by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
I feel about Kindle the way St. Augustine felt about chastity: someday, Lord, but please not yet. In the by-and-by I will get one, if only because books by Richard Fernandez can only be “auto-delivered wirelessly,” as Amazon puts it. Right now, though, the moment is just not in sight.
I love physical books: the look, feel, smell, and weight of them. When I hold an old book, I remember the story—a true one—of an elderly librarian who wandered his collection, stopping to stroke the books and muttering: “Don’t worry, my darlings. They’ll never turn you into microfiche.”
Raise a glass to that man. An archivist to the bone, he was a guardian of the tangible history of thought. Improbable as it might sound to digital natives, information is a tool but love of reading is a way of life. And like any love, it has a physical dimension. There is more to it than simply ingesting print. Love of reading begins with pleasure in the look, feel, and weight of a book. Even the smell of books—seasoned ones—carries an enchantment. Redolent with memory, they do more than conjure the past for us. They bind us to it.
Digital literacy, that darling of techno-utopians, competes now with physical books and the solitary, contemplative print culture they nourish. Evangelists of screen reading predict that the paper book won’t be around much longer. Consider, then, a contrary possibility: that in this digital age, books and the book arts matter more than ever before.
Reading a book on a screen is a bit like walking a mechanical dog. The thing can follow commands (Highlight these lines! Fetch page 73! Get the index!), but it has no soul. It will never love you back. You cannot stroke the binding, finger the spine, feel the ribs of laid paper, or relish a deckled edge. Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb tells of growing up in a home where a book—any book, not just the Tanakh—was kissed in apology if it fell on the floor. Would anyone kiss a Kindle?