So here we are, Mr. Kindle. I pre-ordered you the moment you were announced. You’re waiting at home for me, still not removed from your box. I currently own 26 books in the Kindle format, many of which I’ve greatly enjoyed reading on the iPhone. (Though I did regret a couple of those purchases, but probably not as much as if they were $26 hardbacks.) I’m very much looking forward to booting you up and retreating to some brightly sun-lit park to continue reading The Ultimate History of Video Games or Nicholas Weber’s massive biography of Le Corbusier. Or perhaps to turn to a random page and enjoy some of the brilliance of David Foster Wallace.
But what’s going to happen on Tuesday?
As you probably know dear reader, (and you, dear Kindle) this Tuesday, August 31 is the release date for Jonathan Franzen’s brand-new, 576 page, 9 years in the making, supposed Great American Novel, Freedom. The first printing of 300,000 has already sold-out. It will be read by everyone everywhere who likes books, perhaps even by Leigh, who didn’t like his last book.
You see, Mr. Kindle, I am a Franzen fan, not a fair-weather friend. I agreed with his opinions on Oprah. I bought his little-appreciated collection The Discomfort Zone, I’ve read Strong Motion and The Twenty-Seventh City (and enjoyed one of them) and I even wrote a plays based largely on the material in How to be Alone. He’s on my Goodreads list called “I Keep These Close” and I keep The Corrections and How to Be Alone on that special shelf in the front room.
Sorry, I got a little carried away there. That sounded like bragging.
So, long story short, Mr. Kindle – am I gonna buy the book? Or am I gonna buy the electronically rendered collection of words that represents the book?
I want to skip for a moment the question of whether “the book” is the physical thing, or the collection of words. (After all, the book will be published with many shapes and forms in its life, so who’s to say what is or isn’t “the book.”) Rather, I want to know why this is even an issue for me.
August 28, 2010. Re-state my assumptions.
– We don’t need more stuff cluttering our home.
– I’ve vowed to reduce my consumption.
– I’ve rid our home of almost all CDs and I’m living happily with mostly digitized music.
– I’ve rid our home of about 200 DVDs and I don’t miss them a bit.
– I’ve been regularly buying physical books, enjoying them, and selling most of them when I’ve finished, and I don’t mind it.
– I don’t mind reading on the iPhone, but for a book that I anticipate will be “special” to me, I still prefer the comfort of a the physical act of reading a larger edition. (I bought Vendela Vida’s The Lovers just a week ago.) But a Kindle should fill that need.
– Therefore, given the introduction of the Kindle into our life, I should have no reason to purchase any physical edition of a book that can be read on the Kindle.
– In fact, carrying the Kindle in bag will be much less inconvenient than carrying the 576 page tome being released on Tuesday. (And, I can avoid the embarrassment of being seen reading the same G.A.N. as 300,000 other Americans, including, most likely, 3 or 4 in the same coffee shop.)
And yet, I want that book.
Well, there’s some kind of collecting impulse. I have all his other books. Also, if I really love Freedom, I anticipate it’ll win a prized place on that special front-room shelf, and won’t that be a wonderful thing? And I do know the attachment that comes of certain “things,” even though books have a rather prosaic use (no pun intended) compared with things like fancy laptop computers, or even well-made kitchen gadgets. They simply contain words in a certain order, and the experience they represent is just lots of time spent on the couch, in bed late at night, on an airplane, on the subway, in coffee shops, in the park, or waiting in the lobby at the dentist.
But we know that’s not true either, don’t we?
It’s hard to imagine feeling attached to the digital file that represents Mr. Franzen’s novel. And then, I’ll finish the book and have nothing to show for it.
Oh man, that’s terrible, but it’s true. Isn’t it? I want to put the book on display on that special shelf. It’s right there in the front room, screaming “This is me! This is my identity! Look at me! You are like me! And if you’re not, it’s because I read better books than you! Have you read Rising Up, Rising Down? Of course not, the fucking abridged edition is 752 pages! But, look, I read it and I loved it and it changed me! Have you even heard of Vollman? I didn’t think so!”
That’s just one part of the joy of having stuff. It’s part of the reason there’s a shelf in the house, in a more subtle spot, that features a bunch of very nicely packaged Criterion Collection DVDs, with a strong leant towards French New Wave. (That Breathless Blu Ray is totally on my birthday list, even though I already have two editions of the DVD.) (Look, I just did it again.) (Can you even name another Godard film?)
But there’s a more personal joy to having these things too. I do, sometimes, look at that shelf and remember. I remember sitting in the sun in Oxford, Ohio, outside my apartment during a terribly lonely summer, reading A Heartbreaking Word of Staggering Genius and being throttled from tears of joy to tears of despair within a few pages. I remember the sun on my face and on the pages. I can picture every detail of that moment when I was just sitting there and getting lost in the pages. I remember a similarly lonely time when I ate peanut butter sandwiches and read The Honeymooners, one of the most depressing books around. If I’d known it was going to be like that, I’m not sure I’d have started. And I can certainly remember every detail of the bedroom in my parents’ house in which I first waded through Infinite Jest, a book that not only changed my life, but probably saved it as well. I have three copies of the novel now, but that first one, beat-up as it is, is among my most valued possessions. My wife knows that the books in our house are to be treated with the utmost of care, because who can tell which one will have some potent meaning, some secreted significance, some reason my heart would be broken if the pages were torn or the corners bruised.
But that’s just a ridiculous attachment to material things isn’t it? It’s the experiences that have value, right? Certainly not the objects themselves. And if I read Franzen’s new book and dig deep into it, and love it with all my heart, I’ll still remember it, even if I don’t have the object itself to serve as a totem of the late-summer of 2010, when the landlord remodeled the bathroom and I taught my wife how to mow the lawn and we bought a Kindle. Right?
And now I see a distinct difference in the syntax alone. It’s not whether I buy the book that matters. (As so often I am mistaken … just look at the giant stacks of mostly un-read books on the piano.) It’s whether I read the book.
Am I right? Are you with me?