After something of a hiatus (for lack of interesting thoughts in my brain, perhaps), I bring the following ubiquitous discussion to the table.
I just stumbled upon this New York Times blog and I did a little jig. A black mark against the Kindle feels like a point for the good guys. Working for a struggling publishing company only aggravates my feeling, which was already pretty strong, that the Kindle is a sad fact of global digitalization. It’s not simply a matter of preference: I don’t like reading on a screen, even a non-luminescent one; I like the feel of pages; I like to write in the margins, underline, and so on; I love the smell of books, especially old ones; and I like looking at books lined up on shelves. Fine, so I won’t buy a Kindle. But it’s still sad because every Kindle means countless thousands of books that won’t be bought, read, and resold for me to buy used at shops, library sales, et cetera.
Kindles, and Amazon in general, mean the death of bookstores. In the last year or so one of my favorite small shops in Rochester, Brown Bag Bookshop, closed when its owner moved and couldn’t find a buyer. Now my family is dismayed at the imminent closing (if it hasn’t already while I’ve been away) of the Borders in Henrietta where I actually read the entirety of the second and third Harry Potter books when I was 12.
The increasing paperlessness of the world’s systems is great. Paper file archives take up ridiculous amounts of space and take excessive time and energy to search. I know firsthand because I’ve done my share of filing at New Directions. Manual filing is dreadful work. But the New Directions files–the publicity files especially–are a goldmine of beautiful artifacts: old correspondence, crumbling newspaper clippings, grainy black-and-white photographs. New Directions is too underfunded to update their filing technology any time soon. But think about the choice between efficiency and aesthetic value: efficiency is our prerogative. So is the appreciation of minor tragedy. I’d be sad to see the artifacts go, but I’d probably be glad to switch to a database of scanned-in crumbling paper clippings.
Here’s a similar example. My mother is constantly remarking at how times have changed: in her day, at my age, keeping in touch with distant friends and relatives took time, care, the dedication to write and respond to letters. Now we have Facebook, which updates us the instant our cousins in Wisconsin tie their shoes. I have lengthy email correspondences with friends, many of whom have been around the world and back in the last year. The other day, I visited Andy Bragen, the playwright of The Hairy Dutchman, and he told me about his stack of letters the size of an encyclopedia. He asked me if I save my old emails. I only save some, and usually end up deleting them unless they’re really special. Also, I’ve changed email addresses more than once, so I don’t have any of the oldest ones. I envied Andy’s record of many years of relationships. And yet, I know I don’t have the patience to actually write snail-mail. Partly because I know most people wouldn’t have the patience to respond in kind.
So: books leave paper for screens, as do files, as do letters. It feels wrong to libel the first while openly admitting my celebration of the latter two (albiet with a dose of tragic sentimentality). Am I a hypocrite?