I don’t shop. I hate shopping, especially for clothes. I force myself to shop for clothes once every two years whether I need it or not. But I confine myself to no more than three stores and no more than three hours. (Usually Talbots, REI and Target can fill all my needs.) But I do buy books. Lots of books. I buy books on-line. I never pass up a used book store. I’ll buy books at yard sales if I happen to be passing one. My friends know they can always dump books at my house.
So you’d think I’d be the last person in the word to get a Kindle. That’s the device that lets you download books instantly and read them in electronic versions. Where’s the fun in that? No searching through dusty shelves. No flyleaves or book jackets to read. No fourth hand volumes to discover with cryptic or even embarrassing inscriptions on the first page. But my husband, who is an unrepentant gadget buyer, got me one for Christmas. So I have to make a commitment to it.
Keeping an open mind and repressing all Luddite tendencies, I can see the value of it, even in my life. Every area of my home is filled with books. Overflowing with books. Weighed down with books. I’m not just talking living space. Garage, corners, under the bed. Stuffed with books. And the place in Sonoma? That’s starting to get filled up with books. This is despite dedicated twice monthly clear-outs where I truck cartons of books off to used book stores and Goodwill.
Despite how I feel about books made of paper and cardboard, there is much to recommend the Kindle. Just think of the carbon savings. Instead of trees being cut down, presses being run, delivery trucks hauling the finished product out to distribution centers and then the FedEx delivery to my home, the Kindle zaps down a book in what seems to be less than a minute. I’m told, if you want to download the complete works of Shakespeare, you can do that. (But you might have to drink a latte while you wait.)
Then there is the downside. Not all books can be savored on a small screen in Arial. Anyone who’s ever been in design or publishing knows that there is a great art to the typesetting of a book. The font you’d use for Middlemarch is not the font you’d want to see in A Farewell to Arms. George Eliot would need a font that was classic, refined and British. Hemingway, something simple, unadorned, masculine. Would it be the same to read both books in the same font — which in the case of the Kindle seems to be a font that is particularly readable in electronic format?Worse yet, the Kindle lets you change the font. If there were ever a skill that should not be trusted to the untrained, it’s typography. Trust me on this.
However it turns out, I don’t have to face the horrifying prospect of War and Peace rendered in Helvetica. Those are NOT the kind of books you’ll download to a Kindle. Buy the classics in satisfying leather-bound volumes. Preferably from an eccentric overstuffed local used book store. And don’t even think about cookbooks — even though the Kindle store has pages of them available for download. Cookbooks are best when they border on Gastroporn with large seductive pictures of glistening meat and silken creme brulees. (Besides, are you going to prop your Kindle up in the kitchen and splatter butter and stock on it?) Travel guides? Also a big Kindle Nix. Travel books need to be stuffed in your pocket, pages folded down, notes scribble in the margins, then passed on to your friend when she decides to follow your recent footsteps.
Here, I’ve discovered, are the books you’ll download to a Kindle:
Political Books. Especially books on recent events or by figures who are on the back end of their fifteen minutes of fame. (Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue, anyone?) Even the best written political books have the shelf life of whipcream in an 80 degree room. I know, I’ve bought hundreds right when they hit the store and were hot, read them immediately, tried to sell them back to the used bookstore within the week, only to be told that they are “past their peak of interest”.
Guilty Pleasure Books. You know what I’m talking about: bodice busters, romance novels, hot-for-one-second books like The Nanny Diaries. Okay, I’ll confess my latest: The Sookie Stackhouse Novels that the HBO series True Blood is based on. There are at least eleven of them. Do you know how many humiliating trips to the bookstore that represents? It almost guarantees you have to buy a weightier book, say a political book, to hide it under as you exit the store. But what’s downloaded to the Kindle stays in the Kindle. When you read electronically, no one knows you’ve bought a Nora Roberts.
Low-Commitment Books. These are the kind of books that, on a whim or in an airport bookstore, you think maybe, perhaps you might want to read. Then you buy them, skim through a few chapters, fall asleep on the plane, wake up and can’t even imagine passing the book on to a friend. Trust me, I’ve left loads of these books on the the beach or on the seats of airplanes and shuttles. I just downloaded Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck. I suspect it’s going to be that kind of book. But instead of a stealth divestiture, I just zap it off the Kindle with one finger. Poof. Gone.
Magazines and Newspapers. Did you know the Kindle did this? I didn’t and it’s genius. No fussing with seventeen sections of the New York Times while trying to make an airline connection. Zap. On the Kindle. Kindle in your carry-on.
But the best thing about the Kindle? Once I’ve done a few thousand more runs to the used bookstore and Goodwill to unload all the marginal books that I would have Kindled, had I had a Kindle, can you imagine what my bookshelves will look like? Wall to wall in leather-bound classics, particularly cherished college text books, large color-plated art books, photography monographs, companion books to Ken Burns series. My impressive books will be freed from rubbing shoulders with the riffraff. My bookshelves will now be an exclusive club where Tolstoy sips tea with Jane Austen. And the jokey books, the trashy novels, the books with the lifespan of a fruit fly? Those books will hang out in the Kindle ghetto, taking illegal substances, breaking pharmacy windows, generally getting up to no good.
But they’ll be there when I want to go slumming.