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Why I won’t be buying an e-reader

E-readerThere's nothing wrong with electronic reading devices, but Alan Nothnagle draws the line at reading works of literature online. Here’s why.

With a title like that that you’re probably expecting some sort of Luddite screed from a hopeless romantic who somehow managed to mislay his ticket for the high-tech express. But this will be nothing of the sort.

Like many, perhaps most contributors to this site, I basically live online. Without computers and the Internet I would not be able to earn a living and inform myself. Nor am I against electronic reading devices per se.

In fact, I would be very interested in a device that would facilitate my reading of blogs, online newspaper and magazine articles, Wikipedia, reference works, data banks, school and university textbooks. In other words: I would use it to manage the ephemeral substance of which the Internet is made.

And yet I draw the line at works of literature, and here’s why:

Back when I was a child (and today too, in fact) there was a series called the “I Can Read It All By Myself Beginner Books.” Even then, I thought this name was brilliant. I grew up in a house full of books, and as a toddler I longed for the day when I would be able to read The Cat in the Hat and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish all by myself and then display my prowess to my parents and elder siblings.

This sense of accomplishment from reading an entire book all by myself persisted when I tackled far more ambitious projects, such as Tintin and Snowy in King Ottokar’s Sceptre or the beautifully illustrated The Adventures of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table that I still display on my bookshelf here in Berlin.

And once I finished a book, I wanted to display it as a sort of trophy, as if to say: Yes, I really read this. All. By. My. Self. That’s why I always had a hard time returning books to the library as a child: I wanted to keep every book because, by golly, I had earned it!

In fact, this feeling of pride has lasted to the present day, whether it’s a matter of a work of heavy literature or else a book of history or philosophy.

My shelves and shelves of books on American and European history, on the Soviet Union and communism, the Third Reich and East Germany, Swedish cultural history, the artistic vision of William Morris, and on my favorite field – alternative movements and the history of travel in Germany between the two world wars – all chronicle years of research and teaching both inside and outside the university.

My life has changed a great deal since then. Without the books, I might easily forget what I once accomplished - and what I still could accomplish if I set my mind to it.

And then there are all the foreign-language books, both fiction and non-fiction. What an accomplishment they record! In her novel The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova writes:

“Since that moment, I have known many times what I first experienced then… Never before had I known the sudden quiver of understanding that travels from word to brain to heart, the way a new language can move, coil, swim into life under the eyes, the almost savage leap of comprehension, the instantaneous, joyful release of meaning, the way the words shed their printed bodies in a flash of heat and light…”

This achievement calls for celebration – or at least for some sort of commemoration. For example, as a student, I spent months reading through Zola’s novels in the original, and today my paperback collection of Les Rougon-Maquart takes up about six proud inches of shelf-space.

The stacks of Balzac, Voltaire, Maupassant, Michel Tournier etc. recall years of hard work and profound satisfaction. Two books by Alberto Moravia and a scattering of other Italian novels recall the period when I dedicated myself to that language.

The beautifully bound novels of Selma Lagerlöf and August Strindberg, most of them over a century old, which I picked up in used bookshops in Gothenburg and Stockholm, chronicle my years of involvement with Swedish language and culture.

Right now I’m reading the crime novels of Stieg Larsson, with Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) down and two more to go – a slow process (I read about half as fast as in English) but a rewarding one.

When I’m done, the three of them will take up about five inches of shelf space, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to trade that visible sign of accomplishment for a few invisible megabytes on an e-reader.

Everyone knows that the books on a shelf instantly say something about their owner – although not necessarily things the owner wish others to learn. Paul Fussell had fun with this in his book Class: A Guide Through the American Status System:

“As readers, proles are honest, never trying to fake effects or simulate interest in higher things. It’s among the middle class that tastes in reading get really interesting, because it’s only here that pretense, fraud, and misrepresentation enter. The uppers don’t care what you think about their reading, and neither do the proles. The poor anxious middle class is the one that wants you to believe it reads “the best literature,” and condemnatory expressions like trash or rubbish are often on its lips.

“ It is the natural audience for the unreadable second-rate pretentious, books by James Gould Cozzens, John Steinbeck, Pearl Buck, Lawrence Durrell…, the mass merchandise of Herman Wouk, John Hersey, and Irwin Shaw, and the Durants’ history of philosophy. … It’s in the middle-class dwelling that you’re likely to spot the fifty-four volume set of the Great Books… because the middles, the great audience for how-to books, believe in authorities. Thus it serves as the classic market for encyclopedias.”

And yet, I find the absence of books in a person’s home immediately suspect.

No, the fact that someone doesn’t own any doesn’t mean they are illiterate or lacking in ideas. They might be very well read indeed, with thousands of books tucked away on their Kindle – but just what are they reading? What are they filling their minds with? Do their tastes run to Jefferson, Noam Chomsky, or Richard Perle? I have no way of knowing.

And what sorts of books (if any) do they unwind with? Robert Harris, Danielle Steele, or Stephenie Meyer? I’d really like to know, if you don’t mind.

I have other reasons too, of course, most of which deal with esthetics and my hesitation to entrust my personal reading tastes and habits to an opportunistic corporation such as Amazon or Apple.

I also feel a vain desire to separate work from leisure. Just as I don’t wish to read a novel on a screen, I refuse to watch a movie on my PC. There’s a time and place for everything, and there’s a very real danger that I’ll start reading e-mails in the middle of The Ghostwriter.

And just how long will my "e-books" remain technically compatible? I've got books on my shelf dating from the 19th century and I can still read them just fine using my bare eyes. At the same time, I've still got floppy disks kicking around whose pre-Windows contents can and will never be read again.

If this is Luddism, let me make the most of it.

Call it a book fetish if you like. I realize that it’s all posturing and anti-social behavior. “You see, it’s no good, Montag,” the fire captain says in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. “We've all got to be alike. The only way to be happy is for everyone to be made equal. So we must burn the books!”

And I’m not sure the man doesn’t have a point somewhere. I often think I would be happier committing my own unwieldy library to the flames and dedicating the new space my sacrifice would open up to – well, to light and air, not to bulky, moldering paper and heavy ideas that lead to dusty death. 

But where I really reject the e-book craze is when it comes to my own books. My sixth novel is coming out in two weeks, and the previous five – all nicely bound with stunningly beautiful covers, IMHO – enjoy a place of honor on my shelf, as do my non-fiction books and my protracted, frequently troublesome translations of other works.

This most modest of collections represents more than a decade of hard work and poverty and dedication. And for what? At least I’ve got a shelf-full of printed books to show for my efforts. And now I’m supposed to trade that in for a scattering of electrons? As Charlie Cowell says to Marian the Librarian in The Music Man: “Not on your tintype!”

Alan Nothnagle is a freelance writer, young adult author and interpreter based in Berlin. He blogs at Open Salon.


0 #1 David Skidmore 2010-08-17 16:37
I can't disagree with any of this article. I love going into a second hand bookshop and finding a long out of print work on a period of history I'm interested in or something that just catches my eye. It must be the primitive hunter/gatherer instinct or something.

I have a fascinating collection of books on European history. Fascinating to me that is - at least a burglar would leave my collection alone (you can't flog Joanna Richardson's work on Second Empire France in the pub on Friday night).

Computers are for work or posting stuff on the internet as far as I'm concerned. At night, I want to curl up with Ethel Turner in paperback and not a laptop thank you very much.

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