Thursday, December 09, 2010

A different kind of book

I have reasons for asking Santa for a Kindle.

Before I get into them, let me say this: I love books. I adore books. I cherish books, and feel the house would be naked without thousands of them piled on chairs and climbing the stairs and stuffing bookcases in every room and stacked hither and yon. Books are the manifestation of a literate and inquisitive mind. For most of my life a large portion of our discretionary income has gone to books, a fact I’m rather proud of. Books are my life and, in many ways, my career.

Books are also becoming a problem. Not as a financial burden but as a spatial burden. In short, I’ve run out of room.

I’ve given books away, donated books to a library that will no longer accept them, even managed to sell a few books. In desperation, I’ve been known to toss books into the recycling bin though never without a nagging sense of guilt. (One book I tossed into the fire, joyfully so, but the succeeding shame forced me to buy another copy as if that alone would grant absolution.)

And yet, for all that, books continue to pile up. A new batch fills my Christmas wish list, two of them massive tomes in excess of 700 pages. I have no idea where to put them.

Considering the lack of space and the price differential of new hardbacks versus their electronic counterparts, it finally dawned on me to take the next evolutionary step into the digital age. A Kindle would solve the space issue while also paying for itself in a very short while. In fact, the new autobiography of Mark Twain goes for less than ten dollars in digital format compared to twice that much for the hardback, currently being offered at 45% off list of $35. I’d like to say the decision wasn’t an easy one but that would be fictitious. Quite the opposite was true: I can’t wait to make the transition.


Shortly before ordering the Kindle (as Santa’s designated purchasing agent), I began snooping around the Kindle store. I added a protective carrying case to my cart, added three books and hit the order button. The feeling was almost surreal, like stepping across a threshold into a brave new world.

There was also a treasure trove of free books available. Most were public domain works written by famous authors such as Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but included fantasy and adventure classics by Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, George MacDonald, H. Rider Haggard, Lord Dunsany and others. I went hog wild like a kid let loose in a candy store, downloading books to my laptop with the idea of transferring them to the Kindle when it arrived. According to the tech specs, the new generation model Kindle can hold up to 35,000 books, depending upon their length, making it a portable library!

I scouted for more early works that enthralled me when I first began reading in the fifth grade. (Resolutely kicking and screaming, resisting every effort to indulge in the written word until my father brought home a sci-fi novel by E.R. Burroughs, freeing my imagination to roam places I had no idea existed.) Being the forgetful type, I refreshed my memory nosing through the hundreds of dusty books in our upstairs library, the old Ace and Ballantine paperbacks that cost 40 cents when I started reading, many of them yellowed now, the pages and spines brittle. If possible I wanted them on my Kindle. I wanted them all on my Kindle. It was pure, unadulterated greed, but because books were involved the endeavor was pleasantly guiltless.

In a way it was walk through the early stages of my reading life, first the science fiction of Burroughs, the Pellucidar novels and the Mars books, followed by Tarzan of the Apes, not the clean-cut, wholesome Johnny Weissmuller popularized by Hollywood but a man able to transition between cultured English gentry and throat-ripping savage. For a while I bought every reprint of the classic fantasy books of the late 1800s and early 1900s, literary novels long passed into obscurity. A large section was devoted to a genre known as sword-and-sorcery, my favorite if I had to pick. Robert E. Howard was the undisputed master before taking his own life, but there were dozens of others. I noticed numerous copies of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, a work so engrossing it was nothing short of life-altering.

All these wonderful books with their musty smells, each a stirring memory. And then my eyes fell on a slender novel by an English writer named Alan Garner.

Until I discovered The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, reading had been an adventure. I’d explored distant universes and the Dark Continent, encountered sorcerers and demons, entered the forbidden realms of Elfland and, with Dunsany and others, wandered beyond the fields we know. But Garner was the first writer to make me weep like a child, to utterly shatter my heart, to wring me dry like an old frayed towel. And then slowly, agonizing, impossibly, bring me back. He was a storyteller of magnificent ability, and, I realized, worthy of another read.

The Kindle store, alas, did not offer his works. However, I found the next best thing , or maybe the best thing: a 50th anniversary hardbound edition of his seminal work. The price wasn’t excessive but with the other expenses of the season I balked anyway; but not for long, for a quick check at an antiquarian bookseller database found only about a half-dozen copies in the United States. I hesitated no longer.

As with the Kindle, I can’t wait for it to arrive. But it did illustrate a point that others had made: the death of books is greatly exaggerated. Not every book is available in digital format, though that’s slowly changing. And there will always be those who will prefer a tangible book to an electronic device. The Kindle is merely a different kind of book, not a replacement but a supplement, bridging for now the gap between traditional publishing and a paperless future. With Christmas still weeks away, that future seems unbearably distant.


Unknown said...

