Jeff Bezos has built a machine that marks a cultural revolution,” writes Jacob Weisberg in a breathless Newsweek column that apologizes for being “irksomely enthusiastic about my cool new literature delivery system”, as in Kindle, Amazon.com’s wireless reading device. “Enthusiastic” is an understatement for what follows. “The Kindle 2 signals that after a happy, 550-year union, reading and printing are getting separated,” Weisberg grandly declares. “It tells us that printed books, the most important artefacts of human civilization, are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence.” No need for fascists to throw our books in the bonfire; we’ll soon be doing it for them.
Fast read: The Kindle has been endorsed by Toni Morrison. Ramin Talaie / Bloomberg
So are you ready to Kindle? The international edition is now available in India for the low, low price of $279 (around Rs13,000). Add the sales tax, shipping and import duty, and you end up paying $405 for the privilege of sending the printing press to its tree-hating, pre-digital, Luddite grave. As for literary snobs wrinkling their noses in their parchment-lined ivory towers, Amazon.com will have you know (video testimonials available!) Kindle’s most fervent supporters include Toni Morrison, Michael Lewis, Neil Gaiman and—hold your breath—James Patterson. No word on the Really Big Names, i.e. the likes of Ondaatje, Amis or Roth. The odds are that in most cases authorial narcissism will prevail over principle.
Not all have succumbed to the siren call of Kindle. Nicholson Baker penned a 6,000-word polemic in The New Yorker bemoaning the visuals, or lack thereof. “(Kindle’s font) Monotype Caecilia was grim and Calvinist; it had a way of reducing everything to arbitrary heaps of words,” Baker writes of his experience, “You get the words, yes, and sometimes pictures, after a fashion. Photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well on the little grey screen.” Purchase an e-textbook on oncology and you may never learn to identify a tumour.
A well-loved book offers many pleasures, tactile, aesthetic and emotional. Downloading some text on Kindle can never match the unalloyed pleasure of a well-loved object that can please by its presence. The mere sight of the 1924 edition of R.G. Collingwood’s Speculum Mentis on my bookshelf makes me happy. In Ex Libris, Anne Fadiman describes her family’s love for books as “carnal”, less concerned with form than content: “To us, a book’s words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated.” To separate a book entirely from its vessel, however, is another matter. Fadiman is no fan of Kindle, and is one of the few who hopes her books will never be offered in an e-format. Then again Fadiman has likely never wandered into an Indian bookstore, a bibliophile’s seventh circle of hell. Finding an author or title in the fiction aisle is nothing short of a miracle. Books are shelved with blithe disregard for genre: Look, there’s Mary Higgins Clark cuddling up to J.M. Coetzee in the literature section. The good stuff is always missing or out of stock, but lovers of Patterson, Robert Ludlum or Agatha Christie need never fear. There are always at least three copies of everything they ever wrote.
There’s no better cure for my inner Luddite than a trip to the local Crossword store. Kindle may not be a perfect or even adequate substitute for the beloved book, but I’d rather curl up with a good novel displayed in “Kindle grey” than have to make do with another edition of Jason Bourne’s adventures.
Write to Lakshmi at firstname.lastname@example.org