Monday, January 11, 2010

Kindles and Nooks show me nothing.
When they add more features, they’ll be even worse.


I’ve been in the Union Square Barnes & Noble 20 times since they moved the tables of new and noteworthy paperbacks and cleared the big wall of books to make room for the ‘Nook’ counter and display area, and it still looks incongruous to me. Gone is the variety of colors and designs on the books that used to be there. Instead, the new space is clean and spare and bright, like a made-up-airline counter in an old sit-com. That’s how they want it to look, I guess. Modern and sleek.

This is all coming fast. On Christmas Day, Amazon sold more e-books than regular books. That’s big, no matter how you explain it. And that’s with sales of the Nooks and Kindles still in the pre-baby-step stage. I’ve seen maybe four people, at most, reading one. Wait till they become the big deal to have. Most people won’t want a big ol’ book anymore. They just won’t. Not even a beautiful book of black-and-white photographs of Paris. No more than they want the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ album on a 331/3 record in a cardboard sleeve, a format they would never have thought they could do without. Remember (some of you) how you’d prop the sleeve up, or hold it and stare at it like a concert poster, while the record was playing?

I don’t want this change to happen. I don’t want books to go away. I’m sitting here in the dark of very early morning in a blue knit cap like Kurt Vonnegut had on for the dust jacket photo of Breakfast of Champions. I’ve got books in wonderful piles everywhere you look, like you’d think a guy wearing a blue knit cap indoors might have. Books are art to me. If I won the lottery, I’d buy all the beautiful books of black-and-white photographs of Paris.

I find nothing appealing about the Nooks and the Kindles. I was standing next to a guy who was reading one on the subway. It looked like a Magic Slate. It was gray all over. And they’re talking like it’s a beautiful thing. I don’t get it. It might be revolutionary, but it’s nothing design-wise. (I don’t think Apple computers are that big a deal design-wise either, if you want to know the truth. They’re rectangles with an Apple logo on the front. ) Look at the covers of the books on your shelf. Some of those are beautiful. Hold on to them.

Here’s part of a paragraph from a book I’m reading about book thieves, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. This is the author talking, not one of the thieves:
…my daughter returned from camp last summer with her copy of 'Motherless Brooklyn' in a state approaching ruin. She told me she’d dropped it into a creek, but couldn’t bear to leave it behind, even after she’d finished it. This book’s body is inextricably linked to the experience of reading it. I hope she holds on to it, because as long as she does, its wavy, expanded pages will remind her of that hot day she read it with her feet in the water — and of the fourteen-year-old she was at the time. A book is much more than a delivery vehicle for its contents…

Here are two things I overheard people say; people, I think, who can’t resist new gadgets and are looking for a reason to get an e-book reader:
‘Now when I go on vacation I can take 10 books with me. I won’t have to lug all those books.’ (Please, I wanted to say, don’t bullshit yourself. How many books are you really going to read while on vacation?)
‘Now when you finish a book on the subway, you can start another one right away.’ (Please.)

But here’s the part of the transformation that’s most troubling. Especially in an age of incessant computers and Blackberries. Books are the quiet things. They stand silent. When you’re with one, it’s just the two of you. But with e-book readers it won’t be that way. Already you can get The New York Times on them, and magazines, and as many books as you want. I’m betting that eventually you’ll get a lot more. Google, of course. Anything you want. Some company will give you all that, and the rest of them will have to follow. Netflix. Photo capabilities. You know that will happen.

And then it’s not just the two of you anymore. All the ruckus that’s on the other gizmos will be on the little book machines. Reading will never be the same. Come across a long descriptive section in the book you’re reading, or notice that the next chapter is 20 pages long, and your restless nature will have you pushing some button to take you to a magazine or ESPN or Yahoo or a news bulletin with a list of the just-announced nominees for the Oscars. Complete with pictures or clips from the nominated movies. Who’s going to go back to that 20-page chapter with no pictures? Not young people for sure.

Here’s a very-young-people story. I’m out West over the holidays seeing two of my kids, and two of my granddaughters who are very young. We go, for tradition’s sake, to Mass early on Christmas Eve, then we go out to dinner at a nice little place close by. The youngest child, 6 months old, will be no problem, but the older one will be squirmy at best. Early on in the restaurant, my son-in-law, no computer geek at all, slides his iPhone to his not-quite-three-year-old daughter to give her something to do, while we have a drink and decide on dinner. I’m across the table from her and down a couple of seats, but I observe her finding an app familiar to her on the shiny machine in front of her, and soon she’s sliding photos along, like adults do on their iPhones, and soon after that, with her thumb and forefinger, like adults do, she’s enlarging the photos, without squealing over the wonder of it all. It might have been Christmas Eve, but it was an epiphany to me. So, this was the future. No, actually it was already the present.

Now, my granddaughter may have a hundred books. No bedtime, no nap, ever happens without a book or three being read to her. There’s usually a book in bed with her. So, she’ll be all right. She won’t be limited, no matter what new buttons and machines might come her way, to sliding photos with her fingers.

But what about city kids, poor kids, who don’t have a hundred books, who don’t get stories read to them before they go to sleep? What’s going to happen to them in this new world? They could wind up further behind. They could be like crippled kids when their friends get bicycles. The distance will grow. They must be taught to read. They must be given books and time to read them. If it takes all of the 12 years they’re in school to get to be easy readers, so be it; that necessary skill has to be learned. It’s the only way to close the distance. Sure, I want my granddaughter to be in the front of the pack. But I don’t want her lapping anyone. If the schools have the will, they can see that everyone reads well. Reading isn’t a skill that only a few people can learn to do, like standing at the plate facing a 90-mile-an-hour fastball. It’s something that can be taught to everyone. There can be no equivocating about it.

And there can be no grandstanding. Let’s not have some computer company donate 1000 e-book readers to some school in Brooklyn with T-shirts that say ‘I’m an e-Z reader’ for a photo-op. Let’s use the 12 years to actually teach them to read. If someone handed you an assignment to teach a kid to read and told you you had 12 years to do it, you’d be dumb-founded. 12 years! Who couldn’t do that in 12 years? My point exactly.

Photo caption:
TAKE A BOOK ALONG FOR THE JOURNEY, AMERICANS. The world doesn’t need more plastic . Leave the gadgets behind.

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