A book in the hand…

20 April 2011
Categories: From the armchair

I will never own a Kindle.

Nor any of the other electronic readers on the market, of which the Kindle seems to be the most popular (and is definitely the best named) option. Even though it’s all too easy to use its name generically—like Kleenex or Band-aid—I’ll refrain and stick to “reader” for the remainder of this post.

Too many arguments against readers are aesthetic: they’re flat-out hard to read, or sunshine causes screen glare, or they lack the feel of a real book in your hands.

Whatever. Those arguments are all too easily dismissed as the carping of Luddites. “I cannot manoeuvre this horseless carriage with its newfangled round steering wheel. Give me the tiller of my flivver any day!”

I’m all for new gadgets, new ways of receiving information. I read enough on a computer screen, day in day out, that it’s much more habitual to me than, say, paging through a newspaper. And there is a lot of stuff out there that is out of print, and hard to find, but which has been digitized and placed online, and that’s a Very Good Thing. So there’s nothing inherently wrong with a reader, at least in principle, as a medium for the printed word.

But here’s why I will not purchase a reader.

A few weeks ago, I got onto an Apollo kick, spurred in part by my recent reading of Moondust by Andrew Smith. I wanted to re-watch the brilliant HBO series From the Earth to the Moon under the contrary-to-popular-opinion mindset, proposed by Smith, that President Kennedy’s famous challenge “killed ‘manned’ Deep-Space exploration, stone dead, for at least the next four decades and probably many more.” At the same time, I decided to re-read the primary source for the HBO series, Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon.

coverAs I pulled Chaikin’s book from my shelf, I noted my handwritten imprimatur on the flyleaf, which stated that I bought the book in December 1994. I’ve read this book all the way through a few times since then, and used its appendices as a reference many, many times more. I have certainly gotten my money’s worth (a $15.95 cover price) from this book.

Then I thought about that time span. In the sixteen-plus years since I bought that book, how many times have I replaced my desktop computer, my laptop, or their operating systems? A very rough estimate: 7. Technology changes, hardware obsolesces.

If I had a reader, and bought this (or any) book today… how easy would it be, sixteen years from now, to read that book again or even pick it up for a quick fact-check? Would my old reader still work? Would I still have it? Would I be able to load that old digital file into my current reader? How long would it take to find the file, much less upload it? By the time all that was done, would I still care about the fact I was attempting to check, or would I have already resorted to Googling the darn thing and hoping to find an accurate answer elsewhere?

Or—might I have to buy the book all over again?

Instead, I walk into the room that doubles as my home office and library, pull the book off the shelf—it’s right there, easily found under the “C”s—and get the answer I need following a quick riffle through the pages. No waiting for an upload to finish, nor any need to reboot.

In short, it’s all about time—both mine, and the book’s. I’ve spent enough time in my life waiting for computers to do what I’ve asked them to do, that I’m no longer willing to wait for them; besides, a real book never needs a reboot. And while with just a modicum of care a real book will last well beyond my lifetime, I’m skeptical that an e-book will last even long enough for me to get around to reading it a second time.

But yes, sure, I have less tangible reasons as well for liking this book in its old-fashioned, physical form—and moreover, personal ones.

On a wintry day in December 1994, I’m reading this book for the first time, sitting in the fondly remembered Bagel–Fragel deli. In walks one of my bosses, Professor Brian Silver, chair of the political science department. He says hi, and asks what I’m reading. I show him the cover.

He snatches the book out of my hands and starts flipping quickly through the pages. What’s he up to? I wonder. He’s paging through too quickly to read anything, he’s not trying to get the gist of the book. It’s almost like he’s seen it before…

He gets to one of the photo pages between pages 430 and 431, stabs his finger at the top photo, and hands the open book back to me. “That’s my uncle,” he says, with a hint of pride.

I look at the photo, read its caption: Standing on a mountaintop in Colorado amid the primary and backup crews of Apollo 15 is Professor Lee Silver, Cal Tech geologist extraordinaire, the man most responsible for turning a bunch of type-A fighter jocks into able field geologists. (He was portrayed with delightful, eccentric earnestness by David Clennon in From the Earth to the Moon, one of the standout roles in the series.) His nephew’s familial pride is well-earned.

I remember that moment so distinctly because it was the first time in my life that I’d had an inkling of my own connection, albeit tertiary, to some of my biggest heroes—the men who walked on the moon. All at once they were real people, not just faceless spacesuited gnomes humping around a lumpy grey lunar landscape in old NASA footage, nor smiling, aviator-glasses-wearing, crew-cut-sporting military men in grainy photo reprints in a book. And I knew someone who knew someone who knew them.

And that moment, that spark of recognition that everyone in the world is interconnected in some way, is tied to this book, this particular copy of this book, the one I hold in my hands now.

Could an electronic reader ever be able to duplicate that?

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