Fall2010

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Essay

Smell My Kindle

By Neil Bhandari

This airplane is going to crash. I know that it is, just like I’ve known that every airplane I’ve ever boarded was going to crash, until it didn’t, and I was back on the ground, in the place where I wanted to go, much faster than I would’ve been by any other means. I fly at least five or six times a year, and every time I do so I find myself somewhat amazed that I’m willing to do it again—that so many of us are willing to do it, time and time again. We all know, statistically speaking, that flying in an airplane is just about the safest means of transportation. What really inspires the fear, I suppose, is the knowledge that, as opposed to driving a car, riding a bike, swimming in the ocean, etc., if something goes terribly wrong on an airplane, I am definitely dead meat. Yikes. And yet, ultimately rational beings that we are, we decide to play the odds, save some time, deal with the minutes or hours of trepidation, and board that plane. So really, it’s a testament to humans, and our practicality as a species, that we’re able to keep the risk/reward factor in appropriate enough perspective to have adopted aviation as our primary means of long distance travel.

This consideration, this sometimes-complicated algorithm of Necessity vs. Convenience vs. Risk vs. Reward vs. Cost usually comes to mind whenever I find myself reading or conversing about some new piece of gadgetry or technology, and so it has with the recent emergence of e-readers—Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc. As a part-time writer, a full-time reader and a publisher of an independent literary journal, which is still, cost-be-damned, produced and distributed in hard copy, it’s probably easy to surmise where I side on this debate. You can keep the touch screens and adjustable font size, I’ll take the half-pound of crispy, bent-eared pages.

Perhaps the most obvious, and therefore the most readily provided defense of the book is its very tangibility. Every book has its own weight, shape and smell, and these characteristics have a wonderful way of inserting themselves into our lives and our experiences. The first romantic offering I ever made was in first grade, when I asked my friend Carrie if I could take her books from her backpack, which was hanging on the wall, over to her desk for her. Feeling their heft in my small, sweaty hands was exciting, empowering; the weight of so much math and grammar allowing me to demonstrate such brute physicality. Thirteen years later, I spent the summer working at a day camp with a paperback copy of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction jammed into the left butt pocket of my cutoff shorts, thumbing through it at snack and lunch breaks, occasionally sharing a humorous or especially poignant passage with some of the other counselors, and devouring page after page while cloistered in some way-too-good hiding spot in the woods during Capture the Flag. I eventually gave that copy, complete with torn cover and multicolored popsicle stains, to a co-worker at the end of the summer, a quiet, smiley guy named Tim. Certainly these were not life altering, character defining moments; my life would not be very different if they hadn’t happened. But they are small, sweet memories—just two out of a lifetime’s worth—built around the weight, size and shape of real books. Carrie wouldn’t have needed help lugging a Kindle the twelve feet to her desk, and spilling colored sugar ice on an iPad would be a travesty.

One facet of the e-reader that its proponents herald, and which I find supremely depressing, is the privacy it bestows upon its owner and his or her choice of reading material. If you want to read in privacy, stay home, and if you’re really that ashamed of what you’re reading, then you probably shouldn’t be reading it anyways. If you’re reading on the train and you’re cute- I want to know what you’re reading. Because guess what? If I’ve already read it, it’s time for Impromptu Book Club. You’re sitting next to me at the barber shop reading Sports Illustrated? Let’s talk NL Central pennant race. The books that we carry around with us, the things we read in public, are not only what we are currently reading, but, as much as we might hate to admit it, they are a window into who we currently are and who we want to be. To shutter oneself off with the metal back of an e-reader is, while certainly a boon to privacy, a blow to the arena of public communication and the conversational strategies of the occasional well-meaning stranger.

A lot of people also like to tout the eco-friendliness of the e-readers, citing the reduced usage of paper and ink, as well as the carbon emissions associated with book delivery, etc., as a further benefit of such devices. Luckily, semi-permanent resident of the moral high ground that I am, I’m ready and willing to inform them that the chemical waste created in the production of these electronics (Britannica it! Ok, fine, Google it.), coupled with the fact that the public library contains books that already exist (not to mention that they employ members of your own community), should make you feel pretty damn good about reading some good old fashioned, recyclable, biodegradable books.

It is not about preemptive nostalgia or a curmudgeonly fear that manifests itself in the form of “things were better back in my day.” I appreciate the benefits that movable type, the printing press, the type writer, the word processor, the personal computer and so many of the advancements in the written, printed and read word have precipitated, and I certainly think that almost anything that gets more people reading is a good thing. However, every generation experiences some sense of grief over what’s been lost, how life used to be, and the things that can no longer be experienced in their elder forms. Reading books made of paper will, almost certainly, one day become one of those things. So why not, those of us who have the desire and means to do so, avoid the whole runaround by embracing that which we’ll otherwise one day regret having lost (not to mention avoid making our kids scour the thrift stores for books like we do for records and simple, tasteful clothing), and keep on buying and reading actual books. A-books, if you will.

Really, it’s a matter of personal choice. There’s nothing wrong with wanting/having/using an e-reader, per se. But if the arguments for the tactility and sociability of books aren’t convincing enough, consider what we count on, during those harrowing moments of take-off and landing, tilting and twisting, churning in the back drafts of previously departed aircraft, rising and jerking at odd angles in route to our cruising altitude. Books. Magazines, newspapers, crossword puzzles. Paper and ink that don’t have to be turned off and stowed amidst those endless airborne acrobatics.

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