Amazon.com really thinks I need a Kindle. You know what that is: the Web store's portable, wireless reading device that instantly downloads — for a price — virtually any book you'd like from among thousands of titles. Feel the impulse to dive into Ahab's cetacean obsession? Just send along the electronic equivalent of money and voila, the electronic equivalent of Melville's classic appears.
It is irksome that every time I shop at Amazon, ads for the Kindle appear front and center. The Web store claims to be able to intuit what I would want to read, so why can't it figure out that I don't want a Kindle and actually resent the thing? I am not "platform-agnostic." I worry about book publishing in a post-Kindle world. Will paper survive?
I can't quantify this, but a percentage of my book-reading pleasure — and not an insubstantial one — is derived from the physicality of reading. I love holding a book in my hand and the stolid way it occupies a space. I love the sense of accomplishment as the pages on the unread side diminish. And it's not just a matter of how many pages are left, but of inches read versus inches to go, as the weight of the book shifts.
A book of significant length is a statement of gravitas through bulk. The earth-bound book communicates something about itself and its reader by being so imposing. Reading it is a project, a commitment.
In contrast, e-books are by their nature captured sunbeams — ephemera — offering no trophy for reading.
I write this while surrounded by books on overpacked shelves. I peruse them with pride, reading bindings and allowing my mind to momentarily remember the upshot: Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace — a clever take on the odd and banal; The Power Broker by Robert Caro — Robert Moses was an arrogant genius; My Antonia by Willa Cather — life was simpler then.
Not that I've read everything.
The Spanish philosopher Jose Gaos once wrote: "Every private library is a reading plan."
This is true of mine. Every fifth book that my eyes wander over is not yet read. It is waiting for me to pick it up. Some would think this a terrible waste, but I take comfort in having books at the ready. I get to many eventually, but I have to see its binding and be enticed by the cover to want to pluck it from exile. I'm guessing that e-books don't call out in the same way.
In 2006, William Powers, media critic at the National Journal and a fellow at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, wrote a white paper titled: Hamlet's Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal. It was very hopeful to us paper-philes.
"There are cognitive, cultural and social dimensions to the human-paper dynamic that come into play every time any kind of paper, from a tiny Post-it note to a groaning Sunday newspaper, is used to convey, retrieve or store information," Powers writes. "Paper does these jobs in a way that pleases us, which is why, for centuries, we have liked having it around. It's also why we will never give it up as a medium."
Powers quotes studies finding that paper has inherent characteristics that facilitate the "full-immersion, deep-dive" kind of "shut out the world" reading focus.
He says that paper's immutability means that: "The book you place on your nightstand as you drift off to sleep will be exactly the same book when you wake up in the morning." This comforts us.
Also, Powers notes that the physical limitations of paper necessitate that it be selective — as opposed to the limitlessness of cyberspace — and this "imposes order on the vastness of the information universe."
He says that for e-paper to replace paper, it will have to become paper.
You can find Powers' writing online at: www.hks.harvard.edu/presspol/research_publications/papers/discussion_papers/D39.pdf.
But to give it your full attention, I'd recommend printing it out.