Dynamist Blog

Paperless Books

Beginning with Steven Levy's Newsweek cover story, Amazon's Kindle wireless ebook reader has attracted lots of speculation about the future of literature and lots of skepticism. Some critics hate it because it's not an iPod, others because it's not a book. I haven't seen the Kindle, much less used one, so I have no personal opinion. But Grant McCracken has bought one and has been blogging about it. Bottom line: He likes it very much. "It's a stunner," he says. He chose The Wealth of Nations as his first download, followed by Dan Pink's A Whole New Mind, whose price was right. (The Substance of Style is also available but Grant, of course, already has a hard copy.)

As the LAT's David Sarno reports, much of the resistance to the Kindle is a combination of expected weaknesses in the first edition of any new tech device--it's hard to find a specific page, for instance--with a gut reaction from people who love books.

They see the book as much more than a physical object. To many lifelong readers and writers, the book is culturally sacrosanct and even intrinsic to literature itself.

"People who care about literature care about substance and permanence," wrote novelist Jonathan Franzen, author of "The Corrections," in an e-mail. "The essence of electronics is mutability and transience. I can see travel guides and Michael Crichton novels translating into pixels easily enough. But the person who cares about Kafka wants Kafka unerasable.

"Am I fetishizing ink and paper? Sure, and I'm fetishizing truth and integrity too."

But how can truth depend on whether the words that express it are printed on an electronic page or a paper one? Are they not words in both cases? Confronted thus, Franzen remained firm.

"Yes, in theory, words are words," he replied. "But literature isn't data. The difference between Shakespeare on a BlackBerry and Shakespeare in the Arden Edition is like the difference between vows taken in a shoe store and vows taken in a cathedral."

Grant, in fact, misses the footnotes in his Kindle version of Cymbeline. But using Shakespeare as to argue that good literature must appear in printed editions is bizarre. Shakespeare presented his plays in oral form, with no footnotes and no flipping between pages. He never published his work. The folio editions came only after his death. And now they're online.

I love books too, and I wouldn't want to relinquish all those individual physical volumes for an electronic reader. But, that said, I had to give up hundreds of books when I moved back to L.A., because there just wasn't room for them all. I buy a lot fewer books than I would if I didn't have to store them (and live in fear of having them fall on my head in an earthquake). So maybe I need a Kindle after all.

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