My E-Reader and Me

I love my Kindle.  I did not always love my Kindle, but then I did not always have a Kindle.  It would be more accurate to say that I did not always love the idea of an e-reader.  Never much of a gadget junkie, I was sure I didn’t need an electronic reader.  Who needs something digital when there are real books in the world?  Before you read any further, please note:  this is not intended to be a commercial for Kindle.  I’m using Kindle as an example because that’s what I own.  You can fill in the ____ with any e-reader, from the new Apple iPad, to the Sony E-Reader, to the Nook, or any other.     

I love books, you see.  When I was in fifth grade I spent my lunch recesses reading instead of playing tetherball or chasing boys across the blacktop.  I remember the teacher saying, very gently, “Don’t you want to play?”  I didn’t.  I wanted to read, and read I did.  Charlotte’s WebCharlie and the Chocolate Factory.  The Little House on the Prairie series.  The Mouse and the Motorcycle and every other Beverly Cleary book.  Anything by Judy Blume.  Little Women, a present from my mother because that was one of her favorites when she was a girl.  Even Roots by Alex Haley, which I read in third grade.  My school librarians always knew me by name.  I kept reading through middle school (it was called junior high then), and I kept reading through high school.  Then I was an English major in college.  Twice.  Even today I am enough of a bookie that, although much research can be done online, I insist on visiting the library and searching the stacks like a hunter, exclaiming “Aha!” aloud when I find my treasure.  Even the heftiness of the volumes does not deter me.  I learned in college how to juggle heavy books while navigating shelves and computer terminals.  I only tripped once—nearly down the escalator, but that’s another story.  To me, there has always been something comforting about the tangible there-ness of books.  Nothing completes a room, or a soul, like them.

A few years ago, as e-books and e-readers started coming into their own, I was not convinced that I needed either one.  An e-book could never replace a real book, I thought.  You can’t hear the flipping sound of the pages in an e-book.  You can’t pull an e-book off the shelf.  You can’t smell it.  Then this past December I received a Kindle as a Christmas present, but instead of being adverse to it or thinking I might want to return it, I was fascinated by it.  I decided to take the e-reader for a test drive.

“All right,” I said aloud to my cat, “let’s see what this thing can do.” 

My first reaction came from the English teacher in me—e-books give me hope for a rekindled love for the classics.  As I searched Amazon’s online bookstore I found that many classics are available as digital downloads for free or a nominal fee.  Bram Stoker’s Dracula was free.  So was Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.  I purchased the complete works of Charles Dickens for $2.  And maybe e-book classics would seem more palatable to readers turned off by brick-sized 19th century tomes.  War and Peace anyone? 

I was surprised at how quickly I acclimated to downloading digital books, especially since I had never had any sense of emergency with buying books in the past.  In fact, I’ve never even been one to buy hardcovers.  The cost can be off-putting to someone living on a teacher’s salary, and in my entire life I’ve bought exactly three hardcovers.  A book by a favorite author is on the New York Times bestseller list?  Great.  I’ll read it in about a year.  There are plenty of paperbacks, and always the classics to turn back to, to keep me going until then.  But after I received my Kindle I noticed that as books began catching my attention I was able to purchase them instantly—and cheaply.  For example, I saw Louise Erdrich on Bill Moyers Journal talking about her novel The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.  Fascinated by Erdrich’s description of the story of a woman who disguises herself as a man, Father Damian, to live among the Ojibwe on the remote reservation Little No Horse, I pulled out my Kindle and downloaded the book.  By that night, I read half the story and found a new favorite author.  I’ve since downloaded two more of her novels.  I downloaded Committed while watching Elizabeth Gilbert on Oprah, and I already knew I loved her writing from reading her inspiring Eat, Pray, Love (coming in August to a theater near you).  I might not have bought those books otherwise.  Sometimes I’d think of a book I had heard of when I was browsing in Barnes and Noble or searching the Internet, but more often than not I’d forget the title, or the author, or the author and the title and even the television show I had seen it on so I couldn’t look it up even if I wanted to.  Then I couldn’t remember why the book seemed interesting to me in the first place.  Obviously, I would not be buying that book any time soon, or ever. 

The simple truth is, I read more than I did before I had a Kindle.  I’ve always been a reader, but in the past reading was relegated to an hour or two before bed.  I have an injured neck, and even a slim paperback can get heavy when carried in a shoulder bag, so my books were always left at home.  My e-reader is light enough to carry all day, so whatever I’m reading is always with me.  I am even enough of a bookie that I’ve bought paperback copies of books I originally downloaded onto my Kindle, and I’ve bought digital versions of some of my favorites so I’d have them at hand wherever I was.  Because of Kindle I have bought several books twice, and that never happened before.  I even buy hardcovers now.  Not that you can tell it’s a hardcover when it’s a digital book.  But still.  There are also recently published books available for download for free, which publishers might not love, but downloading a book because it was free has introduced me to authors I might not have read otherwise.  An interesting book does not seem as interesting when you have to pay for it.  Then, if I liked what I read, I would purchase, as in pay money for, another book or two from that author. 

Which brings me to my final point.  I read an article in The New Yorker about how publishers and Amazon are at odds over e-book pricing.  Amazon wants to set a price of $9.99 or less for digital books.  Publishers are a little friendlier towards Apple because Apple is willing to charge more.  A clear-cut answer about the ultimate price of an e-book is hard to define.  As a consumer, I appreciate buying books instantly and cheaply over my Kindle.  As a writer, I understand publishers wanting to charge as much as they can for their product.  The reality is that digital media is here to stay; it has even won over a long-time bookie like me.  Every day more people are turning to e-readers, and the publishing industry will need to make peace with the new technology the way the music industry did when iPods and mp3 players became popular.  I’ve been downloading digital music onto my iPod for years.  Why not digital books onto a Kindle?  Or an iPad?  Or a Nook?  Or whatever? 

I can’t promise that other bookies will love e-readers as much as I love mine.  For those who say that e-books will never replace real books, they’re right.  E-books are wonderful for other reasons.  They serve a different purpose.  You don’t need to give up real books to enjoy the portability and instant downloads of an e-reader.  My house will always be decorated with books, the kind with colorful covers and titles on the spines.   In the end, it might not matter whether we read from books or e-readers.  What matters are the words on the page and the worlds they create.

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