Grok article: “The Trouble With Kindle”, July 2011

This is an article I wrote for Curtin University’s student magazine, Grok.

Things are looking bad for books. With REDgroup going bankrupt, leading to the closure of dozens of bookstores around Australia, it seems that the traditional book is plummeting towards obsolescence. Though the killing blow has yet to be dealt, it seems inevitable that all bookseller chains, independent bookshops and book exchanges must soon go the way of Angus & Robertson. The demise of the traditional book has been a long time coming, but the final nail in its papery coffin has to be the invention of electronic book readers. Most especially, Kindle.

Kindle is to reading, as David Tennant is to the Doctor Who franchise. Kindle took what ordinary books had been doing for ages, and did it BETTER. And even though there have been other e-readers since, Kindle is still the one that people remember. So what is the big whoop? People say, “Why not just read off your computer, it’s basically the same thing, right?” NO. The Kindle uses electronic ink, which means that it looks just like printed ink. I’m not a techie, I don’t know all the terminology. I just know it’s a magic page that can erase itself and become any page out of ANY BOOK EVER. (Provided Amazon’s online store carries that book.) It’s MAGIC.

Now, I am not the most up-to-date person, technologically. I was made aware of this by the expression on a Dick Smith employee’s face when I asked him where I could find the “cassette tape section”. (He was like, “Uh, maybe in 1992?”) Also, the other day I had to consult a younger friend on whether it is “cool” to refer to Facebook as “Facey-B” (side note: it is not). At the age of twenty-four, it seems I am already slipping into the grey irrelevance of middle age. But I have one redeeming feature that makes me seem hip and trendy: I own a Kindle. And, by god, I love it.

There, I said it: I LOVE MY KINDLE. I – a Penguin-Classics-tote-bag-carrying English Lit major – LOVE MY ELECTRONIC READING GADGET. But it is a love that is tinged with bitterness. Every time I curl up in bed with my shiny Kindle, I feel like I’m cheating on paperbacks. I worry that I am single-handedly closing down another struggling bookseller. Every time I download another Nora Roberts, a Borders angel cries.

I don’t want to hurt bookshops; I adore bookshops. No matter how much I love the efficiency of sitting at home, thinking “I really want to read that book by that guy” and then downloading it moments later – no matter how convenient that is, it doesn’t replace the experience of wandering through the stacks of a bookshop. It doesn’t replace that feeling of weighing a thick novel in your hand, and thinking “I am going to devour all 1200 pages of this mofo, and it is going to be amazing”. Or cracking the spine of a new book. People didn’t line up to download the new Harry Potter. They wanted something they could touch, hold, maybe even cuddle at night (what?).

However, Kindle has an advantage that I did not anticipate: when you’re reading from a Kindle, no one can tell what you’re reading. You could sit on the train perusing some trash – like Justin Bieber’s unofficial biography, or amateur romance novels – without having to hide the cover behind your knees. Now I can sit in public and read 100% Bieber without a trace of self-consciousness. And if anybody asks what I’m reading, I can just flick over to James Joyce and be all smug and literary.

But herein lies my biggest problem with e-books: they make it harder to show off. If no one can see what you’re reading, it means they also can’t be impressed by how erudite and charmingly bookish you are. I mean, sure, sometimes I read books that have shirtless men on the cover, but I also read obscure Gothic novels from the nineteenth century. I’ve got literary cred, yo. But the anonymity of my Kindle effectively erases the possibility of having a “meet cute” with an attractive stranger in a cafe who stops to exclaim that he, too, is a fan of Hemingway. Nope, he’s going to walk right on by the girl with the Kindle, never suspecting that we were so perfect for each other. Instead, flaunting my Kindle in a cafe would probably only attract Mac zealots who want to evangelise about the iPad 2. My voracious reading habits had only one social advantage, and that was appearing intellectually superior to other people. With my Kindle, I haven’t even that. (At least this means I no longer have to read Murakami or Vonnegut – because what’s the point if no one sees you reading them?)

My Kindle is no good for showing off my reading prowess, but I love it all the same. I know I’m hurting books, but I can’t seem to stop myself. I am seeing my Kindle almost every night, and spending less and less time with my papery friends. Every now and again I go to a bookstore and buy a stack of books, in a fit of guilt. I tell books they’re the only ones for me; while I strayed, my heart was always theirs. But there, at the bottom of my tote bag, lies the Kindle …