Me and my Kindle

She wanted love, but must settle for just being friends

Bookworm is too mild a term to describe me. Long before I became SN&R’s book wrangler, I’ve been reading—and accumulating—books. At home, we made a rule: For every book that comes in, at least one must go out. It’s either that or ask the landlord to reinforce the floors.

So you, my new Kindle, seemed like a great idea. I don’t want to see the entire planet deforested, and adore the instant gratification of Google and Project Gutenberg. The idea of replacing some of my books and magazines with electronic versions is appealing. So when my wife brought you home to me, I was overjoyed. I transferred a few of my subscriptions to you and started buying books (at a much cheaper price than new print copies, I might add). I made a resolution that this year, I would read the classics, since so many of them are free downloads for you.

Five months later, I must confess: I really want to love you, Kindle, but I don’t. I only like you, in that awful, “It’s not you, it’s me” way. I’m sorry, but it’s not working out like I’d hoped.

Dear Kindle: Can we just be friends?

The problem isn’t my middle-aged eyes. You’ve got that electronic ink that’s surprisingly easy to read, and, like my computer screen, I can adjust your text size upward as the day advances and my eyes become more fatigued. There are some weird little glitches in your editions of some books—it’s apparent that some were scanned in rather than re-edited because of the weird way that “and” becomes “ard” throughout—but I’m used to reading first-year compositions, freelancers’ rough drafts and Internet fan fiction. Typos? No problem.

But photos? Forget it. They don’t look very good. That was one of the reasons I dropped my New York Times subscription and went back to the print version. And selection? I read a lot of poetry, and unless I want the Romantics or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—not bloody likely—I’m out of luck. No Kindle editions of W.H. Auden or Robert Lowell, no Elizabeth Bishop or Anne Sexton. I can get books about them, but not their work. Living poets have one or two volumes available—if that—and, as I found out when reading Calvin Trillin’s poetry in the Kindle version of The Nation, line breaks don’t always go the way they ought.

Yes, Kindle, it seems I’m quite fussy when it comes to my poems. And books.

Truth is, for me, reading is a sensory experience. The reason I can go home in the evening and open up a book to relax—after having spent the entire day at a computer screen, well, reading—is because there’s a difference between what comes at me on a screen and what I take in from a book. And yes, the way I structured that sentence was deliberate.

From the whisper of a fine-art volume to the crinkle of a paperback’s stiff pages to the rattle of a newspaper, reading is a sensory act. Books feel different to the touch. I tried a colleague’s iPad and another e-reader that also mimics the “page turning” quality of books. Neither does it justice. It’s not just you, Kindle; it’s your entire species.

There’s also the texture of the paper, the edges of the pages, the quality of the cover, the typeface chosen for the work … oh, it’s a lot of things. A weighty tome—Ulysses, or, if you’d prefer, The Stand—actually has, uh, weight.

Then there’s the smell. I’ve got a number of books I return to year after year—favorites from childhood (I always read Beautiful Joe when I’m sick) or my Riverside Chaucer—and each of them has a distinctive smell. They take up space, alter how I sit in my chair depending on the heft of the book and require that I make adjustments to my reading lamp.

You, Kindle? With you, it’s the same every time, for every book.

You’ve got some features I like: Making my own notes and saving them is wonderful, as is being able to save clippings from newspapers and magazines. I can’t bear to write in books and so I use Post-it notes—still killing trees. I also love being able to archive back issues of magazines and newspapers without fear of creating mice habitats on my shelves.

But footnotes? They’re a nightmare on you, Kindle. I am a footnote reader; that’s how I evaluate the expertise and authority of the writer. With a book, I use two bookmarks—one in the text and one in the footnotes—and shuffle between the two. With you, I have to page up and then back in a system that doesn’t use page numbers (instead, you tell me what “percent” of the book I’ve read). There’s probably some quick shortcut for this that I’ll discover when I’ve thoroughly studied the new version of your user’s guide (recently downloaded to you automatically).

But I’ve never needed an instruction manual to read a book.

Kindle, our relationship will need boundaries in order to work. You’re great in waiting rooms and airports, and you make some magazines a whiz. You’re OK for science fiction, too. I know you’re the first wave of the future, and I’m sure that, before I shuffle off this mortal coil, there will many, many improvements in electronic-reader technology.

Until then, Kindle, you’re for brain candy and magazines. The books stay put.