When your books aren’t really yours.

26 06 2012

Greetings from the Republic of Korea!

Before I left I had planned to violate one of the central principles that I have laid down on this blog and buy an e-reader. I know, I know – I’ve written that e-readers are unnecessary. I’ve written that they are for suckers (twice). However, I still remember a comment by “Middle Seaman”* in the first of those “suckers” posts that explained quite reasonably that e-readers are very good for long trips so that you don’t have to carry a lot of weight around. Add that I wasn’t expecting access to a lot of books in English and this seemed like a good time to experiment with the “technology of the future.”

So I went down to my local Barnes and Noble** and started playing with a Nook tablet. While hardly the ideal way to read a book (you can’t see your progress!), it was at least close enough to reading an actual book to be instinctual. I was particularly impressed by the way it handles magazines, at least when the magazine is designed for that format. I still have a few subscriptions almost all of which I end up reading and recycling every few months. This just seems the logical way for that industry to go. After all, with LIFE gone, who gets sentimental about old magazines?

But I just couldn’t plop down my credit card. For one thing, this seemed like a rather expensive toy to buy for a single trip or even a single purpose. I’d probably just end up giving it to my 7-year-old son when I got back. More importantly, though, there was still something about e-books that just bugged me. I think mostly it was the fact that I couldn’t just open and read them. I was in a book store, for heaven’s sake. I wanted to pick them off the shelves after looking at them. You can’t really browse on any web site the way that you can in a physical book store and I didn’t want to go through all the work of finding needles in haystacks and then downloading them (particularly since our mobile hotspot was particularly slow last weekend). I just wanted to be able to pick up a book and start reading whenever I like.

Then after packing but before departure, I read “Will Your Children Inherit Your E-books?” (which you should definitely read all the way through) and I swear I started crying:

[W]hen I think of sorting through the boxes of my grandmother’s books — even the ones we couldn’t keep, or didn’t want — and what we found there, I am grateful not to have been handed her Amazon password instead. Among all the gifts of the electronic age, one of the most paradoxical might be to illuminate something we are beginning to trade away: the particular history, visible and invisible, that can be passed down through the vessel of an old book, inscribed by the hands and the minds of readers who are gone.

Yeah, I’d already made up my mind about what to do, but this just clinched it. So I got out an extra backback. I filled it with long books off my shelf that I hadn’t read for a long time – The Octopus, by Norris, for example and Thompson’s The Making of The English Working Class – and lugged that backpack with me on the plane. My plan is to leave them in Korea when I’m done and get new editions only if I ever need to use them again.

One book, though, I’m definitely hauling back. I had never gotten through The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes before. That was a huge mistake. It’s a big monster (not counting a little sleep and one movie, I got through a little less than half of it by the end of one connecting flight and a twelve hour plane ride across the Pacific). However, it has been extremely rewarding on many levels.

In the unexpected rewards department, I quickly remembered that this book originally belonged to my late father because I found his marginalia in it. Try doing that with an Amazon e-book.

* MS, if you’re still out there, would you give me a sign? I miss reading your excellent analysis in the comments.

** What, you thought I’d ever buy a Kindle after everything I’d written? Even if you do think you need an e-reader, why do you want to get one from a company that’s trying so hard to be such a force for evil in the world? Don’t believe me? Then read this.



3 responses

26 06 2012

I wish I’d known you were loading a backpack: I would have shamelessly recommended a book by my truelove and a colleague. “Beggarman, Spy” follows the historical Israel Potter through the early part of the American Revolution and then his “fifty years of exile” in England, seeking to reconcile historical record with Potter’s own narrative and with Melville’s comic effort. Much of the research was in primary documents, including a rather racy journal by one of the American generals. I actually don’t choose history when I want something to read, but this one I couldn’t put down. The writers are independent scholars in the history field; they published some of this research some years ago in the William and Mary Quarterly. In real life one of them was a professor of English and now is a writer of suspense fiction, and the other is a freelance filmmaker, actor, writer, and designer. Well, you can try ordering it, from Amazon.com….I must reveal that it is also available on Kindle, if you run into someone who does have one of those. I think you would enjoy it. The authors are Alexander Kulcsar and David Chacko. They have also done a 2-volume fictionalized treatment of the story.

26 06 2012

P.S. I say they’re writing in a new genre, and I’ve named it “forensic history.”

26 06 2012
Sly Wit

“In the unexpected rewards department, I quickly remembered that this book originally belonged to my late father because I found his marginalia in it. Try doing that with an Amazon e-book.”

It wasn’t something that played into my initial resistance to ebooks, but I when I made a similar discovery, I realized that this point was perhaps the most powerful argument against them. I blog about it here: http://wp.me/p1M6Rw-9 (briefly, I promise!)

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