In (qualified) praise of the Kindle and other e-readers

About a year and a half ago, I broke down and bought an Amazon Kindle. Despite my lifelong affinity for books and the printed page, I was doing so much traveling that I found myself bereft without the choices of my home library. At times, the one or two books I brought on a trip just wouldn’t do it for me, leaving me to channel surf among bad cable stations in my hotel room.

Today, it’s my primary source of reading material on out-of-town trips, as well as a handy device while riding on the subway here in Boston.

That said, it took me a while to warm up to the Kindle. I needed to wean myself off the tactile sensation of paging through a book. Also, the Kindle screen, while very good for an e-reader, isn’t the same as a nice crisp printed page.

Long-term visa holder, but not full-fledged citizen, of Kindle Nation

The Kindle isn’t going to replace my physical library any time soon. I like reading books and having them around. Being a classic geek, I feel at home with my books. The old chestnut about curling up with a good book still has a mighty appeal.

Furthermore, when it comes to work, the Kindle or any other e-reader is unlikely to supplant the usefulness of having hard copies of books, articles, and monographs. Flipping back-and-forth and marking e-pages on the Kindle is a pain, in my opinion. The Kindle is best for cover-to-cover reading, not reference and research work.

Not saving a dime!

In the back of my mind, I also thought that owning a Kindle would help me to save money on books. After all, e-reader versions of books typically cost less than their hard copy counterparts, at times substantially so.

Many of the classics are now in the public domain, and very serviceable e-versions are available for next to nothing. In addition, a number of established and emerging writers sometimes put their work on sale for the Kindle format, giving readers a chance to sample their books at a rock-bottom price.┬áIn short, it’s possible to build a considerable, affordable, and diverse e-library using a Kindle.

So the Kindle is a money saver, yes? Not a chance — at least for me.

Now I find myself buying Kindle editions of some of the books I own in hard copy, and vice versa. It’s as if by owning certain books I enjoy in multiple formats, I can insure myself against a monster tornado or alien invasion snatching up all of my favorites. (I assure readers that I am free of such wretched consumer excesses when it comes to other retail choices; I can putting off buying new clothes or replacing that fire-hazard toaster over for a l-o-n-g time.)

The future of books

Today I stopped by my favorite used bookstore in Boston, the Brattle Book Shop in the downtown district. It’s one of those wonderful places where I always find something either for myself or for a gift, including a lot of new discoveries.

I briefly chatted with the owner about the impact of Kindles, and we shared the understanding that e-readers are changing the world of bookselling, including the business of used books. I was heartened when he added that his bookstore wasn’t going to disappear any time soon.

Yup, technology changes stuff. I’m sure there were folks who lamented the passing of hand scribed and illuminated manuscripts with the arrival of the printing press. Centuries later, no doubt others thought that the availability of inexpensive paperbacks somehow cheapened the experience of reading.

If the popularity of e-readers means that more people are reading books, then that is a good thing. After all, it is the act of reading, not the physical presence of books themselves, that makes all the difference.

Still, I hope you will excuse the sentimentality I experience whenever I walk into a good bookstore or library. It’s nice to see all those old friends on the shelves.

-David Yamada

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This is the first of an ongoing series of posts on reading and books. Comments welcomed!

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