Throw Away Your Kindles, Rally in the Streets
It was the perfect excuse.
A future life (or at least a year) spent on the road, traveling light. All earthly belongings would have to fit into a 40L backpack, making all non-essentials perfect candidates for ruthless disposal – or Salvation Army bonanza. Weight would become a matter of life and death on the ragamuffin trail, so the pursuit of lightness turned into an obsession. Yes, the fridge would have to stay behind, not to mention a bunch of clothes, spatulas and film posters. Also, books.
Nonetheless, I would not forego my reading addiction. Hoping the coming days of sun, sand and sunscreen in Central America would finally allow me the opportunity and peace of mind to tackle the complete works of Balzac (or, in less ambitious days, a Russian or two), I turned the page and made the leap: I bought a Kindle.
I had been playing with the idea of entering the excitingly pixelated world of digital literature for a while. When trading the native Atlantic shores of southern Europe for the foreign bike lanes of Amsterdam, I had had to abandon my modest but exquisitely curated personal library. This traumatic event led me to eschew book-buying and other book-related activities for the foreseeable future. Never again would I leave my babies to fend for themselves in such a callous manner. I even restrained myself from previous favorite pastimes such as browsing through bookstores or secondhand markets.
In a display of abstinence which would make a hermit proud, I managed to remain chaste for a couple of years. Well, not entirely chaste. True, there was the occasional sinful indulgence (a tattered book from a Noordermarkt stand once in a blue moon, a handful of instances of window-shopping at Waterstones during emotionally fragile times, the occasional meltdown inside the American Book Center when buying a literary treat for some lucky bastard’s birthday), but nothing which would make me rush to IKEA in search of a new jerry-built bookcase.
All was going according to plan until, one fateful day, I stood inside one of those generic airport bookstores in some European capital, idling away the many minutes before boarding time. Although the usual John Grisham/Self-help/Cooking fare did not offer much in terms of temptation, I did eventually spot a Margaret Atwood novel hiding in plain sight. Shaking like a Catholic priest buying gay porn, I touched the lustrous cover with trembling fingers, never daring to look straight at it. The following moments went by in a blur: one second I was pretending to examine a random crime collection by some Scandinavian author, the next I was approaching payout and dropping coins to the floor, cursing and sweating. Finally, I left with a small white plastic bag, rushing to my gate, the guilt-ridden owner of a brand new Margaret Atwood novel.
Up in the air, trying to stow away thoughts on mortality, gastrointestinal resilience (they were serving breakfast) and the unbearable lightness of metallic wings, my mind went through several rationalizations and basic excuses for my impulsive behavior. “Well, I bought a new book; what of it?” went the tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking old geezer inside my head responsible for inner dialogue. “This doesn’t mean anything. It’s one of those things people do on holidays, right? Yeah, it’s a souvenir, really… People get loads of stuff when they travel: scarves, bracelets, chocolate, malaria; surely it’s only a minor transgression if I buy a book as a memento from a foreign land, no?”
Thus I fooled myself.
Soon I was traveling more often, and soon I was crouching on my apartment’s laminate flooring, desperately trying to find the missing screw which would prove essential to the completion of my nearly-pristine IKEA bookcase.
A journey to an unvisited city now entailed the purchase of a book, sometimes attuned to the country in question (Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes in Kyoto, Cesare Pavese’s La luna e i falò in Venice), other times not so much (Louis de Bernières’ The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts in Siem Reap, for instance). As the passport stamps grew, so did the shelf space at home diminish. It wasn’t long before I was stacking books on top of each other – a telltale sign this particular junkie was back on lettered crack.
Still I kept myself away from the bright digital things populating the ether waves of popular culture. As iPads, Kindles and Nooks became common literary mediums, I remained somewhat of a Luddite, just as I had been when switching from CDs to MP3’s back in the early 2000’s. Ultimately, my acceptance of a more practical (not to say contemporary) way of carrying stuff around was directly linked to a physical departure – if moving to a new country meant a fresh, less cluttered start, then moving to the open road meant getting rid of everything bigger than a laptop, with extra points given if items could actually fit inside the laptop.
As I envisioned my imminent admission into the backpacking way of life, I was reminded of those flustered weeks in 2011 when I had dragged Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 across New York, the Mexican Yucatán and a minute island off the coast of Belize. The formidable tome of dramatic genius was not only the size of an overfed rodent but also a quite obvious indication I was a pretentious idiot. No other person had brought such a thick book to the beach since Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain became a counterculture favorite back in the 1960’s.
Eventually, I arrived home with a bruised shoulder and 900 pages sprinkled with yankee grime, Mayan dust and Caribbean sand. But there was a surprise guest… Tucked away in the dark recesses of my backpack was a shiny addition to my gadget portfolio: a Kindle.
Admittedly, the first few days were reminiscent of a mad love affair: anxiety and shyness soon gave way to giddy excitement, mostly when I discovered I could scavenge through the entirety of Project Gutenberg’s archives and freely re-acquire (albeit in less lovely form) the Penguin Classics I had relinquished before moving to Amsterdam. I quickly hoarded on Dickens, Twain, Melville, Wilde, Bronte (all three!), Dostoyevsky, Maupassant and whatever else I previously had or wanted to have or thought I should have.
Nevertheless, cracks soon began to appear in my technological castle.
You know how planning a trip is sometimes more enjoyable than actually getting on a plane, descending upon a foreign land and having to constantly pretend you’re having the time of your life? The same principle applied to my relationship with the Kindle. I had way more fun browsing through internet libraries and discovering little ancient gems like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper than I had reading them. Although it seems evident now, it took me a while to figure out the fault lied not with the books themselves (maybe I just needed to read something written after the fall of the Ottoman empire), but with the inherently detached way I interacted with the Kindle. Words just didn’t seem to stick long enough to create any lasting impression. It felt mechanic and cold, whereas books always struck me as profoundly organic and welcoming.
