More Than Kin and Almost as Kind

Just when the whole world is succumbing to the iPad - the last word in mind-boggling, high-tech gadgetry - I decided to purchase the fad of yesteryear: the Kindle.

Just when the whole world is succumbing to the iPad - the last word in mind-boggling, high-tech gadgetry - I decided to purchase the fad of yesteryear: the Kindle. Although Amazon went global with this invention some time ago, the company won't ship it to Israel at present. So some kind members of my family, knowing my fondness for things electronic and readable to boot, bought one for me abroad and delivered it personally.

For the uninitiated, the Kindle is an electronic platform for reading books that was first marketed sometime in 2007. The device was a runaway success from day one, selling out almost immediately, and remained sought-after but unavailable for some months after that. It is a white tablet, roughly the size of a standard hardcover, but much thinner and lighter. One can download and read entire books on its screen; instead of turning pages you just press a button, and one screened page morphs into another.

Other companies quickly tapped into the success of Amazon's invention: Sony, Philips and others also developed various models of what is generically called an "e-book" - all of which are threatening to make the paper-printed-and-bound book obsolete. Meanwhile, the main problem of reading on a screen was overcome by the various e-book manufacturers: No light is emitted by the device, and therefore reading texts on it - projected in black letters on a gray background - is no strain on the eyes; you can even adjust the font size. Indeed, the whole exercise is quite pleasant.

But before launching into the pros and cons of the Kindle, I must point out that after receiving one, I began to ponder its name, whose origins are explained in its screen saver. Of course, it is used as a noun in this case, but Merriam-Webster only mentions it as a verb: "Kindle: 1. to start (a fire) burning [which reminds one of Heine's saying that in places they burn books they will eventually burn human beings]; 2. to stir up, arouse interest" - which actually is something the new contraption aims to do, both in terms of reading in general and with respect to Amazon's business in particular.

My own immediate association was actually with various parts of the word in question, and especially with a particular quote in "Hamlet" (Act I, Scene 2): "A little more than kin, and less than kind." I deduced that the gadget-fad is more than a "kin" of the book, and almost as "kind" as one. Its name even has a sort of a Yiddish sound, with a diminutive suffix: mein kind(le).

In any event, I discovered that the greatest feature of the Kindle - and of e-books in general - is not its readability or size (which allows one to curl up in bed with it), but the possibility of obtaining the book (quite a few, but not necessarily every single one) you want to read almost instantaneously - and more cheaply than the bound version - via a wireless-connection hook-up, which is part of the contraption, at no extra cost. Now I can now easily carry around some 1,500 volumes with me in a device that is smaller and lighter than a single book.

This is all very nice, but for me the proof of the pudding is in the reading. I'm an aficionado of the book in its traditional shape and form, paper and all. And while I wholly agree that digital technology may indeed replace books when it comes to the search for reference materials, I have always maintained, at least until recently, that if the printed book has survived the advent of radio, the movies, the TV and the Internet - and has even thrived - it will probably survive the e-book as well.

But that's how I felt before I got my Kindle. Since then I have already downloaded quite a lot of books, and now carry with me the collected works of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle and Alexandre Dumas - at a total cost of less than $10. Of course, I have already read some of their works, but if I ever have the urge to read some of their lesser-known efforts, I will be able to keep myself busy for hundreds of hours.

In addition, one recent Friday, just after midnight, I had the urge to read the new play by David Hare on the recent global economic crisis, "The Power of Yes," and I managed to obtain and start reading it - not in less time than it took my savings account to be debited, as that's done online immediately - but surely in less time than it took me to construct this sentence. So even I have to admit that e-books have definite advantages.

In this context, I am reminded of the story of a man who is trying to decide which gift to buy his beloved (female readers, please adjust the gender accordingly). "Buy her a book," someone suggests to him. But our man doesn't buy the idea. "She already has one," he says. That sounds pretty preposterous if we're talking about printed books, but actually it is relevant in the case of the Kindle: Once you've seen one, you've seen them all. All electronic books look, feel and smell virtually the same. The text displayed may be different, but the thing you hold in your hands while reading will look and feel the same.

I won't rhapsodize here about the variety of paper and bindings used in printing books, or about the olfactory and tactile experience of handling them, for these are trite, romantic notions that belong to the past. But imagine a world without books that you borrow and forget to return to the library. Consider not being able to say, "Here is something you must read - you'll love it" - and thrusting a book into your friend's hand. And what about the custom of personally inscribing a book given as a gift? E-books effectively relegate an entire dimension of social intercourse to the past.

Indeed, until now, reading a book was a truly complex experience; its content was an essential factor, but not the only one. In its electronic incarnation, however, we get only what is supposedly the essence of the book: its words. But any drinker of tea or alcoholic beverages knows that while the essence is important, overall enjoyment of whatever he or she is imbibing depends on how that essence is combined with the right mixture of hot water and herbs - or mixers, in the case of a cocktail. And also, while one can also get used to consuming the same drinks or meals served in the same glasses or on the same plate every day, variety is the spice of life. It is what adds a few "jiggers" of pleasure to our reading at leisure. And that is the crux of the difference between reading and e-reading.