Change, Literacy, and Electronics

I have a confession: over the weekend, I bought a Kindle … and I love it! I have long held the belief that e-readers and e-books will be the death of literacy or at the very least, the death of the art and beauty of the printed word. To some effect, I still maintain this belief for the wider world. Illiteracy is on the rise in America, and its condition will worsen as both K-12 and higher education budgets are slashed and red flags remain waving. Illiteracy certainly won’t be helped by one of the nation’s most popular bookstores, Borders, shutting its doors last year.

The once great bookstore is selling everything at a discounted rate, and stores across America are closing. This means no more Sunday trips to wander the store sipping on a Seattle’s Best coffee, no more comfy chair reading the first chapters of books before they are bought, no more running to the store at night to buy a book for school, no more last-second gift buying, and no more community of readers wandering the aisles as if in a secular cathedral. Welcome to the new America, and welcome the illiterate generation. How in the world could we reach the point where bookstores are now shutting their doors and trying to sell anything for a chance to make a buck? … The first reason for this devastating news has to do with an ever changing culture. We really do not value imagination anymore. No one is setting out to write the great American novel. Where are our Steinbecks, Fitzgeralds and Hemingways? They have been replaced by YouTube filmmakers, World Wide Web bloggers and Twittering twits. – Paul Moomjean, The illiterate generation

The choice to buy a Kindle was not an easy one for me, but it was an obvious one. My wrestling first began on Christmas morning. My parents are very techie. They have all kinds of gizmos and gadgets, but I was nonetheless perplexed when my mother unwrapped a shiny, new Kindle Fire from my father (who owns what I see as its competitor, the iPad). I was surprised because although my parents are techies, they are also avid book lovers. Sitting in the living room on Christmas, we were surrounded by hundreds of books, with hundreds more still throughout their home’s bedrooms.

I grew up with a love for books, something instilled in me by both my parents. When my father was a young man, he would place beautiful labels in his books that stated that said book belonged to (a blank space where my father carefully signed his name). My mother was a theology graduate student, so you can imagine how many books she had in her personal collection – and books of such rich and complex content. As a child, I had my fair share of books as well (all of which my family has faithfully kept in storage), and my more recent collegiate-age collections are collecting dust in my old bedroom, as my new married home couldn’t spatially support so many volumes. It was a terrible thing to decide which books to part with when I married. I am an academic, and like my mother, I buy books with the intent of using them for life. The natural choices for me were any books pertaining to the 17th century – any part of it, geographically or otherwise. Books that also made the journey to their new home were my art history books about theory, any and all Italian and Spanish art related books, my Harry Potter hardcovers, and, of course, my Caravaggio book collection. These are books that I would never want to own or read in digital format. My copy of Caravaggio’s Secrets by Dutoit & Bersani has both dried teardrops of frustration and epiphany, hurriedly scribbled notes, bent page corners, and floppy pages from the time I threw the book on the floor in a 2 AM fury when nothing the authors were saying made any sense. I later picked the book up and held it lovingly, feeling as if I had kicked a puppy. My books are precious to me.

Kindle Fire

When my mother passed around her Kindle Fire for us to examine, the first thing I noticed was how similar it was to the iPad. It has a graphic-intense touch interface and also has a library where the reader clicks on the cover of a book to read it. It opens up, and swipe or touch is used to turn the page. The Kindle Fire also has app capability, including the ability to play games. I had little interest in my mom’s Kindle at the time, apart from thinking that it was a nifty gadget and she would enjoy it. My iPhone (or, just another backlit screen to make my eyes slowly die) was enough for me, I thought. But, as my husband and I were going to leave, I had a revelation of sorts. I looked around and was met square in the face, anywhere I looked, with full bookshelves. I realized that if my parents or I ever move (and we will), we will share a similar problem: having to decide which books in our large collections to keep, boxing up those chosen books, finding strong men to carry those boxes, moving, and rebuilding and restocking our bookshelves. My bookshelves at home are full to the brim, and I hesitate to ask for books – especially art history books (which I enjoy receiving as gifts) – because my home simply don’t have room for them. I will be in more trouble if we move into a smaller apartment (ours is extremely, unusually, and luckilylarge). All these rapid-fire thoughts about books and space and weight led to a conclusion that I wasn’t too comfortable with initially, but knew that I had to embrace: I needed to invest in an E-Reader, not to keep up with the times, but to simply save space (and, as I’ve happily discovered in the past couple days, on book costs).