If I had to write a comparative review, it would be something like this:
Pros – practical; excellent hoarding capabilities; can be used as makeshift frisbee if necessity arises.
Cons – made of plastic, a material which is denigrated in both The Graduate and Norman Mailer’s Oh My America; doesn’t have quite the same impact as a few rows of paperbacks and hardcovers if trying to impress house guests; difficult to recall anything read once finished.
Pros – frequently beautiful; often sensual; usually a good excuse to start a conversation with a stranger.
Cons – kills trees; occupies space, particularly if there’s more than 50 of them.
There’s been much discussion on the clash between traditional books and e-readers, as it happens whenever a new kid on the block comes along and tries to kick the old kid into oblivion. When fighting for economic turf, surrender usually means obliteration, so the stakes are understandably high. The fear of seeing paperbacks go the way of the dodo is palpable, albeit perhaps a tad exaggerated. Still, authors feel the need to stand up for traditional books and provocative studies are released arguing readers absorb less information on a digital medium (since e-readers are also increasingly turning into full-fledged portable computers, maybe folks just get distracted by the constant barrage of cat GIFs). Of course, matters are made even more complicated when different studies come up with remarkably distinct results: e-readers inhibit comprehension (HA! I knew it!); wait, no, e-readers do NOT inhibit comprehension (HA! I knew it!).
Basically, as it apparently happens with everything the human race does these days, nobody is sure of anything but everybody is willing to argue their uncertainty until the bitter end.
As for myself, I returned to the world of paper and ink – but not for long…
The day of departure into the great unknown finally arrived, and with it an attempt to re-engage with the Kindle. I loaded it with a diverse selection of old and new, fiction and sort-of-non-fiction, English and a couple of other languages just for kicks. Radical decisions notwithstanding, I still dragged a beloved worn out paperback (Henry Miller’s Black Spring) into the otherwise entirely electronic mix. Because feelings.
Throughout the year and a few months I’ve been counting on the Kindle as sole purveyor of literary solace, many lovely works have shuffled across my black rectangular screen. Highlights have included the usual suspects (Vonnegut, Saunders, Banville, Carol Oates, McCarthy, Brautigan, Woolf) and some new arrivals (Tóibín, Gordimer, Chabon), but it wasn’t until I read Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending that all curtains fell and all mirrors broke, leaving me desolate upon a stage littered with misgivings. I loved the words appearing on the screen, yet I felt unable to connect with the work. I wanted the letters to stick to my fingers and soar into my encephalic pleasure-dome, to fully immerse myself into a beautifully-drawn story which I knew ticked most of my emotional buttons (memory, death, unrest, tweed).
Alas, it was not meant to be. As I clicked a new page onward and saw the completion percentage inch forward, I wondered if I shouldn’t take up whittling instead. Suddenly, a nervous circuit in my brain twitched and a flash of lucidity zapped across my eyes. I glanced up from my plastic screen and mumbled to myself the conclusive sentence which had eluded me all this time: “I fucking hate the Kindle.”
Not only that, but I finally realized what had been wrong with the whole scenario. My reading experience just didn’t feel right – literally! And it was not merely a question of not feeling the raspy touch of paper. It was, perhaps even more strikingly, a matter of weight. On the Kindle, Raymond Carver’s haunting Cathedral weighed the same as Susanna Clarke’s enchanting Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell or Bruno Schulz’s surreal The Street of Crocodiles. Gone was the pleasure of pressure.
Whenever I felt like reading something light, I wanted to also sense a physical lightness, a thin spine and a shallow gutter. If reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I wanted to feel all the weight of its history, all the burdens of its characters. I wanted it to be challenging not only to read but also to carry around.
On the Kindle, everything became homogeneous, from the typeface to the narratives themselves. I jumped from book to book like a fly buzzing around the same old shit. In the end, I understood it was the standardization of my reading experience that was really bugging me. I missed the musky smell of a secondhand book and the sweet chemical smell of a freshly-pressed book; the romance of a torn page and the unbroken geometry of a closed paperback; the touch of fingers upon the hard edges of a hardcover and the rustling sound of a hinge stretching; all the different colors, sizes and shapes of paper and ink.
But that was not enough: what I missed the most were bookstores, and not the tiny alternative spaces I can find here in Antigua Guatemala, lovely as they are. I missed, wanted, craved with voracious hunger to find myself inside a Strand in NYC, a Shakespeare & Company in Paris, a Ler Devagar in Lisbon, a Daikanyama T-Site in Tokyo, an American Book Center in Amsterdam – I lusted after walls stacked high with rows upon rows of small books, big books, fancy books, trendy books, classic books, scattered books, forests of words and meanings and knowledge and fun. Heaven.
But I’m still here in Antigua Guatemala, licking wounds and downloading e-books to feed my electronic beast, weary of adding any more weight to a brimming backpack but unable to stop gobbling up other people’s stories. Reading on the Kindle is still a frustrating affair, more infused with self-loathing than any sense of delight. Authors are all jumbled together, their work occasionally brilliant enough to shine a light through the murky screen of my compact gadget. A perfect sentence, a clever turn of the phrase, a witty metaphor – they radiate warmth, but also fill me with the desire to grab a pencil and underline them or scribble a note, to make them mine.
Meanwhile, I bask in the recollection of those happy, heavy days when I took Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 across four countries and a vast blue ocean, feeling the wind breathe through its pages, smiling in waves as its spine became wrinkled and its cover defaced with sand and fingerprints.
Now, sleepy-eyed, I rest and let go of my Kindle, as despondent as a downtrodden peasant dreaming of a revolution.