?
The burden of my Kindle dilemma has not lightened even after this piece!