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Kindle vs. books: The dead trees society

Posted: June 22, 2011 - 8:22pm  |  Updated: June 22, 2011 - 8:31pm

Several weeks into December last year, my parents suggested I might like a Kindle for Christmas.

I was sitting in my room at school, and my eyes darted to the bookshelf on my left. From the silence on the line they could tell I wasn’t enthusiastic; I muttered something about not needing another gadget, mostly because I couldn’t find a way to shape my reluctance into words. The conversation was tactfully forgotten, and Christmas morning, as my grandmother happily unwrapped a Kindle, I found a Jonathan Franzen novel and a new pair of Ugg boots under the tree.

I’ve never used a Kindle. I’ve seen them in an over-the-shoulder sort of way — the sleek tablet design, the portraits of Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf that materialize on the screen like the work of a divinely inspired Etch A Sketch. Part of the reason I’m wary of picking one up is that I don’t want to experience the inevitable lure, the wavering that might begin as I imagine myself pulling a Kindle out of my significantly lighter bag on the airplane, or in a coffee shop. Like the dieter who drives the long route home to avoid passing the Dairy Queen, I just don’t want to be tempted.

And then there is my childhood habit of making books into companions. It isn’t just about reading “A Wrinkle in Time” — it’s about my copy of the novel, with its cover appropriately wrinkled from hours of bathtub steam. I delight in the number of cracks on a spine, the sheer volume of pages represented by the books on my shelves.

“It’s like this,” I explained to a friend one day after he told me the story of a beloved copy of T.C. Boyle lost by a careless borrower. “Video-chatting is nice enough — I hear your voice, see your face on the screen. But the screen isn’t you. There’s a reason our friendship isn’t conducted through a laptop.”

Books as I grew up with them — books with jackets and covers and paper and spines — have stories that reach beyond what’s written inside, and those stories are mine. There’s the paperback copy of “Fahrenheit 451,” signed by Ray Bradbury when he came to my hometown bookstore (and which I consequently never returned to the library). There’s the green advance galley of “The United States of Arugula,” given to me in the first week of a magazine internship by a friendly boss and read entirely on the subway so fellow riders could observe my insider status (never mind that it had been in stores for five years). Then there’s the bright blue, barely opened guide to Edinburgh, a gift from my father that sits on my shelf and stabs me with guilt for my last-minute decision not to study abroad.

These books have lives that have changed mine. If it weren’t for the signature in that stolen copy of “Fahrenheit 451,” I wouldn’t have felt a personal responsibility for books and their authors, a conviction that led me to New York to study at the only university with a great books curriculum. If it weren’t for the gift of that galley of “The United States of Arugula,” I wouldn’t have developed the friendship with my boss, a food editor, and that was what made me realize that exploring the place of food in our lives was what I really wanted to do. And if it weren’t for the reproach represented by that “Directions” guide to Edinburgh, I probably wouldn’t have abandoned the promise of a publishing job in the city after graduation to take my new passion for food to a farm in California and start the adventure I never had in Scotland.

In eliminating a book’s physical existence, something crucial is lost forever. Trapped in a Kindle, the story remains but the book can no longer be scribbled in, hoarded, burned, given or received. We may be able to read it, but we can’t share it with others in the same way, and its ability to connect us to people, places and ideas is that much less powerful.

I know the Kindle will eventually carry the day — an electronic reader means no more embarrassing coffee stains, no more library holds and renewals, no more frantic flipping through pages for a lost quote or going to three bookstores in one afternoon to track down an evasive title. Who am I to advocate the doom of millions of trees when the swipe of a finger can deliver all 838 pages of Middlemarch into my waiting hands?

But once we all power up our Kindles something will be gone, a kind of language. Books communicate with us as readers — but as important, we communicate with each other through books themselves. When that connection is lost, the experience of reading — and our lives — will be forever altered.

• Barbour, a recent Columbia University graduate, is an apprentice farmer in Santa Cruz, Calif.

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