My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Books vs. Kindles: The Choice No One Made Ever

Fraternizing will not be tolerated.
This Kindle was taken out back to be shot.
The books were each scolded very harshly.
I remember the day I went to buy my Kindle. I felt the smooth, off-white plastic buttons beneath my fingers. It held the promise of the future in its e-paper screen. A few buttons and I could call up an entire library in something smaller than a Readers Digest. It was sleek. It was snazzy. It was totally what Jean Luc Picard would use to read books when he was rocking a cup of "Earl Grey...hot" and rocking that scandalously short silk robe of his even harder.  

But then I looked at my bookshelf where I'd accumulated a lifetime of books. Hundreds of books spanning from my Pierce Anthony phase in junior high through comparative religion books in my early twenties, my most recent collections of LeGuin, Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, and a bunch of literary short stories (like classroom readers I couldn't bear to get rid of or Pushcart anthologies), as well as an entire bookshelf of writing books. I touched the books. I felt their comforting fibrous paper texture, and smelled their booky smell. Nostalgia gushed through my veins. They were my friends. They'd come with me through some of the worst times in my life and had been my sentinels.

I looked back and forth from the plastic to the paper. One a comforting, poignant reminder of the past. The other a bold and pioneering step into the future. Paper. Plastic. Books. Kindle. I had woken that morning so full of purpose--so sure of what I wanted to do. But now, facing the actual enormity of the choice, I wavered.

"All of them?" I asked the store employee. "Can't I keep a few."

The man who sold the Kindles--Alan if his nametag was accurate--was in his early twenties, and was wearing a grey shirt with a blue tie. He pressed his lips together and looked sympathetic. Still, it had the measured quality of being a practiced look of sympathy. No doubt he had this conversation dozens of times each day, whipped out his sympathetic look every time, and had it down to a science. "I'm afraid so, sir," he said. "It has to be all of them. It's the only way."

"Must I?" I asked.

"You must," he nodded.

And so I handed my paper books to Alan--all of them. I stacked them up dozens of piles ten feet high and more, and Alan took them all and handed me my Kindle.

Oh wait. That's not how it happened. This is how it happened:

I heard a knock at the door. The sort of demanding pounding that lets you know it's perfunctory, and that door is going to open one way or another.  I knew it was them. I knew they'd found out what I'd been up to. Ignoring this knock would only buy me a few seconds, at most.

I looked out the peephole. Two men in impecable black suits (who both looked like Tommy Lee Jones) flanked by beefy looking SWAT officers, their rifles glittering in the midday sun. Behind them were two more officers cradling one of those modern-day battering rams, just daring me not to open that door in a timely manner.

Except...like....both were Tommy Lee Jones.
I sighed. Might as well get it over with. I opened the door, and put on my best plastic smile. "Hello?" I said.

"Mr. Brecheen?" the Left Agent Smith look-alike asked.

"Yes?" I said. "That's me."

"Mr. Brecheen, we have a report here that you purchased a Kindle on Tuesday last. This is a copy of the invoice here. You paid with an American Express. Is this accurate." Somehow, the last sentence was not a question.

"That sounds about right," I said. "It might have been Wednesday."

"It was Tuesday," the right Agent Smith said. "But that's not what bothers us, Mr. Brecheen."

I swallowed. "Oh?"

"What bothers us is that we have reports of paper books on these premises as recently as Saturday night, and that your neighbors actually said they saw you reading a paper book."

I shook my head. "No, they must have misunderstood. I don't have any paper books now. Just me and the Kindle. That's it. Certainly wouldn't hold onto those leather-bound collectors editions. No sir."

Both sets of Agent Smiths' eyes narrowed. "Mind if we take a look around, Mr. Brecheen?" they said in cold, calculating unison.

I swallowed, fingering the glock in my pocket. Might as well go down fighting.

Oh wait. That's not how it happened either. But THIS is totally how it happened:

"That'll be fifty-seven twenty-three," the Barnes and Noble cashier said. "Are you a rewards club member? You can save...um..."

"Uh...is there a problem?" I asked.

"I'm sorry," the cashier said. "We've detected Kindle nuclear residue signature on you. It's all over everything. I can't sell you these paper books sir."

"Look," I said. "They're uh...not for me, okay. They're for a friend. A friend who doesn't have a Kindle and can only read paper books."

"I'm sorry," the cashier said. "I could lose my job. I could be hunted down by the Kindle police. You made a choice when you bought that Kindle. You can't go back now."

Oh wait. None of those scenarios is accurate. Here's how it totally, actually happened:

I bought a Kindle. I didn't immediately go home and burn all my other books. I didn't stop buying paper books. I read both and no one came knocking at my door. It's a boring story, I know. I'm thinking of adding in a talking pig and a plot to destroy Lady Elaine from Mr. Roger's world of make believe. But it's the truth.

