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Some of my best friends are books

Kindelstücke, Op. 1
Erotics of Font and Print

I’m not usually indecisive. But a new object in my life had me stumped. It up-ended my assumptions and made me doubt thousands of my most intimate relationships. It made me say sexist things I’ve never said before: The object is more desirable than an Alberto Vargas pinup and more devilish than Carmen. The most troubling thing isn’t that it was a gift from my wife, but that she meant it to spice up my middle-aged life, not hers (let alone ours). I wasn’t looking for spice. My harem, stocked in hardbacks and soft-covers from all continents, is quite diverse, thank you. I didn’t know whether to love this thing or hate it, surrender to it or make a guarded peace with it. It told me I have no choice. It’s here to stay.

I am referring to Kindle, Amazon’s electronic reader.

 

I admit I felt something of a narcotic reaction when I first used it as it’s intended — as that paradoxical merging of one of the most time-consuming activities we still do for pleasure (reading a book) with gratification more instant than a drug high. I was watching Jon Stewart interview Reza Aslan, the Iranian-American writer, about his new book, “How to Win a Cosmic War.” I’d liked Aslan’s previous book, a jazzy history of Islam (“No God But God”), so by minute three of the interview I was sold on his new one. By minute four I had bought the book for $10, about the cost of a cheap joint, and downloaded it to my Kindle. I don’t remember if I watched the rest of the interview. I do remember devouring the book in the next two days, listening to it through Kindle’s audio function while I drove, opening it to the exact page in fugitive moments (walking down a hallway, standing at a counter, retreating where we all go alone) and all along with just  this light, leathery thing that feels only slightly cooler and certainly less temperamental than a lover’s hand.

Then the guilts set in. Reading on Kindle has its pleasures, but in a cheap-motel tryst sort of way. It’s not just that I feel like I’m cheating by reading electronically, but that I’m missing something essential. Those who say that it reads like a book are out of their mind. It reads like an electronic reader. It’s inviting, it’s easy on the eyes and deludes you into thinking that a 700-page book is less demanding than it is. But reading the words aside, it’s nothing — and I mean nothing — comparable to reading a book.

Reading the words, as most readers know, is only a fraction of the experience. There are the tactile pleasures of a book: the weight of the paper, the font of the print, the art of the cover and the binding’s craft. But there’s also the unique history between book and reader, as unique as the intimate history between two individuals. I have four copies in different editions of John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley,” two of them gorgeous hardbacks, including a replica of the original first edition. But only my demolished Peguin paperback is alive with Charley’s moods and Steinbeck’s melancholy, its splintered pages spilling out with memories and underlines of my own moody crisscrossings of the United States.

My collection of cheap, French paperbacks of some 35 Jules Verne novels, collected in my early teens, is about all I have left of my youth in Lebanon. The rooms, the sofas, the beds I read them in are gone, but the books aren’t: All I have to do to sink back into my favorite couch in my grandparents’ living room again is open Les aventures du Capitaine Hatteras, and there I am—not in the North Pole, like Hatteras, but back in that couch with the worn armrests and the hint of the previous night’s cigarette smoker.

These days I love the sound of the UPS truck pulling up to the curb, a sound my five-year-old son  now interprets either as the delivery of pita bread and hummus or of a new book (the basic necessities for the desert island that Palm Coast, where we live, is). I like fondling books, stealing glances at pages deep in the volume, returning to pages I read yesterday or eight years ago, cringing at the immaturity of my youthful marginal notes, cringing even more at evidence that yesterday’s notes are even more stupid. Most of all, books’ physical existence reassures me. They’re a constant, a hedge against loss. They won’t lose their memory or fall dead of a heart attack (as Kindle would: batteries and warranties run out), they don’t have to be left behind in a move, they’re a more valuable heritage I can pass down to my children — more plural, more humane and enriching — than any presumption of ethnicity or national pride or family history. Passing down Kindle isn’t the same thing, especially when it’ll be out-modeled by next month.

So in the end books and wives have nothing to fear from the Kindle subversion in the Tristam home. The thing may store 1,500 titles, it’s convenient and seductive, and no doubt electronic reading is now embedded in modern habits, including mine — but as a useful addition, not a replacement. For all its elegance, Kindle can only be a means to an end. There’s reading as consumption. Then there’s reading as life. Only one of the two is indispensable, which leads me to believe that, in the doubtful possibility of extinction, electronic reading will die long before books do.

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