The Power of Books, or Why I Don’t Own a Kindle

I don’t own a Kindle. I don’t want a Kindle. I don’t believe they’re the future of books, and I have no use for one. Before I explain why, though, let me concede that I do understand that they have a few perfectly valid uses.

Recently, while talking about the enormous novel Invisible Man in English III AP, the discussion turned to Ellison’s use of a single word: “opportunity.” While the students and I thumbed through our books, furiously searching for occurrences of the word, searching for a pattern in the text, a girl at the back who had been reading the book on her Kindle raised a hand and said, “I’ve got them all right here. Kindle lets me search the text.” I was dumbfounded. For the purposes of scholarly interaction with a novel, an e-reader could act as an immediately accessible concordance to any text. What a boon!

Similarly, I have an acquaintance who has spent the last few years of her life laboring over her doctoral thesis, and she squeezes in a few minutes of work anywhere and any time she can. The challenging part of that arrangement, of course, is having the thousands of pages of reference materials that she might need at any given moment readily available for her perusal. She explained to me that she has loaded all of those documents into her Kindle, and it is her personal reference library for working when she’s not at home. This seems like a fantastic idea.

Of course, the paragraphs above are about the kinds of books used for research and academia. For many people, though, the “book vs. digital” debate isn’t about research at all; it’s about leisure reading. They wonder whether the Kindle will replace their trusty, well-thumbed copies of their favorite novels.  A relatively small percentage of the books I read are the subjects of academic debate. They’re mostly just for my personal enjoyment. In this context, I just love books…real books. I carry them around, and people ask me what I’m reading. Many interesting conversations have begun this way. I write in the margins, and years later I can see what I was thinking and how I reacted to the events I read. I lend them to friends, and the physical passage of a book from one hand to another carries far more weight than a simple recommendation to download this or that file. I browse book stores for first editions and signed copies of my favorite novels, and my personal library grows constantly. My collection has not only monetary value; it is also a record of ideas with which I’ve interacted, roads I have traveled in my mind. One day, my collection will be passed on to another generation of readers.

Let me relate a couple of anecdotes that illustrate my point.

On the bookshelf at my house, there’s a hardcover copy of a novel called The Monarch of Deadman Bay by Roger Caras. It’s a good book, but it’s not great. It’s the life story of a Kodiak bear. It’s on my shelf today because, for as long as I can remember, it’s always been in my house. When I was a child, there were a few books in our house, but my parents didn’t keep a personal library or anything. The Monarch of Deadman Bay, though, was one of the relatively few “adult” books we had in the house. My father had read it. I don’t know where he got it, and he and I never talked about it, but when I was old enough to handle it (about 13 years, as I recall), I read and enjoyed the book. When I moved out of my parents’ house, I asked them if I could take it with me. I don’t know if they understood why; in fact, I’m quite sure that they had both forgotten they even owned it. Now, it stands on my bookshelf, the only volume in my library that both my father and I have read. I don’t mean that we both read books with the same title; we both read THIS book. My copy of The Monarch of Deadman Bay is a story my father and I have both experienced. We’ve both held those very pages between our fingers and followed the adventures of that Kodiak bear. One day, when my father is gone, The Monarch of Deadman Bay will be one of the clearest symbols of the connection he and I share. It just wouldn’t be the same if he and I had read the same electronic file on a Kindle.

As I said earlier, I collect signed editions of novels I love. Yes, they’re relatively few and far between. Yes, the search for a reasonably priced copy can be a rather long one. None of this deters me, though. Each time I open a signed copy of one of my favorite novels, I know that I’m handling a volume that has also been handled by its creator. My connection to the author and the text takes on a deeper level of meaning. In a few truly fantastic moments, I have had the privilege of meeting some amazing authors and chatting with them while they signed my copies of their books for me. To date, I’ve met Tim O’Brien, Sherman Alexie, Sandra Cisneros, Karl Marlantes, Gary Paulsen, and Tea Obreht. Each of them has signed a book (or two, if I’m lucky) for me. Talking to these authors about their work in person is a kind of interaction, scholarship, and good will unlike any other in the literary world, and it’s all predicated on the idea of book signings. Without books, I seriously doubt authors would hold events where they met with readers to click their Kindles.

Finally, I love having books in my home. Those of you who’ve visited me know that I have two six-foot bookshelves in my living room and an entire wall of books in my foyer that reaches up to the ceiling. To sit on my sofa is to be surrounded by hundreds of books. Guests in my house often get up and pore over the bookshelves, looking for familiar titles or wondering what I’ve been reading. When they find a title they know, we often share wonderful conversations about books we’ve both read. When they see something of interest, I’m happy to lend out a copy so we can talk about it later. As Micki’s kids become increasingly aware of the books on my shelves, I want them to see that books–and by association, knowledge, art, and culture–have value and hold an important place in my heart, my mind, and my home. A collection of files on an e-reader just can’t do that.

So go ahead and use your Kindle, if you like, but please for the love of God, stop asking me why I don’t have one and explaining how it’s just so much more convenient than my “old-fashioned” books. My love of books transcends a love of words and stories. I love the books themselves. They have a value for me that electronic text never can. If you want to talk about this, come on over to my living room, and let’s discuss it amongst the books.


8 Responses to “The Power of Books, or Why I Don’t Own a Kindle”

  1. May 26, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    We’ve probably discussed this before, but I can tell you that if I didn’t have a kid, I probably wouldn’t have a Kindle. I bought mine before our trip to Germany in 2009. When you have a kid, particularly a preschooler with all of the related gear that this requires, there isn’t room in the suitcase for a stack of paperbacks for Mommy. And when you’re traveling internationally, there aren’t a ton of easily accessible options for finding English-language books.

    Since then, my Kindle has become my go-to “travel book.” While I absolutely prefer to hold, read and enjoy a real book, the packability of the Kindle is spectacular. Most of what’s on my Kindle falls into two categories: 1) fluffy beach reading or 2) Books That Are Too Large to Carry. When I’m shopping for a book that I really want to read, I always look for the real paper option first.

  2. May 26, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    I don’t think I could agree more. I just wish I had more time to read the books I do have.

  3. 3 actaggart
    May 26, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    I agree whole heartedly! People often ask me why I don’t have one, or they drop hints about getting me one as a gift, but I can never find the words to explain why I don’t like them. Just something about kindles doesn’t feel right. I’m glad you can relate. Thanks for your post!

    That’s really cool about all those author’s you’ve met! I’m very jealous.

  4. May 26, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    I wouldn’t mind a Kindle or Nook so much if you could pass books around for more than a limited amount of time. I like being able to share books that I’ve read with people who might also appreciate them.

  5. 6 Grace
    May 26, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    Totally, 100% agree. When I come to someone’s house for the first time, I go straight to their book collection (or their cat). Similarly, I keep all my books on display and have many conversations with people standing in front of those shelves. If I’m on the train or bus, I always look to see what everyone is reading. It’s a communal experience. It’s also the visual, tactile exploration of bookstores, and lending and bonding to a particular book. Each one of them has a sort of consciousness, and when they fill a room, the room feels like them. I hope this never goes away completely. I hope we can culturally retain some shred of that romance.

  6. 7 Teresa
    May 26, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    1. I love that google puts a kindle ad at the end of your entry.

    2. I love my books. But I love my mom’s Kindle too. So much easier for reading in bed. I could work out or something and become more able to hold books up, but meh. Books like The Help, which I liked fine but know I won’t go back to, I don’t feel like I need to HAVE. My Kurt Vonnegut books, though? My Toni Morrison first editions? Special!! I think both is the answer (as it often is) (e.g. desserts) (or cheeses).

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