Freedom For Readers: What’s Your Device Of Choice?

4 min read

I read a printed book this weekend. An entire hardcover printed book. An actual, honest-to-god, made-from-trees book.

It’s been a while.

The book was Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, most of which I devoured in two days. I was sent the book so I’d participate in the Salon Reading Club. Great deal–free best-selling novel so I can chat about it online. The truth is, I’d have purchased the book, anyway.

But I’d almost certainly have purchased it for the Kindle.

For the last year and a half, I’ve owned a Kindle. I was skeptical at first. I’ve never been slow to adopt new technologies, but I’ve never been a bleeding-edge early adopter, either. And since I was dealing with something as iconic in my life as books–I am, after all, a writer–I was none too certain about giving them up. I loved books. Loved holding them in my hands, balancing them on my lap. Loved the smell of the paper, the feel of the rough pages under my finger.

Now I love the Kindle.

The Kindle is lightweight–far lighter than a hardback book. It’s easy to read; if I’ve forgotten my glasses, I can change the size of the type. If I have twenty minutes at lunchtime and I’ve forgotten my book, I can read it on my iPhone–and sync it with my Kindle so I don’t lose my place. I can highlight any word I don’t know and get a dictionary definition. I can also search for and buy a new book inside a couple of minutes. And if I’m traveling, I can load everything I want to read into this slim little device, which means I lighten my carry-on bag by about fifteen pounds.

(I’ve also used the iPad to read, and I think it’s an intriguing device. Right now, I think it’s too heavy to be comfortable, but that–and/or my attitude–may change.)

I’ve come to realize that what’s most important to me about books is what’s inside them. The characters, the ideas, the beautiful ways certain authors can turn a phrase–these things are no more powerful on physical pages made of paper than they are rendered in digital ink on an electronic reading device. You could even make an argument that there’s nothing sacred about the act of reading. The characters in Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 preserved books by memorizing the texts. Lots of people enjoy audiobooks. I happen to be a visual learner, and it’s not the same for me.

I think lots of us fetishize books. We cling to them as objects we want in our homes, physical things that give us a sort of power. We stack them on shelves to show off our good taste.

I’ve always treated CDs the same way. I almost never download music. I’ve told myself it was because I wanted the object–the visual experience, the credits and liner notes–to go with the music. This is, in part, true. But it would be more accurate to say that I love Luna Music, and that I buy CDs rather than download songs because I love going there. The songs are the same. I listen to them the same way; in fact, once I load a CD into my computer, I almost never handle the disc again. It would be less expensive and less time-consuming to download music. But I love the community of talking about and browsing through and buying music at Luna.

I also don’t read the print version of the newspaper. I read the stories I want to read online. I don’t miss getting ink stains on my fingers. I don’t bother much with printed magazines, either.

And I understand that one of the consequences of the death of newspapers is that journalists and journalism have suffered mightily. But this is a consequence of the open nature of the intertubes, and doesn’t have anything to do with whether we’re actually consuming news digitally or on paper. It’s about access, not about the medium.

The book publishing industry has suffered, too. But publishers were already not doing a great job of serving authors. For decades, they’ve been spending all their money developing and promoting a handful of “big books” like Freedom, while midlist authors have had to fund their own marketing efforts and otherwise fend for themselves. Who’s to say that, in our new electronic age, self-publishing isn’t the better route? The old arguments about distribution don’t hold water anymore; you don’t need to have your book in bookstores across the nation to generate a lot of sales. If I have to market myself, anyway, I might as well make more money on every book I sell.

It was nice, reading an old-timey book. It was nice to feel its weight, to be able to eyeball how much I had left to read. It’s a beautiful object that will look nice on my bookshelf for years to come.

But now that I’ve finished it, I’m gonna go back to my Kindle. In a few weeks, I’m gonna load it with titles and stick in in my jacket pocket and go on vacation and not have to lug around a bunch of beautiful bricks. Now, that’s freedom.