Reading between Kindle's lines

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Something there is that doesn't love an e-book.

Take Amazon's new Kindle, this season's much-hyped new electronic reading device that allows you to instantly, wirelessly download any of 90,000 titles from the online retailer's database. Despite its $$399 price tag, first-generation clunkiness and mid-'80s design aesthetic, the Kindle actually provides a pretty darn good reading experience.

But try telling that to anyone who first read "Treasure Island" at age 11 and could still tell you whether the cover illustration on that copy had Long John Silver in a red pantaloon or a black one. Or to anyone who's ever discovered a first edition among the musky tomes of a used-book store.

Jason Epstein, a longtime editorial director of Random House, founder of its Anchor Books imprint, co-founder of the New York Review of Books, and first-ever recipient of the National Book Award's Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, is not surprisingly a bibliophile.

Reached at home not long after he'd finished reading a new translation of "War and Peace" (the third time he'd read the novel), he had just begun the latest volume of John Richardson's multipart biography of Picasso. "There's no way you could read that book on a screen," he said, jazz humming in the background. "Even if you leave out the color illustrations, it's a very complicated book. You've got to be able to concentrate on it," he said. "To go back, and go ahead, and look at the footnotes.

"Try to read a serious book on that," he said of the Kindle. "You won't be able to, I don't think."

This is true. The Kindle makes it almost impossible to flip quickly between pages -- because there are no pages. Locating a hastily read passage from earlier in the book is not even worth trying. To do so, you have to correctly guess and then input its numerical "location," of which a longish book can easily have 10,000. Let's see, that uncle character appeared a ways back . . . so . . . 3,458?

But let the Kindle bashing end there. No technology gets it right on the first try, and dwelling on one device's shortcomings misses the broader point. A visually tolerable digital reading experience is here. As the e-book iterates, that experience will just get better. The digital readers will become more attractive and less expensive. Color will replace black and white, and buttons will disappear in favor of touch screens.

Practical and economic considerations will add up too. Think of all the books that are out of date upon publication, such as textbooks.

And then, of course, books don't grow on trees. The Green Press Initiative, a nonprofit devoted to helping print industries conserve forests, estimates that 20 million to 30 million trees are cut down each year to make U.S. books. But no one's arguing that we should continue plowing down our forests or churning out obsolete encyclopedias.

The defenders of the printed volume are arguing from their gut. They see the book as much more than a physical object. It's culturally sacrosanct and even intrinsic to literature itself.

"People who care about literature care about substance and permanence," wrote novelist Jonathan Franzen, author of "The Corrections," in an e-mail. "The essence of electronics is mutability and transience. I can see travel guides and Michael Crichton novels translating into pixels easily enough. But the person who cares about Kafka wants Kafka unerasable.

"Am I fetishizing ink and paper? Sure, and I'm fetishizing truth and integrity too."

But how can truth depend on whether the words that express it are printed on an electronic page or a paper one? Are they not words in both cases? Confronted thus, Franzen remained firm.

"Yes, in theory, words are words," he replied. "But literature isn't data. The difference between Shakespeare on a BlackBerry and Shakespeare in the Arden Edition is like the difference between vows taken in a shoe store and vows taken in a cathedral."

While author Cynthia Ozick did not elevate the book to quite that level of beatitude, she did share Franzen's passion. "I absolutely repudiate and eschew the Kindle!" she declared in an e-mail. "Even if in its next version an olfactory element is introduced; even if in its next version a tactile element is introduced; even if in its next version it accepts cookie crumbs between the lines."

Ozick did admit to what she called "stubborn regressiveness" and subjectivity to her feelings. "Nostalgia? Sentimentality? Investing a physical object with personal history?" she asked.

"Well, yes."

In another e-mail, novelist Sam Lipsyte wrote that he's "not too upset by the notion that all of our reading will be done on some device."

"The real things that will be lost will be the discoveries that can be made in a bookstore, that wonderful wandering where you find precisely what you didn't know you were looking for."

A love of books, it seems, is a deeply personal affair, bound up in one's own history. Looking at a bookshelf can evoke a constellation of sense-memory. In a world without bookshelves, would we have this same strange access to lost time?

But caveat lector: Wander too far down the cobblestone road of scents, memories and the past, and book love can start to seem a little too romantic -- too myopic. However prevalent the e-book becomes, stories will still be stories, won't they? It's the books that are becoming machines, not us. "The sentimental and tactile and magical charisma of the book is less substantial than it's made out to be," said author Walter Kirn, who wrote 2006's "The Unbinding," a serial novel published online at Slate ( www.slate.com).

"I think what people who are mourning the book are really mourning is reading," Kirn added. "They see the book as a totem of their melancholy over the disappearance of solid reading culture."

Here, now, is a worry that is more concrete. The National Endowment for the Arts' recent study showing that Americans are reading less and literacy levels are decreasing provoked vigorous discussion.

NEA Chairman Dana Gioia noted in a phone interview that the problem appears particularly acute among young people. "The first generation of Americans to grow up with the Internet read less well and less frequently than previous generations," he said. "When people don't read, and don't read well, it's not just a loss for literature -- it's an economic, political, social and civic loss -- these people do less well in their lives.

"I sincerely hope that the Kindle becomes one of the many devices to communicate print culture, but I worry that it will not make a significant positive impact, however well it does business-wise."

Reading requires focus and, for lack of a better term, quiet -- a mental combination that can seem ever more elusive in the online, on-call, on-demand world.

Early Kindle adopters mention that it works well on long trips. Airplanes are one of the last bastions of offline-dom, explains Stanford law professor and digital culture observer Lawrence Lessig.

"I enjoy airplane rides because it's the one time where e-mail can't get me, so I can just read a book and that's it," he said. "On the other hand, if you could just decide to be connected while you were on the airplane, it's not clear any of us would choose not to. So we have this conflict where we want two very different things at the same time."

The best hope for e-books is probably this: that they will allow us to fit in more reading in the little spaces in-between.

There's no need to view the Kindle as some kind of e-book of Revelations for reading or for literature. In 2020, the world will still be full of books, some a little older than others. Carpenters will not have forgotten how to build shelves.

There is the question of what will happen to the publishing industry in a paperless world -- but that's another story.

Descriptors: AMAZON.COM INC; BOOKS; ELECTRONIC EQUIPMENT; PUBLISHING INDUSTRY

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