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Reading between Kindle's lines

The e-book reader raises questions about the fundamentals of literature and its future.

December 09, 2007|By David Sarno | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Will the Amazon Kindle alter the fate of books -- one of humankind's most enduring forms of media?
Will the Amazon Kindle alter the fate of books -- one of humankind's… (Mel Melcon / LA Times )

Something there is that doesn't love an e-book.

Take Amazon's new Kindle, this season's much-hyped new electronic reading device that allows you to instantly, wirelessly download any of 90,000 titles from the online retailer's database. Despite its $$399 price tag, first-generation clunkiness and mid-'80s design aesthetic, the Kindle actually provides a pretty darn good reading experience.

But try telling that to anyone who first read "Treasure Island" at age 11 and could still tell you whether the cover illustration on that copy had Long John Silver in a red pantaloon or a black one. Or to anyone who's ever discovered a first edition among the musky tomes of a used-book store.

Jason Epstein, a longtime editorial director of Random House, founder of its Anchor Books imprint, co-founder of the New York Review of Books, and first-ever recipient of the National Book Award's Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, is not surprisingly a bibliophile.

Reached at home not long after he'd finished reading a new translation of "War and Peace" (the third time he'd read the novel), he had just begun the latest volume of John Richardson's multipart biography of Picasso. "There's no way you could read that book on a screen," he said, jazz humming in the background. "Even if you leave out the color illustrations, it's a very complicated book. You've got to be able to concentrate on it," he said. "To go back, and go ahead, and look at the footnotes.

"Try to read a serious book on that," he said of the Kindle. "You won't be able to, I don't think."

This is true. The Kindle makes it almost impossible to flip quickly between pages -- because there are no pages. Locating a hastily read passage from earlier in the book is not even worth trying. To do so, you have to correctly guess and then input its numerical "location," of which a longish book can easily have 10,000. Let's see, that uncle character appeared a ways back . . . so . . . 3,458?

But let the Kindle bashing end there. No technology gets it right on the first try, and dwelling on one device's shortcomings misses the broader point. A visually tolerable digital reading experience is here. As the e-book iterates, that experience will just get better. The digital readers will become more attractive and less expensive. Color will replace black and white, and buttons will disappear in favor of touch screens.

Practical and economic considerations will add up too. Think of all the books that are out of date upon publication, such as textbooks.

And then, of course, books don't grow on trees. The Green Press Initiative, a nonprofit devoted to helping print industries conserve forests, estimates that 20 million to 30 million trees are cut down each year to make U.S. books. But no one's arguing that we should continue plowing down our forests or churning out obsolete encyclopedias.

The defenders of the printed volume are arguing from their gut. They see the book as much more than a physical object. It's 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."

While author Cynthia Ozick did not elevate the book to quite that level of beatitude, she did share Franzen's passion. "I absolutely repudiate and eschew the Kindle!" she declared in an e-mail. "Even if in its next version an olfactory element is introduced; even if in its next version a tactile element is introduced; even if in its next version it accepts cookie crumbs between the lines."

Ozick did admit to what she called "stubborn regressiveness" and subjectivity to her feelings. "Nostalgia? Sentimentality? Investing a physical object with personal history?" she asked.

"Well, yes."

In another e-mail, novelist Sam Lipsyte wrote that he's "not too upset by the notion that all of our reading will be done on some device."

"The real things that will be lost will be the discoveries that can be made in a bookstore, that wonderful wandering where you find precisely what you didn't know you were looking for."

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