I used to be a Kindle Evangelist.
But now, in the courtroom of the internet, I am its lead prosecutor. This article is its trial. The crime? A desecration of the sacred institution of reading.
You, dear reader, must be the judge.
On libraries, and bookstores
A library is a sacred place where the voices of the ancients can still be heard if we but give them the required silence.
The first witness, James Rozoff, has testified to the sacredness of libraries.
For what is a library, if not the writer’s temple? There we go to worship heroes of the past—sometimes, we even construct altars. There the writer meets fellow devotees—pilgrims on the same spiritual and intellectual journey as he. The library, like the church, exudes a sacred air—of reverence and humility and awed silence—which is the sustenance of the spirit.
A library is a focal point, a sacred place to a community; and its sacredness is its accessibility, its publicness. It’s everybody’s place
The second witness, Ursula K. Le Guin, reminds us of the sanctity of libraries.
The library is a realm unto itself. It transcends material and temporal conditions—within, all are equal, and all human history is united. At its best, it is the heart, mind, and soul of a community. It must surely be sacred.
Here, then, lies prosecution’s first indictment of the Kindle: for years, it has tricked readers into thinking libraries and bookstores are ‘inexpedient’, and therefore superfluous. Considering the evidence and arguments presented, however, it is clear they are not. As a result, the Kindle has robbed countless communities of a flourishing library that would otherwise be its “focal point”, and countless writers of their temple.
The Kindle is hereby accused of the murder of countless libraries.
Reading is a ritual
The earnest reader invariably develops a reading ritual. They have a favourite beverage (tea, if they know what they’re about), a fortified reading nook (battlements are always useful in repelling the varied assailants of the real world, and can really elevate your nook’s aesthetic), and a preferred weather (It must be raining. All other answers are wrong.).
This ritual, through years of repetition, becomes sacrosanct—even sacred—and rises to a form of worship.
Here lies the second indictment of e-books: technology neglects the ritual of reading: Retrieving the book from your shelf, easing it open, and savouring the woody smell. Turning the page, and delighting in the gentle rasp of paper. Handling the book carefully as your fingertips brush the cover. Closing it with a thud, and inserting a cherished bookmark, imbued with the memory of long nights and glorious afternoons.
In the religion of the writer, the Book and the Pen are holy artifacts. Without them, there can be no ceremony—no reverence, no gravitas, and no significant work.
The Kindle is hereby accused of desecrating holy symbols.
Reading is an exchange
Reading (well) is an act of mutual assimilation.
First, you must absorb the book. Be sympathetic: revere the text, approach it with earnest, and listen carefully to the author. Let the words, thoughts, and emotions write themselves upon your soul. So does the book become part of you.
Simultaneously, the volume must absorb you. Be open and honest: allow the words to draw ink from your well; flood the pages with your self. So do you become a part of the book.
By this exchange, a powerful connection is established, and reader and author are joined in emotional, intellectual, and spiritual communion. Here, then, is our third, and most damning, indictment of the Kindle: it detracts from the hallowed exchange of reader and author, in three ways:
First, an e-book lacks personality. It has no face, no size, no specific font. This makes it difficult to establish a personal relationship with the book—for there is no personality.
Second, you cannot directly interact with an e-book—you cannot scrawl in its margins, underline its words, or fill its pages with your fury. The ink of your soul lies stagnant in its well.
Lastly, there remains no monument to the thoughts and emotions provoked in you; no transcript of the dialogue exists. You may assimilate a physical book (and it may assimilate you), because it exists in your physical reality: it squats on your shelf, slowly ingratiates itself, and becomes a permanent fixture of your life. It as if the conversation continues: each glance, each touch, renews the relationship between reader and author, and sparks some faint memory of private ecstasy. The e-book, however, occupies a digital dimension: a place we only have brief and narrow access to; a place that is forever apart from us.
Reading a book on a Kindle is like dating someone you’ve only seen on a Zoom call. There can be little personal connection. The relationship is doomed to fail.
The Kindle is hereby accused of its final, and most egregious, crime: denying the sacred communion between author and reader.
In defense of the Kindle
The defense must be allowed to mount an argument, however meager. The Kindle is a wondrous device—ten thousand books in your pocket, and access to the entire wealth of human knowledge. It grants the ability to read in the dark, but does not bombard your eyes with blue light. It is portable, convenient, and cheap. The device is truly a marvel of the modern world.
Material advantages, however, cannot replenish the sacredness of reading. For that, we must return to physical books.
In light of the evidence and arguments presented, I demand the incarceration of the Kindle, for the duration of a life sentence.
The final judgement, dear reader, is yours.
That was a lot of fun to write.
I have been quite critical of the Kindle. At times, I exaggerate the charges against it. And I have no doubt romanticised (even deified) physical books to unreasonable extent. I will continue to use the Kindle, but far more sparingly. Considering the scant local selection of books, and the price of shipping, I have little choice in the matter.
I will also say this: if reading is a sacred act, writing certainly is. This article has made me reconsider not only the use of e-books, but also the modern writer’s praise of computers, Word, and online dictionaries and thesauruses: Maybe we’ve violated the sanctity of writing without realising it. Maybe we’ve lost an integral part of the craft—consumed by the digital void that has swallowed half our lives.
If I may, there is one more witness to call. Jorges Luis Borges, please take the stand:
There are few sensations that compare to the joy of discovering some obscure and unexpected book.
Mr Prosecutor…. I absolutely rule in favour of the sacred library. The proof is in the pudding. Nothing is so satisfying as opening a book, getting that distinct paper smell & soaking in the silence of a library.