Books as Objects and Notable Articles and The Future of the Book

The E-Reader of Sand: The Kindle and the Inner Conflict Between Consumer and Booklover

By posted at 6:00 am on August 15, 2011 60

“I can show you a sacred book that might interest a man such as yourself” – Jorge Luis Borges, “The Book of Sand”

1.
Like many people who love to read, I exist in a paradoxical state of having both far too many books and far too few. I probably don’t have many more than the average literature lover of my age, but I live in a smallish apartment, and it often feels hazardously, almost maniacally overcrowded with books. A precarious obelisk of partially read paperbacks rises from my bedside table, coated in a thin film of dust. My shelves are all two rows deep, stuffed with a Tetris-like emphasis on space-optimization, and pretty much every horizontal surface holds some or other type of reading material. I haven’t read nearly all of these books (many of them I haven’t even made a serious attempt to get started on) but that doesn’t stop me from accumulating more at a rate that neither my income nor my living space can reasonably be expected to sustain.

This is, on occasion, a source of mild tension between my wife and me. She’s a reader too, and likes having a lot of books about the place, but she also likes to have space for all those other objects that you need to have around if you want your home to look like a home, and not a drastically mismanaged second-hand bookshop. Every time I come through the door with a couple of new purchases, or carefully rip open a padded envelope from Amazon, I can’t help being aware that I am engaging in a small act of domestic colonization, claiming another few cubic inches in the name of the printed page, in the struggle of Lesensraum against Lebensraum.

coverThe situation has been deteriorating for years now and, up until very recently, wasn’t showing any signs of potential resolution. Then a friend gave me a gift of a Kindle, slyly mentioning that he was doing so, at least in part, as a benevolent intervention into my shelf space situation. I’m not sure I would necessarily have chosen to buy an e-reader myself. I am more or less your typical bibliophile, in that I have always loved books almost as much for their physical properties as for their intellectual ones. I like the way a well-made paperback flops open in the hand, the briskly authoritative slap of its pages as it closes. I enjoy the feel of a hardback, its solidity and self-enclosure, its sober weight, the whispering creak of its stretching spine. I like the way they smell, too: the slightly chemical tang of new books and the soft, woody scent of old ones. (If you’re picturing me crouched in a corner of your local bookstore like some sort of mental case, a Library of America edition of Pale Fire pressed to my face, you can stop right there: it’s an incidental pleasure, not something I pursue with any kind of monomaniacal intensity).

coverMy point is that I, like a lot of other people, enjoy books as objects. Despite the difficulties that can arise from their accumulation, I like that they occupy physical as well as mental space. In fact, I quietly entertained the futile hope that the whole idea of e-books and e-readers would prove to be a transitory fad, that everyone would just somehow forget that books were cumbersome and comparatively expensive to produce and not especially good for the environment and that they could very easily be replaced by small clusters of electronic data that could be beamed across the world in seconds without ever taking up any actual space. I did not want what happened to CDs to happen to books. But then I took this small, smoothly utilitarian rectangle of grey plastic out of its box and fired it up. Within minutes, I was beginning to understand its crazy potential. In no time at all, I had downloaded a small library of free, out-of copyright classics. There is, obviously, something to be said for being able to walk around with the complete works of Tolstoy on your person at all times without fear of collapsed vertebrae or public ridicule. There is also, just as obviously, something to be said for having immediate access to a vast, intangible warehouse of books from which you can choose, on a whim, to purchase anything and begin reading it straight away. It occurred to me that Borges would have been thrilled and horrified in equal measure by the Kindle. In fact, in a weird way, he sort of invented it (in the same way that Leonardo “invented” the helicopter and various other gadgets).

2.
At the beginning of his story “The Book of Sand,” the unnamed bibliophile narrator — like Borges himself, a retired librarian at the Argentine National Library — hears a knock on the door of his apartment. At the door is a Scottish Bible salesman. When the narrator informs him, somewhat superciliously, that he has more than enough Bibles to be getting on with, and in more than enough rare editions, the salesman replies that he is also in possession of a strange volume he bought for a few rupees and a Bible from an illiterate untouchable in Bombay (“people could not so much as step on his shadow,” we are informed, “without being defiled”). He shows the narrator this clothbound octavo volume and, as he examines it, “the unusual heft of it” surprises him. The Bible salesman tells the narrator that the illiterate from whom he bought the volume “told me his book was called the Book of Sand because neither sand nor this book has a beginning or an end.” The narrator then tries to find the book’s first page, and quickly realizes that this is impossible, because it is as though the pages “grew from the very book.” He encounters the same problem in trying to find its final page, and stammers his disbelief at the impossible object he holds in his hands:

“It can’t be, yet it is,” the Bible peddler said, his voice little more than a whisper. “The number of pages in this book is literally infinite. No page is the first page; no page is the last.”

