Why I’ll Never Buy a Kindle

Why I’ll Never Buy a Kindle

First published in Alternet

November 17, 2009

Written by Benjamin Dangl

A green crochet cover envelopes the Kindle of Eileen Messina in Freeport, Maine. She has downloaded a number of popular titles onto her reading device – one of many new handheld digital gadgets now available to read books. New Yorker reporter Nicholson Baker wrote that Messina lamented that books at the library sometimes smelled of cigarette smoke. Baker says, “a Kindle book is a smoke-free environment.”

But a lot of book-readers, myself included, enjoy the smell and palpable history of a book from a library or used bookstore. There is something comforting about the shared experience of reading a physical book many others have read, and will read in the future. I like the story of a used book – a folded page, the markings on the margins, the hints at its past. Sure, sometimes they smell like cigarette smoke, but they can also smell like the places they’ve been, whether it’s a dusty old used bookstore or the tropical funk of Asunción, Paraguay. You can’t share a Kindle book and so history doesn’t cling to it the same way.

One bookstore in London has a display of the items left accidentally in used books that were donated to the store. In the Guardian, Theresa Malone writes that the display includes “a chest x-ray, an air freight invoice and the handwritten guest list to a party, complete with notes for the host’s speech. …about a dozen photo albums containing family holiday snaps, wedding day memories, pictures of pets and more are laid out on a table for customers to browse through.”

These leftovers from another period in a book’s history aren’t something you can ever get with the Kindle. As Malone writes, “The creased spines and turned down pages, those makeshift bookmarks from a bygone age, all signs that the book, which is now yours, has been in the past a real, tangible, treasured possession.”

There is also the story of the actual geographic journey of a book, the travels of something born out of a keyboard that later takes on a life of its own. One reader wrote me to say that a copy of my first book, The Price of Fire, was on the back of the toilet seat when her toddler woke up early one morning raising havoc and ended up knocking the book into the toilet. Once, just after finishing a copy of Ramor Ryan’s book Clandestines in Argentina, my backpack – with the book in it – was stolen in Buenos Aires. Who knows where that book might be right now?

Such stories of books have parallels to the widely circulated news of 30,000 plastic toy ducks that were washed into the Pacific Ocean in 1992 when the container carrying them fell off the cargo ship. The Times Online reported that “Two thirds of them floated south through the tropics, landing months later on the shores of Indonesia, Australia and South America. But 10,000 headed north and by the end of the year were off Alaska and heading back westwards. It took three years for the ducks to circle east to Japan, past the original drop site and then back to Alaska on a current known as the North Pacific Gyre before continuing north towards the Arctic.”

Like one of these plastic ducks, one never knows where a book might end up. There isn’t the same mystery with the Kindle. As Rebecca Solnit writes in her book, Hope in the Dark, “Writing is a model for how indirect effect can be, how delayed, how invisible; no one is more hopeful than a writer, no one is a bigger gambler… You write books. You scatter seeds. Rats might eat them or they may rot…”

With a Kindle on the other hand, you know where it will end up – with the rest of the toxic trash heaps that our newest technical gadgets are eventually destined for. Baker of the New Yorker writes that the Kindle is “made of exotic materials that are shipped all over the world’s oceans; yes, it requires electricity to operate and air-conditioned server farms to feed it; yes, it’s fragile and it duplicates what other machines do; yes, it’s difficult to recycle; yes, it will probably take a last boat ride to a Nigerian landfill in five years.”

However, the Kindle does save trees, and in a country that trashes 83 million tons of paper annually, that’s no small task.

But whatever happened to just going to the library? As Kiera Butler writes at Mother Jones, “The San Francisco library bought 78,445 books in 2008. Let’s assume each of the library’s 2,265,209 visitors borrowed two books.” By doing that “You’ve reduced your reading emissions to 42 pounds of CO2, nearly an eighth of what they would be if you bought all your books new.”

Maybe your local public library has shut down, like so many other cash-strapped libraries across the country. Columnist Katha Pollitt points out, “If the government can bail out the banks that are so deeply implicated in our current troubles … Why can’t it support libraries and schools and publishing by stocking the public bookshelves with inviting new books and hiring staff to keep the doors open?”

Instead of shelling out hundreds of dollars for a Kindle, why not just go to the library for the book you’re looking for. And when you’re there, hand a check for the money you would have spent on the Kindle to the librarian.

With Kindles we lose more than the smell of cigarette smoke on the pages of a library book. As one character in Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451 said, “Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion.”