Electronic Reading

What an awful-sounding idea. It gives me the same feeling I might get from intellectual cuisine or virtual music. But in spite of that it works for me although it does get me into certain problems.

I’m not sure what to make of my strongly-felt desire to be in the company of books. For sure it’s affectation: here, look at all the reading I’ve done. But it is a true expression of taste. The first thing you see when you walk into my home is a big bookcase packed to the ceiling and I like how that feels independent of any effect it might have. Also there’s maybe not-so-credibly a librarianism involved. I can go find a lot of what I’ve read physically right there, alphabetically by author, never mind that many of my most precious and favourite titles are just gone, who knows where.

So what’s happened with my recent (I guess it’s now about six months old) conversion to reading on Kindle? I commented on this in my review of a book of David Foster Wallace’s essays, the first one I read in the new form:

I’ve been acquisitive and precious about books ever since I could read. I rank losing maybe 60% of my library, during the years between stably living with my parents or on my own in university and landing back in another domicilary stability 10 years later, somewhere up there with family members’ deaths and my discovery that I was mortal myself. So it seemed to me that switching from paper books I could clasp in my hands, smell, and squeeze into my adored bookshelves… switching to some cloud-accessible electronic binary flashes twittering in the dangerous web of the new reality, might feel like I had lost something important.

But I do read a lot on holidays and I hate dragging a painful suitcase full of books to and from airports. And the usually-ignored sensible part of me knows that paper books are, like greasy vinyl LP discs from the 70s, doomed to interest only Cluster A hoarders. It’s the same words. And those words engender experience, not a small neat paper object that 40 years from now will be yellow and falling apart, never mind I might page through and sniff it when I’m 100 years old, grasping for what its epiphany felt like in 1962 in the back yard.

Well, I was shocked at how painlessly I was converted. The first time I finished a book at 3 am and downloaded another one in about 90 seconds I knew sentimental book-fondling was over for me. Kindle is cheaper, backlit so I don’t have to keep my wife awake at night, light as a feather, totes its own dictionary, can reference back to characters’ first appearance, and as far as the art gallery epiphany is concerned it isn’t any different at all. Plus my bookshelves are full. I can smell and reminisce all I want. The switchover was like falling off a log.

Right. And now I’ve probably been through ten or more books in a row “Hachette Digital retrieved for Kindle”. They are sitting in or on my little electronic device, can be erased permanently in a second, and are also stored in a “cloud”, the ontology of which I don’t understand, and don’t really want to.

So how am I supposed to retrieve or preserve the affectation, aesthetic feel, and pseudo-academic record that having all my paper books in my possession provided? Well, the book reviews on this site are my substitute. Everybody who gets an e-mail from me can click on the link at the bottom, I can go to the site and look at it anytime I want, and I trust in the redundancy and robustness of the internet probably more than it’s reasonable to presume a house full of combustible physical objects isn’t going to burn down.

It’s a good thing I have a little more time on my hands these days, because maintaining the reviews is a slightly but consistently demanding little task. Still, I like it, and I guess I estimate that the commitment and emotional content of my new way of reading is at least equal to those of the old one.

So no, unlike a lot of people I know and admire I’m not that particular kind of Luddite. It surprises me a bit but there it is.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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