The Willful Death of a Luddite
25 Mar, 2011 - J.G.C. Wise
As an avid reader, I’d kept a wary watch on the world of e-readers since the first practical edition of the Kindle came out. (I’m still at a loss for the use of the scroll bar on the side of the original device.) Like many readers, I was a little tentative about giving up my paper pages not so much because I enjoy the feel of a book in my hands, but primarily because my home library is tied directly to my ego, which risked a serious decrease in placation if people could no longer deduce from it how smart and worldly I really am.
But curiosity continued to nag at me. Could e-readers really be better than books? While my other friends were on the verge of taking blood oaths that they would never abandon their precious print, I was secretly checking back at Amazon two or three times a day to see if the Kindle prices showed any signs of dropping. When Barnes and Noble followed with the Nook, it was just one nudge further to the dark side..
“E-readers have competition now,” I thought. “They must be cool.” And as we all know, being cool is far more important than being intelligent or worldly.
Believe it or not, though, the scale-tipper had nothing to do with my ego. Instead, it had everything to do with being cheap. Both the Nook and the Kindle — and probably every other e-reader out there — offer free editions of most every worthwhile out-of-copyright text available. Forget the fact that for the price of a Kindle I could have also purchased approximately 37.8 of these texts from Barnes and Noble. I wanted a full thirty-eight, and I wanted to be able to buy them from the comfort of my bathroom. From Great Expectations to The Divine Comedy, an e-reader would allow me, at the push of a button, to enlighten myself beyond my junior-year English teacher’s most inebriated dreams. Two days after my birthday, the price of the Kindle finally dropped. The time had come to make my move into the future of literary technology.
Checking over my shoulder in case any of my bookworm friends were eavesdropping with a battle-axe, I quickly clicked through the order page, guilty as an eight-year-old boy sifting through the swimsuit section of his sister’s J. Crew catalogue. My order complete, I closed my browser window and picked up a chewed copy of Dracula, opening to a random page just in time for one of those whom I betrayed to come around the corner.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
Because Amazon wanted me to know that I’d made the right choice, they sent the Kindle overnight so I received it the very next day — this at no extra charge. I liken this to when Anakin’s first task as Darth Vader was to annihilate the Jedi: immediate gratification vindicates even the worst decisions. Opening my Kindle was like switching to a red light saber. It was the most glorious feeling I’ve known since realizing that Greedo did, in fact, shoot first.
My new treasure in hand, I was faced with the task of purchasing my first book. While this might have been a challenge for most people, I had no trouble with it. That’s because I’m a writer, and therefore broke. Thus my first purchase was not a purchase at all, but a download of one of those free books that had me drooling all over my roommate’s keyboard. This granted me the ability to try out my new e-reader with no extra financial commitment while simultaneously perpetuating the vicious cycle that ensures that all writers remain broke forever. Because I’m the kind of guy who likes to do my part.
Since I was already reading it in a massive anthology I never planned to take anywhere except maybe to my living room, I downloaded “Phantastes” by George MacDonald. The very fact that I was able to hold the text in one hand — turn the page, even — as opposed to fumbling around with the five-pound compilation was more than enough to satisfy my e-reader skepticism. Except for the threat still posed to my life by those sworn to Liberty, Equality, Printing Presses or Death, I felt what few inhibitions I’d had surrounding e-reading evanesce like so many of the fallen trees that are forced to untimely deaths for our reading pleasure. (Take that, activists!)
But this isn’t about the perks of the e-reading device itself. Anybody can visit a high-schooler’s blog to read about those. No, this is about the rapture of having an entire catalogue of literary classics at your fingertips, any time you want. On a train to Boston and sick of reading chick lit? Download Sense and Sensibility. Have better taste in books? Try something by Robert Louis Stevenson. Interested in the effect of hallucinogenic substances on little children? Alice in Wonderland is available in multiple editions. Didn’t pay attention in high school? A Tale of Two Cities can bring you back to those youthful days of rebellion faster than a dose of cigarettes and Sunny D.
And it doesn’t stop with nostalgia and train rides, either. I’m already thinking about buying Kindles for all of my unborn children. Not only do kids like buttons more than book pages, but the fact is that kids are — let’s be honest — not very smart. How hard can it be to trick them into reading a book just because it’s on a battery-operated screen? After all, kids will engage in most anything as long as it’s on an electronic screen. (I’m fondly reminded of Game Boy’s 2.6 inch square of optical carnage.) Not only that, but with their selections limited to free books, I won’t have to worry about them reading books I don’t approve of, with the exception of a few James Joyce novels, which I’m hopeful my kids will be smart enough to recognize for what they are in the first place. E-reading will also conveniently result in the notable absence of beaten, torn, and shredded tomes scattered across the 150-square-foot home I expect I’ll have when I’m fifty. And, since it’s likely that my kids will be smarter than everyone else’s kids, they’ll know enough to find my Kindle and break it instead of their own, preserving their own for the future.
Indeed, it is in the future where the e-reader with the free books really pays off. When my kids reach high school, they won’t have to suffer the indignity of those battered, bruised and peed-on copies of books they hand out in most public English departments. They won’t have to be mislead on exams by inaccurate notes scribbled in the margins, nor will they suffer discipline for scribbling their own inaccurate notes in the margins, nor will they have to pay twenty dollars for a five dollar book when they lose it before the lesson ends and the teacher sees an opening to make some extra beer money. All of that disappears with the free books available on e-readers. And by the time my kids are in school, it will be well after 2019 and any book worth my children’s attention that isn’t currently out of copyright will be by then. I think the point makes itself: E-readers are not just a sleek, modern choice to make your kids look cooler than someone else’s kids. They are an investment.
Granted, there are drawbacks to e-readers, but there are also drawbacks to bars, and that doesn’t stop us from patronizing them as soon as we can get away with it. And just the way a bar is only one means to consuming an adult beverage, so also are e-readers only one way to enjoy the magic of literature. Sure, they can be a little expensive at first, but just like a bar, the more drinks you have, the less money you’ll think you’ve spent. And in the long run, that’s what good literature is really all about: Getting you to believe something that simply isn’t true.
The truth is that I’ll never give up print books entirely, and I don’t think anyone else will, either. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ll spend more money when you tally up all of the times I’ll buy a Kindle edition and a print edition of a book. (Well played, Amazon marketing team.) But my continued patronage of print novels will not be for the greater good promoted by literary snobs, nor will it be because I like the acrid smell of urine wafting across my face as I flip through the pages of a twenty-year-old library book. In fact, it won’t even have to do with the cost of books. No, in the end I will continue to buy hard copy books because they represent a slice of history, the bitter toil of one man or woman and their editor, seamlessly bound by the spine of impossibility and perched proudly on the shelf of time, where it will forever whisper to me, “You can do it, too, Josh.” And because I’ll need something to throw at my kids when they break my Kindle.