To Kindle or not to Kindle

So it’s a big week for e-readers (which I’m told are like books except on little miniature computers) as Amazon unveiled Kindle FIRE *sizzle* (sound effects mine), the company’s long-awaited tablet device (i.e. iPad assassin). The $199 doodad is pretty much a Blackberry PlayBook—it has a 7-inch color touch screen, plays movies and music, lets you browse the interwebs and oh, gives you access to like a bazillion e-books. Hooray for technology!

In addition to Fire, Amazon also unveiled new pricing tiers for a variety of other Kindle models: A Kindle Touch runs $99 for a WiFi-enabled version, or $149 for 3G, and a plain old readin’-stuff Kindle is now a mere $79, less than the price of four hardcovers. (You can also still get versions with keyboards, if you’re like geriatric or whatever.)

Now, friends of this blog know I have typically been …whatever the opposite of an enthusiast is when it comes to the Kindle. I’m one of those old-school, paper-loving weirdos that likes to stand on her soapbox and talk about the smell of books, the feel of cracking a spine, the satisfaction of turning a final page. Without physical books, approximately a third of my 330-square-foot apartment would be empty, at least two of my friends would have nothing to borrow, and at this particular moment my purse would be about a thousand pounds lighter (thank you, Under The Dome.)

In a way I can’t remember feeling about the switch from cassettes to CDs or CDs to iPods, I’ve stubbornly held on to my preference for the tangible book, (a preference evidenced by the number of used Barnes & Noble bags I have stored under my kitchen sink.) But although I am a veritable Maxine when it comes to e-reading, I have always said that I would make the switch when it became unavoidable. Yesterday’s announcement raises the question (not only for me, but for everyone in the publishing industry): is it that time? 

A blog post from Jason Pinter, whose outlook I generally agree with, suggests yes. Regardless of anything else, the aggressively priced new Kindles make it borderline impossible for any book enthusiast to say e-reading is just too expensive to get into. At $80 a pop, I could have personally bought at least three Kindles  this year for the amount I’ve spent on hardcovers and paperbacks.  I could have even gone all Oprah on my friends about it—And you get a Kindle! And you get a Kindle!—without maxing out my credit card.

But for me—and I suspect for many people—price was never the deciding factor in the Great E-Reading Debate. After all, it costs nothing to read a regular book (unless we’re counting my glasses, in which case it costs 6.25 Kindles), and although a $10 e-book is a significant discount off the price of paperback (and a really significant discount off the price of a new hardcover, which I think costs an actual arm and/or leg), a $2-$5 difference has to this point never been enough to dissuade from buying something that, at the end of the day, I can actually put on my shelf.

For me the Kindle decision has always been one of practicality versus nostalgia, of abandoning the way I grew up reading in favor of the way I will almost certainly grow old reading, and of eliminating one of the very few elements of my life that doesn’t already involve a screen. After 10 hours with a computer and four hours with a TV, reading is for me a blessed interruption of the daily beeps and boops, a click-free utopia, where concentration is necessary and I can’t lose an hour jumping from link to link until I know everything there is to know about ancient Egypt, or obscure diseases, or dreadnought battleships. Reading print books is one of the very few times I’m still required to focus.

But even a cat-lady Luddite can’t resist the inevitable, especially when the inevitable is about to cost less than my monthly cable bill. So what’s a girl to do? The principled old windbag in me wants to stick to my guns (which are surprisingly flabby considering the gigantic novels I lug around.) The practical grown-up in me knows it’s time to make the change, and the purist in me is put off by the most logical solution: a hybrid approach. (How would I decide which books to read in which way? By genre? Length? Subject matter? Would I restrict to Kindle books whose covers I would prefer other people not see—I’m looking at you, Twilight—or simply quit print cold turkey, thereby freezing my physical book collection in the year 2011. What happens to lending books? Giving them as gifts? What about taking them to the beach (where, after a traumatic digital camera experience, I refuse to bring gadgets), reading them during takeoff or accidentally leaving them in the area of my apartment affected by a sporadically active leak?) Moreover, it’s not like we ever carried around an iPod and a Discman, right? One day we were toting gigantic fabric binders of discs and the next we had our entire music library in our pocket.

Nor will technology ever really make the decision for me. My grandfather literally just got a DVD player and I have a friend who still doesn’t use iTunes (seriously). No, the shitty part is that I will have to choose: between my early-adopter technology-loving 20-something self, and…my bowl-cut-having, glasses-wearing, R.L. Stine-loving 10-year-old self; the one who still dog-ears the bottoms of pages, can never buy the first copy on the shelf and doesn’t think it’s even slightly weird to carry around a backup book …you know, just in case.

I know that for many people, these things aren’t mutually exclusive—with Kindle, I could carry around 9,999 backup books—but for me, they are. Books are my last stand: I’ll replace my perfectly functional television with a flat-screen for no reason, probably upgrade to an iPhone 5 for no reason and in all likelihood join yet another social network for no reason, but, by fuck, I will sit down on the train tonight, haul out my tattered, tape-reinforced paperback and for a blessed 35 minutes I will not push a button or open a window or respond to a message or look up a fact. Better yet, I won’t be able to.

And I guess that’s the heart of the matter. We’re so concerned with being able to do everything, all the time, from anywhere, that we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about which things benefit from being isolated. This isn’t to say that a Kindle, even a flaming one, wouldn’t allow me to be still and just read. But innovation changes habits. Now we buy songs instead of albums, we microwave instead of cook, we text instead of call. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve picked up my phone only to completely forget what I meant to do, distracted instead by a notification or a new message or an angry bird.  And I know it’s my choice—to stay focused or get sucked into the bullshit—but it’s a choice I pretty consistently screw up already. With a Kindle, I wouldn’t be the girl casually picking up where she left off in a digital Great Expectations; I’d be the one live-tweeting my favorite quotes while simultaneously buying the entire Dickens ouvre and downloading movie and television adaptations.

I suppose for some people, that’s the advantage of e-readers, and the draw of Kindle Fire—not only does it make books cheaper and more efficient, but it connects them (and keeps you connected) to everything else. It’s a sentiment I understand when I try to read the New York Times in print—where’s the sharing? What is a B section? Why are my fingers all black?!—but it’s one I haven’t yet experienced when it comes to books. I feel like until I do—until I either appreciate the value of linking up literature, and/or get over my illogical fear of gadgetry destroying my ability to read in peace—not even an $80 price tag can convince me to take the plunge.

4 thoughts on “To Kindle or not to Kindle”

  1. The base model doesn’t have all the bells and whistles and boops and beeps. While the base model kindles can TECHNICALLY browse the web, it’s about as pleasant as trying to do so on a Motorola Razr… If you still know what that is. The social networking features are pretty minor and easy to ignore/opt out of. I find that with my old keyboard-style kindle, I can easily disappear into a book, something I can’t do with the kindle app on my phone/computer.

  2. Hey now, I had a Razr for many years. ..Until the screen started sporadically turning white. But good to know re: features/beeps/boops/etc. Thanks!

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