Will you actually wait for Christmas or will you gaze at an empty, wrapped Kindle box tucked under your tree while you voraciously read from your digital tome from the comfort of your recliner?

Tom Parker said...

I'm holding out for now while I work my way through a real book. But oh, it's so tempting...

Carol said...

I find interesting your decision to go with Kindle. Max has people waiting for a digitally downloadable copy of his newest work, WITH THE WISDOM OF OWLS. All I have to do is find the time to figure out how to un-format the work and submit it. I understand that downloadable copies of a person's writing can be lucrative -- IF enough people find out its available and spread the word that they've enjoyed reading.
Hope you love your Kindle.

Tom Parker said...

Carol -- As someone who has always loved books, it's a curious decision. However, after using the Kindle for about ten minutes I fell in love with it. If only I could open my present early...

earlycj5 said...

With my move next month, I shed a large sum of books, others are making the journey with me. But this all spurred me to make a similar decision. I'm getting a Sony ereader for Christmas this year.

I read, researched, played with, and stewed over the decision. Finally I decided it was worth it. I've yet to find anyone who has an ereader who doesn't like it, I hope I'm not the first.

Tom Parker said...

Adam - -I suspect you'll love it. Throughout our relocations, books have always been the heaviest and most abundant source of backbreaking work. An e-reader would certainly have made a huge difference. Enjoy it!

shoreacres said...

It's going to be interesting to see how you evaluate your Kindle six months down the road.

I don't have one, don't want one and really don't need one. Once upon a time I had so many books I used them for furniture - four equal stacks of the right height with a piece of plywood on top and a lovely skirt makes a nice end table, for example.

But I've rid myself of two professional libraries, a collection of antique books culled from farm sales, my folk's library and other, smaller collections. I live now with about 150 books, and go to the library from time to time. Who knows? I love books, but don't have any desire any more to have books around I know I'm not going to read.

The one thing about the Kindle and other e-readers that may someday move me in that direction is font size. As my vision gets worse, which I suspect it will, that big print could be a real blessing!

I did laugh - I suspect everyone who has an ereader does like it, because the people who wouldn't like it haven't bought one!

Wes said...

Tom, you will absolutely love the Kindle. Dee Dee bought mine for me, then she liked it so much she bought one, then mama liked them so much she bought one! I take it everywhere I go so I can read it while eating lunch, waiting at the doctor's office, waiting for the car to be worked on, etc. Today, I could not live without it. I have now downloaded the app onto my Droid so if I don't have my Kindle I can read it on my phone, and I downloaded the app for my computer. Now I can also read the book on the PC. And amazingly enough, they all sync between themselves so you never have to go looking for where you were at in any device you're using. Ain't technology great!!

Tom Parker said...

Linda -- Just for grins I adjusted the font (before putting it away for Christmas Eve) and realized it could be a huge improvement for well-used eyes. And if you flip the Kindle sideways you can read on a larger surface, more like a book.
But only 150 books? I assume they're the cream of the crop, the ones you can't live without. I'd love to know the titles of some of them. You've got me curious...

Tom Parker said...

Wes -- I need something that's smarter than me. Can't wait.

shoreacres said...

Tom ~ Well, it's not really 150 "reading" books, because maybe 40 of them are pure reference - Photoshop, dish collecting, glassware, etc.

But the rest are books that have been formative - some kept, some repurchased after I tossed them decades ago and then said, "Whoops!" I've needed for years to make a list to tuck in my hurricane evac file. I'll do it between Christmas and New Years and send it along!

Vikki said...

I've been thinking about getting a Kindle, as well. Not only for space issues from piles of books...even though I, too, have donated to libraries and pass along books to friends and family. But, I like the backlight feature, too. That way when we are on a road trip and Bill is driving and night I can keep reading! Have fun with your gift!

Tom Parker said...

Vikki -- You can buy little clip-on lights that illuminate the Kindle face and nothing else. I understand they work very well for what you're mentioning.

cheryl said...

I love leaning stacks of books. Lots of them.

I love colorful covers and fonts and authors' names.

Covers that "feel" good.

Turning pages.

Bookmarks - even if they're scraps of paper.

I love being able to leaf back in a book and re-read a section. (I know, you can do that on a kindle, too, but it can't be the same.)

I love closing the cover after the final chapter.

I love the memories of reading a particular book - that come back when I pick it up again.

I love being surrounded by my favorite books - being able to spot one by the color of its cover.

No Kindle for me. I can't go there.

Tom Parker said...

Cheryl -- All valid points I completely agree with. And empathize with. I find my eyes roving over the bindings of the books lining the shelves and feel a thrill when seeing a favorite author or particularly resonate work. Maybe because I have piles and piles of books to admire and step around is one good reason for trying something different. To each his own. Maybe your time just hasn't arrived yet.