It was almost unbelievable, the price Amazon was asking. I had to refresh the page to make sure that what I was seeing wasn’t a mirage of wishful thinking. Fifty dollars for a Kindle Fire was almost unbeatable. Somehow Jeff Bezos’s flunkies had figured a way to make the tablet version of Amazon’s e-reader less expensive than the regular ol’ Kindle.
I hesitated, my virtual finger on the “Add to Cart” button. What would this mean for my reading? For so long, I’d treasured owning physical copies of my books. Did this mean I’d never buy another paper book again? And what about the other, more tablety functions now readily available? Surely my attention span couldn’t outlast the temptation of Tetris Blitz just a tap away. I bought the thing anyway.
The first book I remember owning was a gift from my first-grade teacher entitled “Walter the Baker” by Eric Carle, the same genius that brought the world such adverb-centric titles as “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and “The Very Busy Spider.” (My guess is that no kid in his or her right mind would read about a caterpillar that was kind of hungry or a spider that was a little busy – there’s nothing extraordinary about that!) It was a heavy white book with glossy pages that shined in the light when you turned them. I read it over and over, but, inevitably, I grew older and moved on to more difficult reading levels.
It was in the second grade that I first discovered Harry Potter at the annual Derby Ridge Elementary Scholastic book fair. I might have been one of the only kids to actually care about browsing shelves of books in search of my next reading project, not just getting out of class for 15 minutes. I have vivid memories of flipping through the off-white pages of the catalog they’d send home with us, scanning for sweet new stories and deals that could convince my parents to shell out the (maybe) $8 to satiate my literature lust.
Before we walked in our single-file lines to the book fair, the teachers would warn us to never judge a book by its cover. It was only later that I learned that this was just something that parents said to their dorky kids to make them feel better about being lame because I judged the shit out of the cover of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” and now that nobody can argue otherwise, I can safely say that I was the first kid in my grade at my school to start reading it. Granted, the first chapter was more difficult than anything I’d ever read up to that point, but I persevered and finished the book. Several times.
I know exactly where to find my copy of “Sorcerer’s.” Sure, it might be stuffed into a plastic tub in the unfinished area of my parents’ basement, but it’s there. “Walter the Baker” is also there, tucked away in another plastic tub filled with other precious elementary school memories. I’d wager that, of the books I’ve read, 85 percent of every book could be found in a storage bin at home.
This touches on one of the fears I had going into my purchase of a Kindle. There’s something magnetic about seeing a pile of books that you’ve read, wished you read, or will probably never read. But they’re yours. It’s hard to think that a Kindle full of books could elicit a similar feeling. I’d owned one before, but I lost interest in it because it felt off, like finishing your degree a semester late, after most of your friends have already graduated. But what was it really that kept me away from e-books? The previous two paragraphs were only drummed up only after I remembered my copy of “Sorcerer’s.” It’s not entirely irrational to think that these same memories wouldn’t have existed had I purchased the book online instead.
I’ve had a previous run-in with Kindles. I owned one way back in college and used it pretty regularly. However, the screwy thing was that with Amazon, I sometimes ended up paying more for electronic copies of books than the physical versions. This didn’t sit well with me. If I’m paying all that money (that I don’t ever see anyway) for something, I better freaking be able to hold it in my hands.
The idea of ownership has plagued me for a while now. My history of owning media — mainly music, television shows, movies and books — has covered every point on the spectrum. I have an equally fond memory of setting up Napster for the first time with my dad and brother. Sure, we were all participating in something that was totally illegal and cost some people tens of thousands of dollars in court and legal fees, but we were doing it as a family. Just like the last season of “Breaking Bad,” except without the drugs and death and stuff.
Even though we had Napster (and eventually Limewire), I still owned CDs and DVDs. Partly because they made easy gifts around birthdays and Christmastime, and partly because I became more interested in owning my own things as I matured. When you reach middle school and junior high, your personality is constructed almost entirely on what you have. To be more specific, middle school personalities were built on your favorite things. Bands, books, movies, TV shows, sports teams, athletes. When MySpace rolled around, we were able to easily catalog all of this information, even going so far as to rank our favorite people. (The big debate was always whether you’d make your girlfriend your top friend or not. It took real strength, as the best friend of someone, to allow a slip in your own ranking for a relationship you knew wouldn’t last longer than your next class.)
I eventually amassed a nice little collection of CDs once I started driving. I was late to the iPod train (owning a MiniDisc player seemed cooler then than it does now), and so I relied heavily on a solid rotation of Weezer, Rage Against the Machine and Killers albums. At the time, buying physical CDs was still a pretty normal thing to do. And I never really stopped, even after I finally adopted the iPod and used streaming services.
It isn’t pretentiousness that keeps me buying CDs (or music for that matter). It’s almost fear, really. Fear that I’ll somehow lose my computer or the music on it, fear that my phone will be dead and I can’t charge it, rendering my streaming service useless on a long car ride. More than that though is that I listen to full albums more often when I own them, as opposed to one or two songs that I’m familiar with. Plus, bands reward the few of us who buy physical copies of their albums by including cool, sometimes interactive artwork (see Father John Misty’s latest album for a great example). Being able to hold it in my hands still means something to me.
However, you could make the exact same argument for a physical book vs. digital copy. The paper, cover, and texture aren’t picked at random. There’s an art to designing a book. Aesthetics and function are all considered, and when you pick that copy up after it finally gets delivered to your apartment (because, naturally, nobody is buying that thing at a bookstore), you appreciate the effort that went into the design in a way that’s foreign to reading an e-book.
My old Kindle got discarded somewhere in between sophomore finals and Ayn Rand’s goliath “Atlas Shrugged,” which I’m glad to say I never finished. I returned to reading physical copies of books because, y’know, I just liked the smell, man. There’s something so special about holding a real book in your hands. Blurghhhh. I’ve thought and even said this before. But while there is a difference between flipping paper pages and clicking a button, you’re still reading the same book.
I justified my Kindle purchase by reasoning that I could save money on book costs by using the public library’s e-book database. I remember thinking how amazing it was that they just let you read the book, and then immediately remembering that’s exactly what libraries do. Plus, I tend to read faster and more often on my Kindle than with a physical book, probably thanks to consistent weight and font size (I own two different copies of the “Lord of the Rings” because the second copy has a larger font, making it easier on my eyes and more bearable to read).
It’s always been a dream of mine to own a house with a full library. The thought of having a room dedicated to the books I’ve read and books I want to read is comforting, like being able to revisit moments in time where I felt a certain way. Seeing memories lined along the walls, spines colorful and bland, each one conjuring up something previously unremembered. Scrolling through my Kindle’s library is nowhere near as appealing.
I made a promise to myself to purchase physical copies of books that I really enjoyed. Hopefully this newfound plan will help the vetting process, so to speak. I’ve already discovered one that I know I’ll buy sometime soon (“Station Eleven” by Emily St. Mandel). As the world moves further toward digital everything, I’ve made a subconscious and now conscious effort to hold on to the physical world. The idea that what I’ve carefully chosen to own — to allow to take up real, tangible space in my life — will last beyond my own life, is essential to who I am.