Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Kindle

A father’s case for physical books

with 2 comments

The Book Table in Oak Park

Over the weekend, I brought my daughter Beatrix to her first bookstore, the Book Table in Oak Park, which is arguably the best independent bookshop in the Chicago area. I love it, first of all, because they keep plenty of my own novels in stock, but also because their selection is fascinating and thoughtfully curated. Every table is covered in modestly discounted copies of new releases, many of which I’d never seen before, with an emphasis on art, design, and books from speciality publishers like Taschen and NYRB Classics. I never leave without making a few wonderful discoveries—or at least adding some potential items to my holiday wish list—and I always emerge with a newfound appreciation of the social importance of independent bookstores. Jason, the owner, has been a good friend and supporter, and I was perfectly honest when I told him that I expect to bring Beatrix back for years to come.

Yet the visit also got me thinking about the role that books will play both in my daughter’s life and in the lives of other children the same age. Bookstores, as we all know, are disappearing across the country; so, too, are bookshelves in private homes, as readers increasingly begin to rely on devices like the Kindle. I’m not against electronic books in any way, and they’re clearly a great option for a lot of adult readers. But I think there’s a risk here. As I’ve said elsewhere, I owe much of my education and my love of reading to scrounging for books on my own parents’ bookshelves. These weren’t books that I was asked, or even permitted, to read; they were simply there, lined up alluringly, and it was only a matter of time before I was reading well over my head. Now, however, we’re looking at the prospect of a generation of children raised in the households of parents who may love reading, but lack an environment of physical books that kids can discover on their own. And I’m concerned about this.

The Amazon Kindle

I’ve spoken before about the end of browsing, in which astonishing online resources can give us instant access to the exact book we want, but aren’t nearly as good at giving us books we never knew we needed. For adults, recommendations and social networks go part of the way toward solving the problem, but they aren’t a perfect answer. Time and again, they tend to return to the same handful of established classics or recent books—nearly every reading thread on Reddit seems to center on Vonnegut, Infinite Jest, or House of Leaves—and they rarely find time for the neglected, the unfairly forgotten, or the out of print. It’s an even greater problem for children, who tend to be steered toward approved or required reading, and lack the resources to seek out other books on their own. The tricky thing about buying books for kids is that you never quite know when they’ll make the next big leap. Usually, it happens on its own. And the first step, at least for me, was rummaging unsupervised through an adult bookshelf.

In my case, I’m not too worried about Beatrix, who will inevitably grow up in a house crammed with books, and who has a father who will probably be delighted the first time he catches her reading George Orwell or Stephen King. But I’m still of the mind that the decline of printed books in many homes has consequences that can’t be entirely addressed by reading aloud or stocking the house with books for kids. A Kindle is a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t evoke the same kind of curiosity—or access to randomness—that a fully stocked bookshelf can, and it can’t compete with other kinds of screens. One solution, of course, is to bring children to bookstores or libraries and just let them wander: the moment I first ventured into the grownup section of my hometown library is still one of my most exciting memories. But the best answer is also the simplest one: to keep buying physical books, not for your children, but for yourself.

Written by nevalalee

March 26, 2013 at 9:45 am

My Kindle misfire

with 4 comments

I resisted buying a Kindle for a long time. Part of it was price, part of it loyalty to the idea of printed books, but over the past few years, my resistance began slowly eroding. The first sign of weakness, mostly innocent in itself, was when I started using the Kindle app on devices I already own, and while they haven’t come close to supplanting physical books in my house, for certain specialized uses, they do have their place. I ended up reading close to half of Swann’s Way in two-minute chunks on my phone while riding the train, for instance, and before my recent move, when I couldn’t justify adding more books to the pile that would soon need to vanish into boxes, I bought several recent releases in digital form. And while I’ve since mostly gone back to printed books, there seems to be room for their electronic counterparts in my life as well—and especially for my wife, who commutes to work on the train every day.

On Friday, then, inspired by the recent price cut, I ordered the $79 version of the Kindle. I was expecting to get it on Tuesday, but yesterday, I heard a mysterious rustling outside the house, and when I checked the front porch, there it was, lying on the welcome mat like an orphaned foundling—Amazon Prime works in mysterious ways. I brought it inside, turned it on, and with considerable anticipation, tried to link it to my existing account. And tried. And tried. Because no matter how often I entered my username and password, I got nothing but an error message. The same thing happened when I tried to register it online. And the instructions onscreen were frustratingly vague, with a menu of options that changed from moment to moment for no particular reason. (An aside to Amazon: just because Apple can ship its products without an instruction manual doesn’t necessarily mean that you can do the same.)

Finally, after half an hour of fruitless effort, I gave up and called the customer hotline. After speaking briefly with a representative at the help desk, who seemed equally mystified, I was transferred to a “Kindle specialist,” who after forty minutes of remote tinkering told me that the Kindle would have to be returned and replaced by another. Why? For unknown reasons, it wasn’t syncing correctly with Amazon’s database—she claimed to have never seen anything like it before. I grudgingly agreed to await my replacement. Then, a few minutes later, she called back to say that she’d tracked down the source of the problem: the Kindle had been delivered two days early, before the shipment had even been reflected in the system, so I was told to sit tight, keep the Kindle plugged in, and hope for the best. (Amazon Prime is often bewilderingly fast and awesome, but in this case, it evidently tore a hole in the space-time continuum.)

At last, more than six hours after my initial call, I received an email telling me that my Kindle had been properly synced. I checked it, and it worked. Within a minute, I was playing with it, sort of happily, and yes, it’s a nice little device. Yet my feelings toward it have been somewhat soured by the experience. Books, after all, aren’t supposed to be a mystery: once you’ve learned how to read, they’re an invisible medium, with as little mediation as possible between you and the author’s vision. The Kindle strives mightily to recreate that seamless experience, but even at its best, it isn’t quite the same—and when it falls short, it falls hard. When printed books fail us, as the one we love best inevitably do, they fail in tangible ways: the spines crack, the pages yellow, the margins are discolored by handling. A failed Kindle, by contrast, is just a hunk of plastic. And while my Kindle misfire was eventually solved, I can’t help but wonder if the universe, in some small way, was trying to send me a message.

Written by nevalalee

November 7, 2011 at 9:52 am

Posted in Books, Publishing

Tagged with , , ,

%d bloggers like this: