Kindling Controversy

E-books are harder to burn...

I asked for an Amazon Kindle for my birthday. Like Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” I have been haunted ever since. In my dreams, I visit the destitute families of the former owners of small, independent book stores. The youngest, a cripple, gives thanks before a paltry meal, declaring, “God bless us, every one–even that mean old Mr. Peake, the last person on Earth we thought would betray the printed book!” I wake in a sweat.

And yet, it is precisely because I love literature that I decided to try buying it digitally. None of the typical reasons for e-books really tipped me over the edge. Nor did the counter-arguments counteract the most compelling reason I have to take the plunge. Our small cottage is lined with book shelves. We moved five times in five years during the U.S. housing boom, when landlord after landlord decided to sell at the end of our one-year lease. That meant schlepping dozens of bankers boxes full of books–heavy books!–from one home to the next.

As a teenager, I watched “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” repeatedly. This 1970s Zeffirelli bio pic of St. Francis, complete with a soundtrack by Donovan, features the overacting of Graham Faulkner as the crusader-turned-saint. The scene that stayed with me is the moment of Francis’ enlightenment, when he strips naked and begins flinging his worldly possessions–and those of his rich father–out the window, into the arms of a receptive crowd of peasants below. That’s pretty much how I left college (though I kept my clothes.) And, while I miss my record collection (and my parents could have used the futon), the idea of simplifying my possessions–if not to enlighten myself, at least to lighten my stance–remains compelling.

And so, far from an argument against books, I have convinced myself that I love books so much, I want to (easily) take them with me wherever I go. My English wife tells me one of her greatest regrets about emigrating to America was leaving behind reams of piano sheet music. We are now investigating the feasibility of an iPad as a music-reading device. To me, just about everything else in the e-books-versus-real-books debate is a wash–you save a few trees, but perpetuate the hazardous metals in e-waste (and not just in the reading device, but in the “cloud” that supports it); you can search and share, but give up the real-world feel of books; you accelerate the demise of indie book shops at the same time you usher in a new era of ubiquitous accessibility to literature.

In short, it seems less a question of “whether” I would go digital, but more accurately “when?” In pursuit of simplicity and freedom, that time is now. Friends and family chipped in, and the new Kindle, appropriately colored black like my heart, is now on back order. I may hate the thing. But I doubt it. Like any new development in literature, I approach the Kindle with an open mind. And to those who think I should do otherwise, I say, “humbug.”