Tuesday, December 14, 2010

New books for Holly, an e-reader for me

Holly had a sparkle in her eye as she stepped off the bus. “The book orders came in!” she burst out as I greeted her.

She showed me the two books she’d ordered earlier this month, and her excitement was palpable as she ran her hands over the covers. One was a chapter book about a dog who covers some remarkable distance under unimaginably adverse conditions – plague, draught, monsoon, nuclear holocaust – to get home to its owner; that’s a story you can never hear quite enough. The other was a kids’ almanac, hundreds of pages of facts about things like presidents’ birth dates and the topography of various countries. Holly’s little fingers were almost twitching as she starting paging through them even before we left the bus stop.

I knew how she felt. The sensation of new unread books…there’s just nothing quite so thrilling. Anything could happen inside of a new book. Anything. Whether it’s the moment that you’re stacking them on the counter at the bookstore or packing them in your suitcase to bring on vacation, the sight, smell, feel of new books carry promise beyond measure.

And yet I’ve recently gone over to the dark side where the sensory pleasures of new books are concerned. I bought a Kindle six weeks ago and am utterly hooked. It’s true that you don’t get quite the same thrill as looking at a stack of paperbacks, but there are other advantages, and until I saw Holly’s eyes sparkle over her new books today, I didn’t miss real books at all.

Because with a Kindle, I feel a little like Scarlett O’Hara holding up the onion and crying out “I’ll never go hungry again!”, only it’s “I’ll never go book-less again!”

My sister is one of those people who literally never leaves the house, or probably even any room in the house, without a book in hand, so whether she’s waiting in line at the bank or watching her daughter’s swim meet, she has reading material at the ready. I’m not good about that. I always hit one extreme or the other: if it’s just a short trip, such as picking up a child at a birthday party, I don’t think to bring anything to read and end up sitting silently in the car for ten minutes waiting; but if it’s a long trip, like a week of vacation, I go overboard, bringing everything I could possibly want to read during that time: a novel, a work of narrative nonfiction, a new handbook for runners, a couple of weeks’ worth of newspapers, a few issues of the New Yorker, a recently published cookbook. If I’m lucky, I might get through one or two of these while I’m away. But I can never decide ahead of time what I might want to read, and I have an inordinate anxiety about being far from home and wishing I’d brought something different to read, so I bring it all.

But not anymore. With the Kindle, I not only have all the reading material I want no matter where I go – newspapers, magazines and books – but also I no longer have to remind myself that just as my sister has always known, no trip is too short for it to be worth bringing a book along just in case. Everything that once was a waste of time is now a reading opportunity: the line at the supermarket, the wait for Holly’s bus, the time it takes Tim to get his hair cut. Last week I was responsible for serving refreshments at the town Christmas tree lighting and had to stay inside watching over the hot cocoa while the crowd waited outdoors for Santa; in the eight minutes it took for the antique fire truck to arrive bearing the guest of honor and his elves from the fire station, I finished two stories in the New York Times Magazine.

So while it’s true that the look and feel of a new book are a thrill, the convenience of the Kindle is pretty hard to beat, at least in my estimation. I’m happy with my choice. And yet I was also happy to see Holly’s delight today poring over her book order selections. Probably nothing can instill a love of books quite like the material objects themselves. So I’m glad that for her, the genuine article still matters.

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