At a recent dinner party I aired my impression that Kindle books weren’t much cheaper on Amazon than real books. Friends looked at me like I was crazy. I can see why now, if they go only to the Kindle store. On Christmas day, my own new
Kindle in hand, I priced Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel The Help in hardback: it’s listed at $24.95—while the Kindle version is only $12.99! But wait. Visiting the regular Amazon store on my laptop computer, I saw that the actual discounted Amazon price for the physical book was $12.84—a whole fifteen cents cheaper than the ebook. And as an “Amazon Prime” member, I get free shipping, so there’s no extra cost to get a hard copy.
All around, the electronic version of The Help would cost me more, especially since I can’t resell a digital book but could unload my used copy for a few bucks. Plus, The Help is in paperback for only $9.99, so the Kindle version costs three dollars more than what I actually would buy. (There appears to be a bigger spread on Amazon between some hardbacks and the Kindle price: Bruce Marchart’s stunning debut novel The Wake of Forgiveness, not in paperback yet, was $16.57, while the Kindle copy was $14.30.)
I’ll get beyond my common, kneejerk notion that ebooks ought to be much cheaper than physical ones. And in theory, more money will flow from digital sales to publishers and writers. In practice, I’ve read, a bigger cut is going to middlemen like Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Anyway, my main idea in having Kathy give me a Kindle wasn’t to save money but to stop amassing books. I’m not good about reselling or otherwise moving them along, truth be told. Our bookshelves and basement are jammed. Plus the Kindle seems great for travel, during which I often lug at least four books.
Shopping for my Kindle, I noticed, I paid more heed to Top Sellers. Stieg Larsson’s thrillers lured me more strongly, as did the crowd-pleasing (but reportedly also fine) The Help. The Kindle makes me want to get with it rather than seek out quirky masterpieces. But am I really a reader if, buried in thirty-year-old books, I miss one sensation after another? What about living, and reading, in one’s own time? Lately I’ve wanted to read more bestsellers anyway, partly to keep up with my friends who aren’t writers but are readers. They scarf the bestsellers, and the best of those books are pretty darn good. Hey, Laura Hillenbrand’s new nonfiction blockbuster, Unbroken, is sixth on the Kindle Top Sellers list!
And yet on Christmas day, trying to decide the first book I’d read on my Kindle, I defaulted to a classic American novel long on my list and again in the movie theaters: True Grit. Sorry: Charles Portis’s classic—forty-two years old—hasn’t been Kindled yet. Finally I downloaded Jonathan Franzen’s celebrated novel Freedom and J.H. Moehringer’s acclaimed memoir The Tender Bar. I dipped into each and quickly quit because the reading experience just didn’t feel the same. I’ve since realized what’s missing is, um, the humble physical page. We grow up with the convention of the 8.5 by 11-inch page, which publishers shrink and yet honor. We unconsciously gauge any publication in terms of its size in relation to that measure. The reason I can write happily on a computer with electronic words probably is because Microsoft gives me a mockup of the page upon which I bonded, so to speak, in grade school. Ereaders’ words are pureed from that highly evolved structure.
Then I realized at the gym how nicely my Kindle would have nested above the handlebars of the exercise bike I was laboring upon in acute boredom. And the other night in the car, Kathy driving, I whipped out my Kindle and, pulling a nifty nightlight antenna from my Kindle’s fragrant leather case, I read the first part of Freedom. I heard the narrator’s voice and was swept along by the story. Yet I realized what I really miss about the physical page is being able to dog-ear it. I understand there’s various ways to flag things digitally, but that’s not the same as my practice of immediately marking the pages at section breaks. I want to know how a writer structured the story, and I want to see and feel how many physical pages were allotted for each act. I enjoyed the first section of Freedom, but have no sense for how long it is in relation to the whole book. Reading as a writer, this bugs me. It may matter less for certain books, like collections of short stories or essays, because the Kindle would preserve their internal structures in the form of paragraphing and line breaks.
Maybe one can develop a sense for length in relation to the whole with ereaders, though I doubt it. Perhaps I’ll read mostly collections. My Kindle may be the ticket for reading Montaigne’s essays (albeit probably not in my favored translation). I’ve loved listening to audio books while driving, so maybe this is yet another issue of using each medium in its proper place. And I have to admit that I feel strangely suave and au courant when I gaze downward upon the sleek Kindle. Like I’m a model posed in some strangely compelling future. The device brings out in me a misplaced and curious vanity.
Novelist Nicholson Baker touches on this odd egotism, amusingly calling the Kindle the “Bowflex of books,” in his testy 2009 New Yorker essay about his ereading experience. He hates words on Kindle’s gray screen. And:
Photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well [either]. Page numbers are gone, so indexes sometimes don’t work. Trailing endnotes are difficult to manage. If you want to quote from a book you’ve bought, you have to quote by location range—e.g., the phrase “She was on the verge of the mother of all orgasms” is to be found at location range 1596-1605 in Mari Carr’s erotic romance novel “Tequila Truth.”
He liked Sony’s e-reader more, and ultimately Apple’s iPod or iPhone with Kindle app (now, presumably the iPad, too). He favors their bright backlit screens, since he reads in bed when he awakes in the middle of the night, and says it’s sharpness of type that readers truly crave, not freedom from fatiguing glare. In this jibe, of course, he strikes at dedicated
ereaders’ proudest claim, that they’re not backlit, so they can be read in sunlight, or read longer, or something. Eventually, however, he loses himself in a novel on the Kindle. He never says a darn thing about the structural issue that irks me.
As my children noted without sympathy, I might have foreseen this obvious difference instead of getting all high and mighty about the fact that, although electronic images replaced paper and typewriters for me as a writer long ago, it appears impossible for ereaders to ape the way I maul physical books. Anyway, I’ve since gotten engrossed in Freedom. (The Kindle’s Location Bar, or whatever it’s called, says I’ve read “34%” of Freedom, a dispiriting and unhelpful factoid that only reminds me I’m flying blind through its structure.) I’m totally smitten with the novel—maybe I’ll buy the paperback when it’s issued and reread it. And maybe I’ll learn, or be told by better users—like those who bothered to read the owner’s manual—there’s a miraculous workaround for my own idiosyncratic objection.