I’m excited about the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite, announced earlier today. I don’t currently own a Kindle, but I use the app on my iPad and iPhone a fair amount, and I’ve been jealous of my wife’s third-generation model for a while now. After today’s announcement, I immediately pre-ordered two of them. Expect a full review here when I receive mine.
In the meantime, I’ve been thinking a lot about the inescapable “death of the print book,” and what it means in my house. I’m guessing we have about 1,000 print books in our collection, and only 61 titles in our Kindle library amassed in the four years since we started using Kindles or the Kindle app. (This is accelerating. Half of those are from the past six months or so.)
There’s no doubt that our house will be a different sort of place to grow up in than the many houses I grew up in as my family chased my dad’s military career around the globe. I discovered my parents’ books on our bookshelves or forgotten in piles on nightstands or under an ashtray on the coffee table. “Dune,” “Friday,” The “Foundation” trilogy, a never-ending parade of Stephen King books. I think I read “Christine” three or four times in a row when I was twelve. I treasure the memories of thumbing through my parent’s collection, reading their scribbled notes in the margins.
I discovered books in libraries, too. If there was a place I liked as much as my bedroom growing up, it was the stacks of my local library. We were stationed briefly in Salt Lake City in 1981 and I was left to my own fifth-grade devices in the downtown library there for endless hours. It was the first time I’d been in anything like it—up until then I’d mostly hung out in the libraries at whatever school I happened to be in that year or at the post library, if there was one. The Salt Lake City library was epic. Thousands and thousands of books. Three storeys. There were escalators! The place had the same effect on me that I imagine ornate churches have on the religious. Books—the stories they tell, the ideas they manifest, and even just the physical objects they are—are so goddamn important that they built this extraordinary temple just to house them. It was magical. All the libraries of my youth were. I entered with reverence and awe. I don’t think a librarian has shushed me once in my entire life.
And it’s these memories—dusty, polaroid-filtered nostalgia for my relationship with books as a kid—that leads me to agonize over what my kids’ relationship with books will be. When Papa’s entire library fits in a device that weighs 7.5 ounces. When you can have any book you can think of on that device in less than a minute. When the last library in America finally gives up and admits it’s really just a homeless shelter.
In a world of instant literary gratification, how important will books be to them? Will they beg me to take them to a midnight release at a nearby bookstore for the latest installment of an epic fantasy series? Or will they just download it? Will they power up my Kindle with reverence and awe, losing themselves in the e-ink menus and Kindle store for hours upon hours?
I don’t know, and I admit I get incredibly melancholy thinking about it. Sure, they’ll have the stories. They’ll read “Charlotte’s Web,” and “Dune,” and—sigh—maybe even “Christine.” And I know already that they’ll love reading as much as their parents do. I just don’t know if they’ll love books. It breaks my heart.
But after months and years of worrying about what the digital revolution would mean for my kids’ love of books, I had a comforting thought tonight. There will always be physical books in our house. Always. And in a world where Papa can have any book in the palm of his hand in seconds, the books he chooses to allot precious physical space to might be imbued with a mythical legitimacy. Papa reads hundreds of books each year, but these—The Pelican Shakespeare, Aurelius’ “Meditations”, “The Iliad”, Gaiman’s “Sandman” series—these are the important books. These books have weight. Literally. Their very physicality signals their importance—these artifacts are worthy of reverence and awe. If they weren’t, they’d be on the Kindle with all of the other ones and zeroes.
Perhaps after all my worry, the unstoppable march to turn the world’s books into intangible digital commodities only serves to show our kids—and us—which books truly matter.