Friday, April 23, 2010

Kindles Aren't Books

I was twenty, newly tattooed and sobering up. I was running late. The Greyhound bus I boarded in Pittsburgh smelled like old sweat and food. A red-eye, I was going to move through the night, across the open fields of middle-Pennsylvania for a crack of dawn arrival in Philadelphia. There didn't seem to be an available seat on the bus and the driver was watching me through the rear-view to sit down before he backed out into the steel city night. I scanned the bus, tired, in and out of it, and saw a seat on the aisle three rows from the back. A large black man was in the window seat, more piled there than sitting, a muscular pylon rising out of the fabric. Our eyes met. I didn't have to look down into his to do it.

“Mind if I sit here?” I asked.

“Only if you'll talk about Nietzsche,” he said.

I looked at my hands. I was carrying the Viking Portable Nietzsche in my left hand, the cover facing out to the world. Red-eye reading.

We spent the next seven hours talking about the nature of god, will, the meaning of religion. He was a studying with the Jesuits in New York, on his way home from visiting friends.

That never would have happened if I was a Kindle user.

If I used that electronic reader, he never would have seen the cover, never would have commented and those seven hours would have been spent alone instead of in the company of someone from whom I learned much. A decade later I can still recall the smell of the bus, the gravel in his voice and his precise view on “Zarathustra.”

The Kindle gets rid of the cover and so it eliminates all the sweet, surprising moments that come with reading. Those chance meetings in a bar, a restaurant or cafe, the beach, wherever people sit and read and can see the covers of others' books. Wherever it is that they can comment on those covers and talk.

The Kindle kills the romance of reading.

With Kindles, Lawrence Durrell never would have found a used copy of Henry Miller's “Tropic of Cancer” in an outhouse on Corfu, sparking a friendship and exploration with Miller that lasted 45 years. America would never have known of Miller's work had that paperback not been found. With Kindles Mario Lima wouldn't read in the shower in Roberto Bolano's “Savage Detectives” and Bolano himself never would have stolen all those Philip K. Dick books that made him want to write. Jake Barnes waiting on a train reading “A Hunter's Notebook” loses something with a Kindle. That was always one of the best scenes in “The Sun Also Rises”: you can see Jake sitting there, in a suit, his legs crossed at the ankles and holding an open hardback copy of Turgenev in his hands. The train whistle sounds, he looks up at the station clock, smiles, closes the book and slides it carefully into his suitcase. The bull fighting awaits.

Picturing that scene with Jake and a Kindle takes away the possibility that another woman could happen by, comment on his copy of Turgenev and take up enough time to spare him from thoughts of Brett. It removes the edge off of the scene, it kills its musk and anticipation.

Kindles can't be rolled up and stuffed into the back of a pair of Levis. They can't be found in used bookstores full of another person's notes, those forlorn hieroglyphics from another's summer days. They can't weather the spilled glass of wine, the beer stains from those snow sodden January days at the bar. They can't be opened to the middle, stuffed with a postcard and a letter and mailed to your lover. They can't be hollowed out to carry a file to bust a friend from jail. They don't excite.

They are simply another way for someone to show that they possess something someone else doesn't have or cannot afford. In that sense, they are the perfect projection of status showmanship that has landed us into so much trouble already. But books were always the great equalizer. A paperback can pass hands in the street and illuminate the corners of life politics doesn't talk about. Chapbooks can build poets, underground newspapers get bound and create legends. Books get donated to homeless shelters and perhaps give hope. Charles S. Dutton took an anthology of black playwrights into solitary confinement while doing time on a manslaughter beef. He emerged wanting to act and start a troupe in the prison. He was allowed to do so on the condition that he get his GED. He's won more than a few Emmys since then.

Kindles aren't an equalizing force. While their cost may drop in the coming years they still will not gain the ability to be discovered, the ability to be smuggled, to be passed and recommended, mailed, inscribed, kissed, left behind on purpose, forgotten, tucked onto a shelf, stuffed into a backpack for the long hike, stuffed into a glove compartment with a flask for the long drive. Kindles won't join fire lookouts on mountaintops to inspire “The Dharma Bums.” Kindles won't force the revolution. Kindles aren't a threat people want to burn.

It's that ability, the ability to inspire, to strike fear, to engender love that all books carry and that all machines ultimately lose. They lose the romance of reading.

Someone stops into the store and asks how business is. Then they ask if “all those Kindles” have hurt business.

They haven't and they won't.

The machines will always lose.

Chance and possibility will win.

And on Greyhound buses running across state lines in the night, college students will still strike up conversations with saints over the paperbacks in their hands.

By: William Hastings


Susan said...

I am not sure exactly how I connected with your blog but so glad that I did. First but least important I used to ride the long long Greyhound from Pittsburgh to nyc thru many dark nights of my distant college days, and I wish I had met that guy, as I was almost always carrying a little pprback about Existentialism, I didn't fully understand.
More important yours is a wonderfully expressed piece about Kindle and how extraordinary you must be- 40 years of indie bookselling-I stopped at 34- its a great life that you never really leave- I still carry a "real" book everywhere I go and love the connections made from the flash of a jacket or even a spine.

Sean said...

Outstanding post. By eliminating paper, the printed word is no longer the printed word...but rather the digital word, and digital words are fleeting.

I have already vowed never to own a Kindle...

(Though, if people wish to purchase digital copies of my novel, I shall not stop them.) ;)

Sean said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John O'Connor said...

Loved the essay (allow me not to use the "b" or "p" word). I will be posting it in my bookstore.
It's sad, however, that it's not attributed to a person, to give warmth to the digital words.

-John in Idaho

Farley's Bookshop said...

The blog is now being written by William Hastings. Feel free to print and post it in your store and feel free to add his name onto it. Thanks for reading.

Joann said...

This article/story gives me hope. I want to publish a real, physical BOOK, The Power of Love: How a Nun Became a Revolutionary, one I can hold in my hand, give to my granddaughter and see in the hands of young people on Greyhound buses. Check out my blog at

Tara said...

I LOVE my kindle. I am and always have been a voracious reader, reading anything I can get my hands on. The kindle has made it so much easier for me to indulge in my love of the written word. I can now carry thousands of books with me all at once. As a writer having any reference material I want at my fingertips where ever I am is invaluable. As a reader the ability to read a book review then buy that book an instant later is a joy. Will I still buy paperbacks? Of course. I still browse book stores and make impulse buys, and it is still exciting to stumble across that gem you didn't even know existed, but my kindle never leaves my side. The facts are that Kindle editions of books are now out selling hardcover editions, and it probably won't be long until they are out selling paperbacks. The kindle will do for publishing what the ipod has done for the music industry. It is the future, there is no point standing in the past.