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  My Kindle Quandary
The Boston Globe Magazine, September 27, 2009
A prep school in Ashburnham recently tossed all its library books in favor of digital readers. I'm looking at my overflowing bookcases and wondering if it's time to do the same. Why, after all, am I clinging to piles of novels - all destined to form back-breaking boxes the next time I have to move - when I could have 1,500 different books on a device the size of my hand?

The lure of a Kindle is clear, at least for travel. At 10.2 ounces, the latest version has answered one of the most pressing literary questions of all time: "How can I carry enough reading material on vacation without paying to check a bag?" But like many book lovers, I'm a little paranoid that the Death of Literature is upon us.

I suspect voracious readers fret about digital replacements not because we're neo-Luddites, but because of what book obliteration has meant in the past. Totalitarian governments get rid of books. Fahrenheit 451 characters get rid of books. Libraries and book lovers don't get rid of books -- except now, apparently, they do.

Oh, brave new world and all that, but it's hard to wrap my brain around this potential shift. Books -- the writing in them, but also their physicality -- have been such an essential part of my life, and one of the ways I mark its passage. My battered Anne of Green Gables still flops open to the page where Matthew dies, because in the throes of preteen school misery, whenever I felt like crying, I would read that section to give myself an excuse. A pristine copy of James Joyce's The Dead reminds me that I spent all of a Modernism class staring at the boy next to me instead of taking notes. A Kindle can't evoke memories or sensations in the way that a physical book can, especially one marked with your own handwriting. And there's nothing quite like the feel and smell of a crisp new novel you've been eager to read.

I know nostalgia is a pleasure in itself and not a reason to impede progress. Certainly, kids who learn to read digitally will form other associations and discover different delights. They'll wonder how we could bear dog-ears, when it's so easy to just search for a phrase and find that page again. They'll have excellent posture because they didn't spend their formative years lugging enormous backpacks full of textbooks. They may never experience serendipity in a used-book store -- where you stumble onto an ancient tome about, say, New Zealand textile history and discover a lifetime passion -- but they'll experience the digital kind. And they'll think it nuts that we ever read under the covers after bedtime with books that don't self-illuminate.

Still, at some level, digital readers seem more a regression than a sign of progress. I'm reminded of the scene in Little Women when Jo is craving a new novel, but it's too pricey for her meager budget. Books were expensive then, prohibitively so for many. At $299, Kindles are expensive now. We built public libraries to make reading affordable for everyone. But any time we require new devices in order to read, we are creating barriers to learning and literature, not eliminating them.

Let's say later versions of the Kindle address all the current challenges: affordability, yes, but also the currently limited options for browsing, sharing, and kid-proofing. Surely, somebody, somewhere, is already working on digitizing the experience of going to a friend's house and having them press a favorite paperback into your hands, and there will someday be a special indestructible digital reader for kids, with great graphics, which won't break if chocolate pudding gets into its orifices. If physical books do disappear -- gulp -- I hope it's because the digital reading experience really has gotten as rich as, or richer than, the paper one.

We're not there yet. It may be that paper and digital books can happily coexist for a long time, more like TV's effect on radio than the automobile's effect on the horse and buggy. It's an uncertain time for book lovers, as we worry about the fate of small bookstores and the Amazon-ification of everything.

But it's also a wonderful time, since, at least right now, we can have both: books for the tactile pleasure (and sharing and decorating the walls of your apartment and spilling your coffee on) and a digital reader for travel.

That's a pretty good combination in my book -- and in my soon-to-be-purchased Kindle.


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Copyright 2009 by Alison Lobron