The pros of an E-Reader are obvious: they can support an enormous amount of books, they’re light and portable, and they’re relatively inexpensive. The cons were more unnerving: to me, E-Readers are a sign that the physical printed word, which I love so much, is most likely slowly dying. I can’t have nearly the same emotional and intellectual investment – indeed, interaction – with my Kindle books as I can with my physical books. I can’t cry onto my E-Reader and later, look back at that tear stain and fondly remember the moment of revelation or sadness that the text brought me. I can’t throw my Kindle down in frustration when I don’t understand part of my course readings. The other question that nagged at me as I was researching, was what if the E-Reader company went out of business – where would I buy my E-Books? Indeed, after reading this article in today’s Wall Street Journal, I realized that such a concern wasn’t silly at all and that I made the safe choice choosing Amazon. The biggest con was that some of my favorite art history scholars and publishers don’t offer books in digital format. After all, one of the major purposes of having an E-Reader was to save space by having art historical and other academic texts in my new small device.

B&N Nook Simple Touch

My New Years Resolution is to read more, so Monday seemed like an obvious choice to begin exploring this uncharted territory. I researched diligently for most of the day on Monday and found out some surprising information that I hope will be helpful. I initially had my heart set on the B&N Nook. I watched a 45-minute demonstration of the Nook one day in Barnes & Noble about a year ago, and I was impressed by the technology but sickened by the concept, so I ignored it. A year later, the Nook still struck a chord with me as the most elegant, stylish, ergonomically-friendly E-Reader. Sure enough, most reviews agreed with that. I’d physically held and tested the Nook so I knew more or less what to expect after I ordered it, but I had no idea what the Kindle looked like or felt like in person and that was a large part of why I was ambivalent toward buying it. I was further put off by the Kindle because ads drive me nuts (if I can help it, you’ll never see ads on Caravaggista!) and it’s a whopping $40 to “unsubscribe” from the ads, which appear on the Kindle’s screensaver and at the bottom of the home screen. I was more partial to the Nook’s visual arrangement of the library and the fonts it uses. The Nook’s reading font customization options are wonderful and numerous. In contrast, the Kindle Touch, while a step up for Amazon, didn’t seem to put much effort into taking advantage of the touch interface by creating a visual library or playing with fonts on its home screen or reading screen. It would turn out that all these features that I was debating were fraught over for nothing.

Kindle Touch

I played tug-of-war with the Nook and Kindle until I did a quick price comparison for their art history books. Amazon offers more specialized art history books for Kindle. B&N also maintains an impressive collection of art history books. However, when I compared prices between these two sellers, my jaw hit the floor. For the types of books I want, B&N is twice – sometimes three times – more expensive than Amazon. To give an example, James Elkins’ Pictures & Tears is listed at about $40 for the Nook, and $16 for the Kindle! I wondered what James Elkins himself would think of the price difference – he, who happily has his work online for academics and intellectuals to read or sample at no cost. For all its elegant display and fancy cases, the Nook lost my puppy love in an instant when I saw that its prices were so high.

Having been thinking about the Kindle all day, I wanted it in the palm of my hands immediately. I had read that it was available in some stores, but I didn’t know what stores. I planned on sucking it up and waiting two days for it to come in the mail … until my husband and I realized that Kindles are sold at Target. We drove to a Target not far from us, and I was excited because their website said the Kindle Touch was in stock. I’m sure you’ve guessed it – it wasn’t. We drove miles up the street to another Target and by this time, since we had impulsively put our dinner on hold so I could feed my new obsession, we were hungry and tired from chasing this wild goose. We (or rather, I) half-walked, half-ran to the electronics section to get a Kindle of my very own, and they had it, and we bought it, and … it was one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. The books are so cheap and physically non-existant that I don’t feel guilty buying them (I’ve just bought a novel so far, but downloaded a variety of free books).

I’ve decided that although I have concerns about what E-Readers mean for the wider general future of literacy, my Kindle isn’t indicative of a slow literacy death in me. My Kindle is terrible for reading PDFs of academic journals and books with extensive footnotes. It doesn’t offer (and I wouldn’t want) certain must-have books in digital format, such as works by Philip Sohm and David M. Stone. And because of this, challenging my mind through what I read in itself becomes more of a challenge, more of something to look forward to. I can hope that one day, academic publishers will do a good job of publishing their books simultaneously in print and digital format, allowing academics and students to read, highlight, and mark up those books, footnotes, and academic journals with ease. Until then, I am content to have a love of physical books for all their beauty, the way they feel in my hand, and the way I can interact with them, and a separate love for the smallness and ease of my new device.

How do you feel about E-Readers?