The Kindle Dilemma

Zouch, September 30, 2011.

“But these innumerable little volumes, bright, identical, ephemeral, for they seemed bound in cardboard and printed on tissue paper surprised her infinitely. The whole works of Shakespeare cost half a crown and could be put in your pocket. One could hardly read them, indeed, the print was so small, but it was a marvel, none the less.”

Those were the musings of Orlando—the gender-bending protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s novel, “Orlando”—on seeing the hardback books of her (or his) day.

If she’d stared wide-eyed at the new books that appeared in her era, at their compactness and their lightness, I wonder what she’d think of the 21st century e-books and the devices they’re read on. She’d be transfixed, I’d bet.

On the subway, when I see a silver-haired, octogenarian, seated next to me, peering down at her Kindle, I too, am “transfixed”—but for reasons other than those that would, in theory, baffle our friend from the past.

I’m “transfixed” by the device’s surging popularity. I’m “transfixed” by its arrival into the mainstream. I’m “transfixed” by the fact that books will soon become the new vinyl.

One doesn’t have to scan the business and technology verticals of The Wall Street Journal to know that in the book business, the drift is definitely toward the digital.

For the record, swiftly but steadfastly, the sales of e-books have overtaken that of paper books. In the beginning of the year, Amazon announced that for every 100 paperbacks, the e-retailer had sold 115 e-books. A Forrester Research report forecasts that spending on e-books will touch $2.81 billion by 2015.

The soaring numbers tell me it’s time to own a Kindle. Svelte, sleek, and handy, it’s doubtlessly, not a piece of tech bauble. It’s a very useful device.

It lets the user play around with the text size, change the orientation of a page, and highlight a section. It can clip an entire article from a newspaper or a magazine and store them. It can read aloud a book by converting text to speech.

It affords one the luxury of listening to music as one reads. It even summons up the meaning of a word one is stumped by from its built-in dictionary.

Now, consider the iPad in its e-reader avatar. The iBooks store is a flawless simulation of a faux wood bookshelf, polished to a celestial shine, where a title can be summoned with just an ethereal tap.

Its dust-free rows of evenly spaced volumes that neither have the tendency to lean sideways nor slide downwards are a librarian’s vision of utopia. It’s an enchanting gateway to the world of letters.

E-books can be bought in a trice and are cheap into the bargain (costing anywhere between 99 cents, in the case of self-published authors to $15 for publishers’ titles.)

What’s there to complain? But there’s much, I feel, I could lose from gaining an e-reader.

Each time I look at my bookshelves, I feel crestfallen as I imagine a hypothetical scenario in which I see myself callously shoehorning my books into a trash bag and stowing them away in the attic as did Andy in “Toy Story 3” (2012). The fact is I can’t discard them.

Well, if that’s gooey sentimentality, hereon, it’s hard reality.

Does the emotional effect of “downloading” a file come close to the joy of purchasing a book and experiencing its heft and its unique scent?

Unlike physical books, e-books all look the same, unvarying in their in dimensions, texture, and finish. They all come to life on the screen in an identical manner, conjuring the image of an uniform army of clone troopers from the “Star Wars” series.

Imagine curling up with an e-reader on a cold wintry night. I see some incongruity in that picture.

Take a book to bed with you and doze off and it’d still be loyally waiting by your pillow the next sunrise. With an e-reader, you’d have to switch it off first, before you crashed, lest you drained its batteries.

A paperback or a hardcover will gladly accompany you on your journeys without ever wondering about how long you’ll be gone, or if there’s a power outlet where you’re going. You couldn’t possibly keep your e-reader without an electric supply for long.

A Deckle-edged hardcover book.

A book is magnanimous enough to forgive any callousness on its owner’s part. Turn its pages without care and it won’t stare back from behind a cracked screen.

Spill steaming coffee on it absentmindedly and it still won’t bawl. Give it a gentle push and it’ll take it in its stride, happily gliding across the table top or the floor. You can roll it, bend it, twist it, and it still won’t be deformed. By contrast, an e-reader is not resilient.

Accidentally, if you drop a book on the floor, you can always bend down, dust the dirt off it, and toss it in your bag. With an e-reader, you’ll likely have to pick up its smashed bits and order a replacement.

Disappointingly, the Kindle is not the “Library of Babel,” an fictional infinite library conceived by the Argentinean author, Jorge Luis Borges, in his book of the same name. Alas, mechanical memory is vast, but not limitless.

It won’t save an eternity’s worth of reading matter—for ever.

With the Kindle, once the storage ceiling is reached, one needs to beam an e-book or two up to the cloud and re-download it as and when needed. Older issues of subscription-based media are automatically deleted to free up space for newer stuff.

A book without a cover is like granulated honey in a bottle. Call me old-fashioned, but in this regard, I don’t think there’s anything quite like ambling up to a wall full of books, lifting a book, and leisurely riffling through it.

A quick glance at the placement of the bookmark, gives the reader, at a glance, a spatial sense of how much of the book has been read. With an e-reader, that will never happen. A paper book won’t “freeze” or require troubleshooting.

To invest or not to invest in a Kindle is the question that I’ve been turning in my mind for a good long time now.

Admittedly, the most affordable version of the Kindle costs $114. But that comes at a price. And if you’re a bibliophile, you won’t like it. You’ll have to put up with ads. Yet, is it any consolation that they’ll just confine themselves to the home page and the screen savers?

The burden of my Kindle dilemma hasn’t lightened even after this piece.

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