It is small, thin, and lightweight, but everything else about Amazon’s Kindle feels old-fashioned. Its buttons require serious pushing, like one of those pocket electronic dictionaries or translators. The screen is a trick of the eye: this being 2011, we assume there is some kind of glow behind the typewriter-like letters, but in reality, the screen is about as high-tech as an Etch-A-Sketch. It does not glow. It does not produce light. In dim lighting, the white background appears that subtle neon green of glow-in-the-dark material, but it does not glow in the dark. In a recent Kindle commercial, a smug lady in a black bikini titters at the iPad reader at her side, who is marveling at her ability to read her device in blinding sunlight. He is trying in vain to shield the glossy screen of his far more expensive device with his hand. Nice, but having to attach a reading light to the Kindle is only slightly less stupid than having to read an iPad underneath, say, a black cloth of the kind used while taking a daguerreotype. Or a towel, if you’re at the beach.
Still, I’ve read five books on the Kindle since I bought it in January: A Visit From the Goon Squad (which I started reading on an iPhone), A Garden of Earthly Delights, Imperfect Birds, Revolutionary Road, and Swamplandia! I list these books because they have something in common: they’re all good, or great. My concern with e-readers is that they take away the romance of reading — those little perks you’ve heard memorialized across the Internet over the past few years: the beautiful covers, the smell of the paper, the visible mark of your progress in the pages read and left to read, the unique or familiar typefaces, the rough or smooth or shiny feel of the covers in your hands. If the book is engrossing or suggests it will be at some point down the road, surely none of the above matters.
This being the modern, technology-driven world, what we get in place of the above, if we choose to buy a Kindle, is convenience: no more bookstores; no more waiting for Amazon packages to arrive; no more dog ears; no more weight in our bags; no more bookmarks. The experience must be different with the iPad, where the book app fights for attention with dozens of other toys. Readers must have to resist the urge to swipe a bit of text and post it to Tumblr, or tell their Twitter follows how fun reading is, or how amazing it is that they’re reading at all. The Kindle is the superior reading device because apart from the “Experimental” section, which allows you to listen to mp3s and browse the Web, all you can do is read. Who would want to browse the Web on a Kindle? It’s a horrible experience, like playing an educational computer game in a school library in 1991.
But a distracted mind, trained so expertly by those ubiquitous social media tools beginning with “T,” will find ways around reading: I often find myself changing the font size and font type, and flipping it back and forth between “sans serif,” “condensed” and “normal,” as if this will somehow allow me to read a book faster, or with more gusto, or with less eye strain, or with more. This is all done with a little button called “Aa.” If this button wasn’t on the Kindle keyboard, so easily accessible, I wonder if I would care so much about changing the font experience of this experience. I probably would.
The PowerPoint section of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad looks daft on a Kindle. The little thought bubbles are dark and awkwardly aligned; the font size is too small. A big fan of Egan’s short stories, I wasn’t blown away by this novel, meaning I wasn’t blown away by the Kindle either — yet. Moving on to Joyce Carol Oates’ first novel, A Garden of Earthly Delights, the little gray slab became my constant companion. I couldn’t put “the book” down until I finished it. Of course, credit is due to Oates, not Amazon, because she set a fire in my brain that made me want to read all the time until the day I die, to a degree I haven’t felt since I first graduated from college. I have the Kindle; I may as well use it to this end.
Being an Apple lover, I’ve always found ways to justify buying a great number of its products. But while I’m excited for the release of the new iPad next week, it’s a vicarious excitement. That gadget would do nothing for me except give me an excuse to give up an iPhone I can’t afford. (See, I’ve just justified buying an iPad.) So what is the iPad but a giant iPhone — a way to sneak in some extra Internet time, a way to wake up one’s brain in the morning, a way to lull it to sleep at night, and during all the horrid moments of downtime we experience throughout the day? How much of that “way” involves reading? I love reading the New York Times on the iPhone, but too often I forget about the app and dart around, or back and forth, between the two “T”s, squeezing in some Mail and Safari between them. It’s an inane routine, even if the content I read (see) on these apps is enjoyable. The question is: why am I on the iPhone now? And why now again? And why five minutes from now? And why first thing in the morning, instead of reading the Kindle, or going on an early morning run, or a walk with the dog?
Nothing compares to the Kindle. The fragile, vintage-looking device is great because it is fragile and vintage-looking. Its screen is as delicate as the page of a book — as subject to spills and damage. It does have a smell — plastic, which some people like, including me. On its pages (rather than inside its pages — you can’t hide inside a Kindle like you can hide inside a book) is all the imagination we are prevented from feeling while deep inside apps.
But part of me — the part of me that loves the iPhone — longs for the pretty cover and hardbacked, new feel and smell of Swamplandia! like I long for new clothes (and an iPad). It hurts, at first, to delve into a Kindle book because visually, it is so dull. It doesn’t have the colors, avatars, photos or videos of Twitter, Tumblr, and the rest of the Web. Books, at least, have pretty colors on their fronts and backs.
But reading has never been about visual stimulation, except for the things authors allow your mind to see if you let them. Let them. It’s worthwhile, also, to mourn for the Internet of sparse chat rooms and plain text Eudora e-mails, where the little red flag signaling new mail was so much more exciting than the “(1)” of a Gmail inbox or the sound of a new @ reply on TweetDeck, and didn’t lasso so much of our attention away from reading. Part of our visual stimulation now comes through not only colors and different media but sheer volume. The Eudora flag sparked all kinds of thrills: He wrote back!, or, What could this be? Now we know what it is: it’s Borders telling us that so-and-so will be at our local Borders, which is somehow still open, next week. It’s Gilt Groupe telling us that there are cheap designer clothes available for us to buy as long as we click on the e-mail within 29 seconds of our computer clock striking noon. It’s Ticketmaster telling us not to “miss” a band that we would never even consider seeing live.