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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Kindle Series No. 1: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your Kindle (?)

What I need to know is, can the Kindle deliver a book like "Madame Bovary"
into the hands of the next generations?
October 27, 2010 
By Hugh Gilmore

            Is anyone willing to trust me with his or her Kindle for a few days so I can test-drive it? I'm serious. And I'd be willing to mention you in a future column (in a positive way, too!) as the "kind person who trusted me to borrow his/her Kindle" so I can see what it's like to read an entire book on an electronic device. I'll also mention anything else you'd like said about yourself ("great smile," for example, or even "avid reader").
            I don't want to buy one just yet because they're still rather pricey and I'd hate to find out that I don't like reading that way. I am open-minded on the subject, however, and want to give it a try. It would be fabulous if you've got a downloaded copy of "Madame Bovary" also, because I developed a yen this week to reread that book, probably last read by me almost 20 years ago. But I'd pay for a Bovary download if necessary. 
            The notion that I should read a serious and time-tested literary masterpiece on a Kindle came about in this way: I've accepted that a high-adrenalin book, a thriller or mystery, would be easy to get through on a Kindle because of their "and then" type of plots. But, what about a quiet, contemplative, deeply serious book? Would that be readable when squooshed into the confines of a small electronic screen?            
            How about a sentence like this, from "Madame Bovary: "... no one can ever express the exact measure of his needs, or conceptions, or sorrows. The human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out a tune for a dancing bear, when we would wish with our music to move the stars." I'd like to know if I could comfortably read a passage like that on a Kindle and feel as though I'd just fallen through into outer space, as I did the first time I read those words. 
            I'm not, believe me, trying to set this up so that Kindle will fail my expectations. If the medium is capable of carrying any message, as books are, I'll be delighted. I'll feel I've added a tool to my reading kit.
            Now, as to why this subject has come up at this time. Like all great, international, historic issues, this question arises from a small domestic scene. Which is: nearly every time I pass my son's room (Andrew is 24), he is looking at a computer screen. I don't stop and bother him; I simply sigh a bit and feel a twinge. The next time we are alone, taking a car ride somewhere, for example, I ask in as innocent a fashion as I can: "So, are you reading anything lately?"
            "Not right now," he says. "There are a couple of things I want to start soon though."
            "Oh," I say, "well, that's good. I'd like to hear about them when you get around to reading them."
            All very vague. Like all parents. I wish my child would read more. There's nothing more reassuring than the sight of your child curled up with a book. That blankety-blank computer, and those darned iPods are destroying the minds of our nation's young people. That's what I think usually.
            But then, one day, I thought, Well, what is he's doing when he's staring at that screen? He doesn't play games. He's reading. And he's taking in information. In his case, the content most often concerns the history of some aspect of American entertainment: humor, jazz, vaudeville, early recording equipment, always set within the historical events that affected their form and content. (For example, Patriotic songs of World War I, or, pre-Hays code cartoons and the length of Betty Boop's skirts).
            About a week ago I walked by Andrew's room and had a sudden realization. If he were sitting reading the same information from a book I'd feel happy. Followed by the question, So, what's more important: that he have a book under his nose, or that he's driven to learn about a subject he's interested in? Even if the information comes from an electronic screen?
            My reluctance to accept the electronic book must be equivalent to the head shaking people did when automobiles replaced horses. No more dainty, reassuring, clip-clops as folks pass by outside the window. Just the dismal roar of the future whizzing past.
            So, yes, okay, I'm certainly happily served by computers now and I'm comfortable with them. And I accept that e-publishing is very soon going to nearly eradicate print publishing. And I imagine it must be pleasurable to read a best seller on an electronic reading device. Those of us who grew up loving the feel and smell and sight of printed books will murmur and yearn nostalgically to the end of our days, but what's coming is coming. Ours will also be the last generation to say we remember being children and seeing horse-drawn carts delivering milk. And holding new books in our hands.
            So be it. But what I need to know is, can the Kindle deliver a book like "Madame Bovary" into the hands of the next generations?
            I'm willing to find out if one of you will lend me your Kindle for a few days.



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