Just one on a very long list of things that WON'T
be held to your head to force the issue.
There is absolutely no reason you can't have both and no reason for people to frame the argument in a false dichotomy.

The coolest thing about the choice between the "Smell of Books" and the "Library in your hand" is that you never have to make it. You can have both. And you can have your favorite books in paper form and fill your kindle with anthologies too heavy to lug around and the thousands of paperbacks your partner keeps telling you to get rid of or they'll leave you.

When I first bought my Kindle, just pulling it out in public to read a few pages while I waited for the BART was apparently an underground signal to random strangers that I wanted to be grilled about giving up books. Why choose when life is so full of options? Kindles and books didn't enter Thunderdome, so the idea that "two media enter, one medium leaves" is just our human foible surrounding change. Hitting a moving hand with a hammer because "we fear change" is foolish, and assuming that forward is always better is foolish too.

Luckily now that I've cleared this up, we have the option of not being so ridiculous.


  1. Because I have a job and therefore some disposable income, I buy all my fiction at The Other Change of Hobbit. I then read it. If it's lendable, I keep it to lend. If not, I sell it. Either way, if I liked the book I buy it on my Kindle. That way the author gets paid twice, my indie bookstore gets paid once, I can share awesome books with friends, and I - well, I really like being able to read a book of any size on a device that weighs the same no matter what. Some of those Honor Harrington books hurt to read.

    My nonfiction I buy in paper only because I write marginalia which I want to be able to read at the same time as I read the typed text. Plus, when doing research I like to have more than one book open at once. Putting my fiction on Kindle means I have more bookcase board feet for nonfiction - ie, I get a larger book collection.

    Last, I just had eye surgery. I can't stress how awesome it's been to be able to set the font size on my kindle at "massive" so I can read a book while I recover, because I can't read anything in paper. The font size is too small for comfort.

    Ergo, I have and enjoy both. I'm not Craigslisting my bookcases and my Kindle is almost worn out - I'll be getting a new one next year. (Also, not being able to lose or have my books stolen is AWESOME. I can have the device lost or stolen, but that's not the same.)

    I also found all of your kindle scenarios (scenaria? Scenariae?) very amusing. I would like, some day, to read some fiction you've written.

    1. Believe it or not, the fiction is coming to a second rate blog near you. Very near you, in fact. Like...if you're reading this comment on the webpage, it will be over to your right.

      I took a serious hit with that Dropbox data corruption thing, so that's delayed the appearance, but I hope to basically put most of my short fiction right here.

  2. Yeah, pretty much.

    I <3'd my second-hand Kindle and you can have my iPad when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. But for me the Kindle and later the iPad were about convenience. About knowing I would never have to fear baggage overage charges again because I'd packed that extra hard-cover.

    But I'm not about to give up my shelves of carefully collected books either. I don't see that happening. Some of those books went on their on convoluted, wild, adventures before eventually making their way home to me. As much as they are vehicles for telling stories, some of my books have stories and memories of their own, and I can't let go of that.

    Of course this reminds me. I really do need another bookcase.

    1. Fortunately, I've done all kinds of physics experiments and I can safely conclude that the presence of an e-reader will not cause physical books to atomize.

      So you should be good.

  3. I think there will always be room for real books in the market. But yes, for my casual reading, the Kindle just is wonderful.

    I'm so glad you got one and convinced me!

  4. OMG do you still have a VCR too?? ;)

  5. And I just realized I used enormity wrong. :-p

  6. Excellent timing for this post, for personal reasons. I am moving from a house to a tiny NYC apartment. For the first time in my very long adult life I have to give up my books. Thank all that is wholly nerdy that the Kindle (and 2nd kindle and iPad) were invented or I would be a mess right now.

  7. At one point in my life, I lived with over 2500 books. In a studio apartment. I've pared down my collection to just two book cases and, with the exception of a dozen fiction books I read over and over and over, everything is non-fiction. (I believe I'm scheduled to read Moon Is a Harsh Mistress over the Labor Day weekend.)

    I've got a Kindle, but generally use the Kindle app on my Xoom. I'm closing in on 300 books, and the Xoom has not grown any heavier. The next time I move, my friends will not be cursing my name.

    I've started a list of books I absolutely MUST have on Kindle (that aren't available in that format yet), because their paper brethren are too old and worn to be read.

    Paper or plastic? Pffft! I want it all!!

  8. I am right there with you! I love my Kindle - it makes it possible for me to read in situations I would not want to bring my books into (in the rain, under a barely adequate umbrella,) and makes reading possible where it was not so much before (in the dark with someone asleep next to me,) and I love all my books.

  9. Got my first Kindle before a 5-day train excursion, when packing space was at a premium. Now on my third. Love the backlighting, for reading in dimly lit corners or in bed, love being able to increase font size when my eyes are tired, love the massive books and library in such a lightweight package. Now I mostly buy printed bound books that are reference materials, such as writing references, cookbooks, etc., with the occasional lapse for my library's fundraiser book sales.