Authors Cynthia Ozick and Sam Lipsyte consider the Kindle
Two authors respond to Times’ staff writer David Sarno’s questions about the e-book reader Kindle (original story here)
Many thanks for having me in mind. Your question is undoubtedly the question of the early 21st century (aside from war and peace), and since it concerns the future of “print” (which now requires quote marks!), it’s impossible to answer. May I give you some small hesitant response here and now, among these phantom pixels?
I’ve seen a promotional video of Kindle, and have been suitably amazed and impressed. Even without actually handling it, one can see that it can be comfortably held, and can very likely be read even in bed, half reclining. Like many another curmudgeon, I held out against email and the Internet for a long time, and now here I am, enslaved by this machine like all the world. To make the “organic” claim, that paper is as biological as ourselves, and that like human skin it emanates, as you note, “feeling/smell/pleasure,” may be more lyricism than Luddite dogmatism.
But still! A machine with all its remarkable multiple capacities is still a machine. (Not that any post-Gutenberg book isn’t itself a machine superior to a hand-written scroll.) I recently went to Washington by train, a four-hour ride.
For some weeks before, for some unfathomable reason, I had a longing to reread Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure,” and took it along for the trip. Then, briefly, I read it in the hotel. I read it on the train on the way back. I finished it at the kitchen table. My copy is an old fifties paperback, browning and brittle at the margins. Its age can be guessed from the price: 75 cents.
Unlike the astonishing Kindle, this copy contains one novel only; in this respect it is unique, despite how many other identical copies were printed. It has yellowed on its particular shelf over decades; it is a part of the house, a part of life itself; there is no other object on the planet situated exactly like it, with Conrad on its left and Henry James on its right. On the carpet beneath that shelf, under the eye of this very paperback, my daughter’s dolls long ago had their tea parties. Nostalgia? Sentimentality? Investing a physical object with personal history?
Well, yes: especially investing a physical object with personal history. Perhaps someone will be able to do the same with the Kindle; and perhaps not. Though at the moment it seems unimaginable, the Kindle will surely turn obsolescent, replaced by something still more advanced. (Look at the rapid evolution of cellphones!)
The ancient Egyptians, according to a display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, didn’t have pillows; they rested their heads on curved wooden stands. And what seems more comfortably permanent than the bed pillow? “Nothing new under the sun,” saith Koheleth the Preacher; yet technologically speaking, he’s all hogwash. I suppose that if I were an ancient Egyptian, I’d protest against that effete feathery softness, and keep to my wooden headrest; and if I were a mediaeval scribe, I’d surely object to movable type as an affront to the liquescent beauty of quill and ink. (You can see evidence of this in my old-fashioned spelling of “mediaeval.”)
And so: no no no! I absolutely repudiate and eschew the Kindle! 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; even if in its next version it allows us to underline, scribble in the margins, and turn down a leaf! I’d rather be weighted down by three books in a satchel than carry eight hundred books in a 10-ounce device!
And why? Stubborn regressiveness for sure. But also: the knowledge of one-on-one intimacy, as private as the farewell passion one feels when, after finishing it, one restores a novel to its accustomed place. From childhood on, I have physically embraced books, held them against my heart. Show me a reader hugging a Kindle, and I’ll rethink the whole thing.
Ozick is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction including, most recently, “Heir to the Glimmering World.” She lives in Westchester, N.Y.
I am sure there is not much I can add to this discussion, but here are my thoughts: I love books, but I’m not quite the paper-and-glue fetishist that some people are, in the same way that I appreciate how vinyl records sound warmer and better but I never go out of my way to listen to them instead of digital versions.
I’m not too upset by the notion that all of our reading will be done on some device. I think people will still want certain special books as physical objects, such as Bibles, or the complete works of a past master, or perhaps their fantasy football league’s bylaws, but just as so many people (including me) read newspapers and essays online a good deal of the time, I don’t foresee a great tragedy in having an electronic device--provided you can fall asleep with it on the sofa and take it to the bathroom--contain your library.
I do recall many of the books that have meant something to me with a certain tactile and visual affection; I think warmly of their dust jacket art, the smell and feel of their pages. (Yikes, maybe I am some kind of fetishist!)
But we’ll forget about those things the way we’ve forgotten about album covers. The truly regrettable loss will be the discovery you can make in a bookstore, that wonderful wandering where you find precisely what you didn’t know you were looking for (it’s just not the same clicking around online).
Also, some of us might pine for the community of the bookstore, though there’s not much of that anymore. (Maybe they can just print store copies of books, so we can go and fondle them and coo over them with others before downloading them onto our Spindles, or Dirndls, or whatever they’re called. ) Finally, how will you be able to figure people out by studying their bookshelves while they fix you a drink before dinner? How will you be able to break that awkward, beginning-of-the-evening silence with gambits like, “So, you must really like Ayn Rand!’
Lipstye is author of , most recently, “Home Land.” He lives in Manhattan.