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Kindle at the Cleaners

Joseph Epstein, by the book

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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The other day I asked my five-years-younger-than-I brother—the wit in our family—if he had taken to using a Kindle. “My Kindle,” he said, “is at the cleaners.” I’m not sure why I found that funny, but I did, and still do, and take it that he means he would never think of using this new aid to reading with which so many people are so very pleased. 

Cartoon of a kindle at the cleaners

Michael Sloan

If I owned a Kindle, I, too, would take it to the cleaners but never bother to pick it up. I’m sure that this miraculous new device has lots to be said for it in the realm of convenience (many books can be stored in it at once) and ease of handling (it’s much lighter than most hardcover books), but electronically is not the way I prefer to read books. 

Some of my own books are available on Kindle, though I have never attempted to glimpse them in digital form. Years ago I had a few books on tape and thought what a pleasing snack it might be to my XXL ego to drive around town listening to my own scribblings being read aloud by an out-of-work actor. I listened to one for about three minutes and couldn’t bear it, so different were the actor’s reading rhythms from those I heard when writing the words he was now, so to say, misspeaking. 

I doubt that I would fare any better reading myself on Kindle. I wonder if I am alone in finding digital printing an invitation to skim. When I have a book or magazine in hand, I generally read every word, attentive not alone to meaning but to style. In digital form, prose has a different feel; style gives way to mere communication. If I discover an essay or article on, say, that runs to more than 25 paragraphs, by the fifteenth paragraph or so I feel a tug of impatience I rarely feel with printed prose. The idea of reading serious poetry online doesn’t even qualify as an abomination. 

The bias of ebooks, at least for now, is toward bestsellers, contemporary books, and standard classics. Most of the books I read are old, many of them out of the mainstream. At the moment I happen to be reading Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table and Emmanuel Ringelblum’s Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto. I haven’t checked, but I suspect both are unkindled, or unkindleable. 

I read books with a pencil in hand and a few small pieces of paper, on which I make occasional notes, for a bookmark. I make light markings—sidelining, it’s called—alongside what I think significant passages. None of this can be done on a Kindle. I keep books in my bathroom, others on my night table. I like the look of books, the heft of them in my hands, their different sizes and various fonts and dust jackets, the smell of them. 

Mine is a neighborhood with a small number of excellent used-book stores, which the Kindle, should its use continue to spread, will eventually help put out of business. The supermarket bookstores, in a similar way, helped put the independent booksellers out of business; and now the online booksellers are putting the supermarket bookstores out of business. Thus do big fish swallow smaller ones, until in the end one large fish—let us call it—will remain. Sometimes, as Adam Smith failed to point out, the invisible hand of the market has jagged and dirty fingernails. 

If more and more books are sold online and read on Kindles, Nooks, and other such devices, a serious source of education will be obliterated. My friend Edward Shils once set out the four main forms of education in the modern world: the classroom, the intelligent conversation of friends, serious magazines and journals, and new and used book shops. In my education, the latter two—magazines and journals, new and used book shops—have been more important than the others.

In bookstores, especially used-book stores, one discovers books and writers one never knew existed in a way one can’t on a Kindle. One day in a dingy local bookstore, I found a book called Rome and Pompeii: Archeological Rambles by a writer named Gaston Boissier, a nineteenth-century French classicist. Opening it, I came upon the following sentence about Horace: “He desired retirement with a passion which cannot but surprise us in a sage who professed to wish for nothing with too much ardor.” This sentence sold me on the book, which I bought straightaway. I have gone on to read other of Gaston Boissier’s books, always with pleasure and, I like to think, intellectual profit. Such discoveries through sampling aren’t likely to be made digitally. 

The cheerful choreography of progress proceeds: one step forward, two steps back. “Get thy Kindle,” as a latterday Hamlet might have said to Ophelia, “to the cleaners.”

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