When it comes to reading electronic books, or e-books, I was an agnostic.
All that changed over the holidays.
Now, I’m a believer. I have seen the light. It emanates from a little grey pad of plastic called a Kindle.
My in-laws gave me a Kindle (Amazon’s version of an e-reader) for Christmas. Minutes after unpacking it from the box, I was downloading books, excerpts, free samples, games, magazines, newspapers, you name it.
I have to confess: I am in love with this thing. (Don’t tell my wife.)
It’s ridiculous, I know. But it’s just so darn…cool. I am still in awe of the fact that I could potentially carry 3,000 books in something that could fit inside a manila envelope. I stare at the wall of books lining our apartment and think: “You guys could be history.”
I think of all the money we could have saved on shelving.
The sociological impact of this tiny device cannot be underestimated. I’m seeing it on the subway when I travel to work – more people are carrying it instead of a newspaper or book to read on the way. (Can you download Sodoku? I wonder….) This means a tremendous saving of space (thank God) but it also means, sadly, that the great art of How To Fold A Newspaper Into Quarters To Read on the Train will soon be gone – becoming as primitive and exotic as origami.
I first latched on to the possibilities of electronic reading over the summer, when I managed to download a version of the Liturgy of the Hours onto my iPod. I also have a copy of the daily missal on it – which means I have every reading for mass, plus every reading for the Liturgy of the Hours, forever, in a metal and plastic box only slightly larger than a credit card.
I feel like George Jetson.
The electronic revolution in reading is undeniably convenient, portable, user-friendly, accessible and fun.
But – and this is not insignificant — it’s also just a little bit unsatisfying.
I’ve discovered that, as much as I love my new 21st century toys, there is a lot to be said for actually holding a book in your hands, feeling its heft, turning its pages, seeing the dog-ears left behind and the pencil marks in the margins. There is the moving of ribbons, the inserting of a bookmark, the hushed sound of a two- pound tome being returned to its place on the shelf.What I’m talking about, I think, is something that can only be called the Reading Experience – the sensual contact of finger to paper, the faint smell of the ink and glue and binding, the sound of a page as it turns, the comforting appearance of Times Roman type. Reading a newspaper on an e-reader isn’t the same as holding it in your hands, damp after it was left on your doorstep in the rain, and seeing the words bleed into one another, and breathing deep of the aroma of information, as newsprint and ink and advertising leave stains on your fingertips. This is the way so many people read about Gettysburg, and the Armistice, and Pearl Harbor and Watergate. It’s woven, somehow, into our DNA.
Don’t get me wrong. I love what I’m able to do with my Kindle and iPod, and can’t wait to see what the wizards at Apple and Amazon will come up with next. But I’ve also been reminded that reading is more than just words on a page. It is, truly, an experience. It would be a tragedy for us to lose that experience, for the sake of being modern or efficient.
Not long ago, I read about an Italian priest who developed an application that would make it possible to celebrate mass from an iPad. It will be the same mass. The words and prayers and effects – consecration of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ – will all be the same.
But will it be the same experience? Will the priest perceive what he is doing differently? Will the “cool” medium of an iPad be different from the “hot” medium of an open book? Will it affect the celebrant somehow? Will people perceive any difference?
I hope not. But I have to wonder.
P.S. For those who have asked: the first book I downloaded was “Can You Drink the Cup?” by Henri Nouwen, with a forward by (Deacon) Ron Hansen. I’m curious: if you have an e-reader, what was your first book??