Adjusting to the new – scroll vs codex

Will my friends still like me if I admit I really like this?

Will my bookish friends pillory me if I admit I really like the Kindle?

Now that the Kindle has finally been released in Canada, people there are chewing over what it might mean to them, and to publishing.  Ian Brown is not convinced it’s a good thing and says so in the Globe and Mail. Others are excited about the new technology, in the way many people are with shiny new toys.  Some friends have told me they fear it will be the end of publishing, and of books in general. Most people talk about the unsatisfying experience of snuggling up in bed with a piece of white plastic (no raunchy jokes, please!), or how they could never give up the tactile pleasure of paper books. Some lament the impending disappearance of book-lined rooms and the wonderful pleasure of merging your library with that of your beloved when you first move in together.

Since I live in the US, I’ve had more time to get to know this odd new kid on the block.  At first, I was wary.  I am a dedicated bibliophile, as is evidenced by the piles of books overtaking my house.  In fact, when we first moved into this house five years ago, I had — for the first time in my life — a real library with so many shelves I didn’t see how I would ever run out of space.  A year later I had run out of space.  Books now cover chairs and tables in every room, shelves are stuffed with books on top of books, and although I am not quite in hoarder territory, I now understand how such things happen.

George Butcher in his book-bulged Montreal home.  I'm not quite this bad....yet...

George Butcher in his book-bulged Montreal home. I'm not quite this bad....yet...

Initially, the idea of the Kindle struck me as sterile, ersatz, unsatisfactory.  Where was that dusty-tome scent I loved so much?  The feel of high-quality paper, perhaps with rough-cut edges, the leather binding of an old volume, the satisfying heft of a hard-cover?  And then, one day, I was in a cafe and a woman next to me was reading on a Kindle while sipping her coffee.  Timidly, I asked her how she liked it.  She said she loved it and held it out for me to try.  Well. The screen was easy to read.  Really easy to read.  It was lightweight. Not a book, exactly, but there on the screen were the same words and sentences I have always loved. And it contained HOW many books?  Good heavens.  I thought of the extra suitcase of books I’d lugged to Newfoundland with me on my last vacation.  Hmm….

And so, for my birthday last September, My Best Beloved bought me a Kindle.  The first book I downloaded way Albert Manguel’s wonderful The Library at Night, and no, the irony is not lost on me.

I admit I felt a bit as though I was doing something naughty; as if I was, somehow, joining the other team so to speak.  But the truth is I really like this thing.

The Kindle has many benefits, not the least of which is how many books it stores.  I recently went off on a four-day trip and carried one book, which I needed for research purposes and already had on my shelf, and my Kindle, which contained four books I either wanted to read or needed for more research.  Lovely. Speed of delivery is another.  Once I order a book it’s on my reader in seconds. The Kindle permits me to make notes in the text, to highlight passages, to search for phrases or words, and to bookmark.  All useful things.

It’s not perfect yet. Color would be nice, so covers and illustrations appear properly, for example — especially important in a book like Manguel’s.  I’d like a way to be able to organize my digital library by subject matter, and not merely author, title or date downloaded. But I suspect these, and other features, will come along as the thing improves. The biggest problem at this point seems to be that I’m now downloading FAR too many books.

At first I thought the medium was best suited to non-fiction, since the chilly white plastic and display screen didn’t have the ‘romance’ of real books.  However, I must confess: after several months of using the Kindle, I’m now reading fiction on it with no discernible drop in reading pleasure.  The adjustment period, it seems, is pretty much over.  And I bought a leather cover to fool myself.  It doesn’t, but it does protect the screen when I toss it in my purse.

The recent recall of Orwell’s works did the Kindle’s reputation no favors, although the New York Times reports:

Amazon spokesman, Drew Herdener, said in an e-mail message that the books were added to the Kindle store by a company that did not have rights to them, using a self-service function. “When we were notified of this by the rights holder, we removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers’ devices, and refunded customers,” he said.

Amazon effectively acknowledged that the deletions were a bad idea. “We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances,” Mr. Herdener said.

The glitches of a new technology. I think they’ll sort all this out.

Some people fear the Kindle will be the death of publishing, but I don’t quite follow this logic.  I actually think it will HELP the troubled industry.  Most of the expense of being a publishing is in producing books, storing books, and shipping books.  Much of that will be done away with if books went digital.  Think of all the trees that will no longer be sacrificed at the altar of the next Dan Brown installment.  That alone may be worth the effort.  I can’t help but wonder whether, if it is less expensive for publishers to produce reading material, if they might not take a few more risks?  Perhaps they’ll publish more experimental fiction, more literary fiction, publish more emerging writers, all of which have suffered terribly in the past few years when publishers want only to publish what they consider sure-thing-bestsellers.

Of course, this isn’t going to do my favorite independent bookstore any favors.  I do realize that.  But I also recognize the future is coming at us whether we like it or not. Then again, if the digital book is cheaper, maybe people will buy more, read more?  It’s possible.  Over the years I’ve bought probably thousands of books I’ll never read again.  They either clutter up my house or else they end up in second-hand books sales at the church.  Fair enough, I suppose.  But now I find I am willing to buy a digital book, even if I’m not sure of it’s lasting value… and then, when I find a book I ADORE I buy it again… this time in a hard copy to put on my shelf.

It’s all still shaking out… the world is an ever-changing place, after all, and things, even those we love, have their seasons.  My twenty-year old friends have much less emotional attachment to the physicality of books than I do.  They are more attracted to the ideas, the narratives, the characters, the created worlds and experiences of books than their tangibility. They – the future readers – will not adapt to my preferences.  My mother won’t get a telephone answering service, let alone a computer.  I don’t what to be my generation’s equivalent.

The other night, in a writing class I was teaching, I remarked that I quite liked the Kindle.  We talked about how younger people don’t read books hardly at all…they want everything on their iPhone or other such device.  We wondered how new technologies will chance what people chose to read?  We wondered what it will mean to the relationship between authors and publishers.  If the publishers have lower overhead, maybe they’ll take a rise on more emerging writers?  Maybe they’ll pay higher advances?

One of my students, said, “You know what you’re saying, don’t you?  You’re saying, ‘My, this scroll was certainly very pleasing, but I’m rather liking this whole codex thing.'”  I did laugh, but I think he’s right.

Thanks to Tom B for reminding me of this wonderful video… oh, those wacky Norwegians:


  1. Donna Wyatt on November 26, 2009 at 12:59 am

    Dear Lauren,

    I have enjoyed reading your website. Thank-you for sending it to us.
    I was very interested in your opinion of Kindle. We are just packing to go to Texas and one large bag is full of books for winter reading.
    Regards, Donna

  2. Vivian De Winter on November 30, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    I was against the e-readers at first, but now, like you, I am beginning to wonder if more people will begin to read because of it. Also with the cost going down, it should also provide an opportunity for publishers to take on new talent. Like any business, if the investment cost is lowered, the risk to introduce new products is an easier pill to swallow. I think the concern lies with the illegal copies that might possibly get circulated, as has happened with music and movies. Time will almost always tell.

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