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My Ten-Day Visit to the Dark Side

An author and reader cheats on her oldest love, books, with a hot new beauty, the Amazon Kindle.

In 1999, my husband gave me one of the first electronic readers, a Rocket eBook. With its capacity to hold forty books, books I could cart wherever I wanted, he was sure I’d love it.

I hated it. Slow, ugly, nearly the size of a shoebox, it was as inspiring as a ball and chain. Could I picture tossing it in a string bag and skipping down some stone steps to a beach in Spain? No, and not because it was cumbersome, or because it might short-circuit if it touched water, but because it struck me as antiromantic.

I did not, however, feel threatened by it.

What a difference a decade makes. “So that’s the enemy,” says a young bookstore employee, when he sees me reading on the Kindle 2 Amazon loaned me for ten days for this article. Then he asks if he can hold it — the Kindle is an object everyone wants to see, touch, play with. He declares it “a giant iPod for books.” When I don’t flinch, he adds, “Look what that did to the music industry!”

I know why he says this. And why a TV-producer friend claims that, just by test-driving the Kindle, I have “gone over to the dark side.” Many fear the e-reader will deliver the final blow to print media. That consumers will be so enamored of the sleek paperback-size tablet, they’ll abandon crusty old paper books. That having watched their newspapers shrivel and sometimes die, they will now see the death of real books as inevitable.

“But does [the Kindle] smell like a book?” asks someone on a New York Times blog, only to be met with the tart rejoinder, “Do you mean does it smell like a mélange of paper and mold, with just a hint of dust mite? Well, no, it doesn’t.”

After six hundred years, is the book doomed? I can’t play oracle and say this isn’t so. I can tell you Amazon can wirelessly deliver more than 275,000 eBooks to the Kindle, 25,000 more than last month. Three months after the February debut of the $359 Kindle 2, Amazon released the $489 wide-screen Kindle DX, which mimics the experience of reading newspapers, dozens of which you can subscribe to and read on any Kindle. Hearst and other news organizations are hitching their wagons to this digital star.

I can also tell you the Kindle’s ability to store fifteen hundred books is a real space saver, a literary lifeline if you live, say, on a sailboat or in confinement. It weighs virtually nothing, its lines are clean but not stark, and its auto-delivery system is instantaneous: using its wireless Whispernet (which lets you browse the Amazon Kindle store and search Wikipedia but not the web), I download Dave Cullen’s Columbine in less than one second. I find the speed of the transaction sobering: since Kindle’s Columbine is $9.99, versus $16.19 plus shipping for the hardback, the phantom delivery, as well as the zero mass of the book itself, makes it stupidly easy to buy an infinite number of books I might not read, perhaps never even see.

But do I like reading Columbine on the Kindle? I do. It’s at once strange and normal, its black-and-white “pages” registering as paper, with no glare like on other LCD screens. You can search the text and, using the Kindle’s nano-keyboard, type and save notes. Do I feel sort of modern tossing the Kindle in my bag? I do.

I also feel sort of sterile. You do not get from Kindle the loose rough pleasure you get from a real book, which you can manhandle and spill coffee on and leave in the seat-back pocket for the next guy. What’s missing, too, is the sense of accomplishment you get making your way through a book — there’s half left, there’s a quarter, ah, I’m done, time for a new one — because whether you’re reading the introduction or “the end,” the Kindle feels and looks the same: the only signal that you’re making headway is a percentage bar across the bottom, rather than page numbers. And while I do download a second book after Columbine, reading Robert Kurson’s real-life deep-sea thriller Shadow Divers becomes, improbably, a boring chore, like eating all your meals in the same restaurant, with the same wallpaper.

But my ultimate reservation about the Kindle arises when I show it to my teenage daughter. “Get it away from me!” she says, jumping back as though I am handing her an asp. She is computer savvy; she texts and builds Web sites. But she is also a dreamer, a kid who gets lost in reading.

One day she picked out The Collector, by John Fowles, from the chaos of my bookshelves. This could not have happened at the Kindle store. Even if she’d looked past Tori Spelling and Kathie Lee Gifford in the “new and noteworthy” offerings, she would not have found The Collector, because it’s not available. If she’d relied on Kindle, she would not have Fowles’ terrifying and magnificent story lodged in her brain, as I do in mine, simply because a friend loaned me her copy.

Is the fact that your Kindle books can’t be shared (unless you hand over your whole Kindle) enough to keep me from buying one? No. The deal-breaker for me is the lack of intimacy. While untold others collude in the construction and distribution of a paper book, it doesn’t feel that way when you read it; it feels as though there’s just you and the author and the story. The Kindle, on the other hand, feels like a thrumming little piece of commerce, loaded with technology, which I appreciate, but which also keeps me at arm’s length. The act of reading becomes a little like sex with a condom.

So I don’t see myself buying a Kindle, not yet. But who knows? I appreciate efficiency and searchability and multiplicity. In a few years, I may have no choice but to do my reading this way. For now, I’d rather have one book in my hand than fifteen hundred at my fingertips.

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