Close Encounters of the Third Kind(le)

Look, it’s not like I’m a traditionalist on purpose. I’m not shaking my fist at the heavens and cursing “these darn kids with their smart phones” and yelling at strangers on subway platforms to “STOP ALL THE BLOGGIN’!” What I mean to say is, e-readers, despite all my idealistic whining, do in fact have a time and a place, and their recent proliferation has been surprisingly undivisive amongst avid readers, considering how radically they (Kindles, Nooks, Kobos, iPads) have changed not only the market for books, but also the very act of reading them. Despite all their hype, though, at the end of the day, I’m just not having any of it. A personal preference for what ain’t broke, as it were.

But that’s not a very good reason not to try something a first time, is it? I can object to the Kindle on principle until the cows come home, and my argument will only ever be half-informed. So when my mother recently asked me to download another book to her e-reader (a relatively older model, the Kindle 2) for her book club, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, I thought it was a good opportunity to put my money where my mouth is. I took that faux-leather-encased sucker down to the park and began to read, keeping a simultaneous journal account of the experience.

My findings, throughout the first few chapters, are thus:

1. This E Ink technology really is amazing stuff. Like God’s very own Etch-A-Sketch. I can’t read screens for very long without getting a headache (which is why I’m good, but not great, at MarioKart), so this inky screen is perfectly suited to my needs. (Cue the Kindle Fire, whose color screen debases the only praises I can give in this arena. But that’s another story for another day.)

2. I kept hitting the wrong button for the first ten or so pages: “MENU” instead of “NEXT PAGE,” the former being much closer to where my thumb naturally rests while reading the device. Note: I never recall having turned the physical page of a book improperly, nor have I ever accidentally sent myself zooming back to its table of contents. Repeatedly.

3. I’m not a fan of this default Kindle font. It’s okay, but it does nothing for the tone of The Night Circus, which I feel is more deserving of something in the neighborhood of Garamond. Can this font issue be corrected? Show me.

4. Whoever thought that any Kindle EVER should have a “percent finished” bar instead of page numbers should be turned over directly to the authorities. I understand that the variant formatting of e-books and p-books (as in “print book”; yes, the term is quickly becoming industry standard) doesn’t easily translate page numbers, but it’s discouraging to think that this product was designed around the idea that people only ever read books the way they run 5k’s: with all their focus on the finish line. Does Amazon think we’re racing? Competing? Only reading something to have read it, and to tell everyone that we have? I don’t like that idea at all. (And I’m only 2% deep into this experience, according to Kindle…)

5. As my Kindle idles while I’m taking these notes, it goes into its sleep mode, and an inky, opaque rendering of Virginia Woolf is assembled on the screen. (Subsequent Kindle naps show Jane Austen and Harriet Beecher Stowe; I begin to wonder if it somehow knows it’s owned by a female, until I notice with relief that the next sleep screen is James Joyce.) This type of aesthetic fanfare for a device’s hibernation seems overwrought to me, and it leads me to thinking about why Amazon would go to such lengths when it could just as easily go blank. Clearly, they want your Kindle experience to feel classic and literary, two things it can’t possibly promise to the fullest.

I’m not denying the practical uses of e-readers for travelers, high-volume bibliophiles, or Danielle Steel enthusiasts who want to keep their book choices coverless and private and unjudged. I get it. But reading has always undeniably been an act of four senses: the sensory turning of a page; the scent of musty age or factory newness; the sound of the paper’s rustling (or the satisfying thoop as a heavy tome is closed); the weight of a book to which hands must adjust anew each time; the sight of an unfamiliar or antiquated typeface. Its particular justification. When all of these elements of the reading experience are either stripped from the act or completely homogenized (the Kindle, of course, emanating the same weight, font, and lack of smell every time), we have effectively created a new way to read altogether—and it’s a sort of cold and clinical place to be, no matter how many Virginia Woolfs you stuff inside it or how good The Night Circus may be.

And it is, by the way. I’ll have a review up in a week. That is, I will if my pages stop freezing.

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