The narrator realizes that he has to have the book, and offers the salesman the entirety of his pension along with an extremely rare edition of Wyclif’s black-letter Bible (thus repeating the salesman’s previous symbolic exchange of holy scripture for this impossible text that seems at once to encompass and to blaspheme against the natural, Godly order). The Book of Sand now in his possession, the narrator spends his days and nights in contemplation of its mysteries, gorging himself at its inexhaustible font of texts. Before long, he begins to realize that the book itself is “monstrous,” and that his possession of it — and its possession of him — has made him somehow monstrous too. “I felt it was a nightmare thing,” he tells us, “an obscene thing, and that it defiled and corrupted reality.” He considers burning it, but fears that “the burning of an infinite book might be similarly infinite, and suffocate the planet in smoke.” He decides that “the best place to hide a leaf is in the forest,” and the story ends with his discarding the Book of Sand on a shelf of damp periodicals in the basement of the library, taking care not to take note of where he’s hidden it so that it is effectively lost to him and, he hopes, the world.

coverI’m very fond of my Kindle. For the reasons I’ve outlined above, I think it’s an ingenious little gadget. But in my more hysterically Borgesian moments, I also think that there is something obscene about it, something that defiles and corrupts a reality I don’t want to see defiled and corrupted. It’s a tiny thing, really — smaller, in fact, than my paperback Penguin Classics edition of The Book of Sand. And yet the number of pages it contains is, if not quite “literally infinite,” at least potentially infinite. No page is its first page; no page is its last. If I place it on one of my shelves, if I slip it between, say, two creased and dog-eared volumes of Borges’ stories, it sits there unobtrusively, slimmer than any of the books around it. And yet it has the uncanny, shape-shifting potential to encompass all of them, to embody them all both individually and as a whole. Unsettlingly, it makes all those other books appear suddenly unnecessary, superfluous, seeming to haunt them with the imminent prospect of their own redundancy. It’s an elegant coincidence that the microprocessors that facilitate its mysterious magic are made from silicon, which is extracted from the silica contained in sand. The Kindle is therefore, in an oddly literal sense, a book of sand.

What I think gives Borges the jitters about his Book of Sand is the way in which it — like the Aleph in his earlier story “The Aleph” — paradoxically contains an infinity within a finite space. Like so many of the uncanny objects in his work, it exerts a terrible, transformative pressure on reality. And the Kindle exerts its own transformative pressure, albeit in a more banal fashion. I don’t mean to imply that e-readers frighten me, because they don’t. They are no more monstrous or evil than any other example of a new technology replacing an old one (and the book itself is, after all, a piece of technology: a gadget of ink and paper and glue). But their ascendency does make me a little sad, because I know when I use my Kindle that, even though there are important ways in which it can’t even hope to compete with civilization’s greatest invention, there are equally important ways in which it effortlessly surpasses it, and that these are the reasons why the e-reader will end up replacing the bound book.

3.
coverThis was brought home to me recently when I received a copy of Adam Levin’s colossal debut novel The Instructions, which I recklessly agreed to review for a newspaper. The thing is over a thousand pages and is, in its hardback edition, considerably larger and heavier than any other book I currently possess (including a Norton Complete Shakespeare that, until The Instructions arrived, did bestride its narrow shelf like a Colossus, and ruled it with an iron fist). By way of illustrating the physical magnitude of Levin’s novel, let me make the following peculiar admission: during a moment of whimsical distraction one day last week, I discovered that it was possible to insert into the generous space between the book’s spine and its inner binding not one but two standard-sized mouth organs that happened to be lying on my desk as I read it. Whatever obscure advantage might be gained from being able to secrete two wind instruments inside the binding of a book, any object of that size is going to be difficult to carry around (with or without mouth organs). And if you’re reading a 1,030 page novel to a reviewing deadline, you’re faced with a tricky conflict of practicalities: in order to get it read, you want to be able to take it with you if you have to leave the house, but lugging the thing around on a train or a bus is no joke, given that its volume and weight are roughly comparable to that of a hotel minibar.

So I did the obvious thing, and decided to see whether I could download The Instructions from the Kindle Store. When I found that the e-book version wasn’t yet available, I was briefly seized by that most contemporary (and stupid) of irritations: that of being denied a convenience that didn’t even exist until very recently. Granted, Levin’s novel is an extreme example, but it got me thinking about the unassuageable forces that the book as an object, as a cultural artifact, is up against. The history of what we call progress is a catalogue of ways in which the desire for convenience has trumped almost every other concern. As I’ve said already (and perhaps even overstated to a suspicious degree), I love books, and I would rather not live in a world where they might end up as little more than interior décor affectations or, like vinyl records, fetish objects for a small but dedicated coterie of analogue cultists. E-books are not perfect, and the experience of reading them is, I think, still inferior enough to that of reading a real book that, all things being equal, I’d almost always choose the former. But the CD, as any audiophile will gladly tell you, is a far superior format to the MP3 in terms of sound quality and fidelity, and when was the last time you bought a CD? When was the last time anyone you know even bought a CD? Even my dad gets his music from iTunes now. I still have a small bookcase filled with CDs, but I haven’t added to it for years at this stage and, because I don’t even have a CD player anymore, they basically just sit there reminding me of a rapidly receding past in which recorded music used to have a physical presence.

No matter how badly I want to, I can’t quite imagine a possible future in which ink and paper books might somehow avoid the same fate. The insatiable desire for ever more and ever newer forms of convenience that drives our global economy and our technological culture leaves a scattered trail of obsolescence in its wake. As much as I don’t want my bookshelves to become part of this trail of obsolescence, I can already see early warning signs of my own desire for convenience — for instantly getting what I want, for not having to deal with mere objects in all their cumbersome actuality — beginning to outrank my love of the book as a physical thing. I don’t want my identity as a consumer, as a ruthless pursuer of the most user-friendly and cost-effective option, to supersede my identity as a booklover. I don’t look forward to a future in which my Kindle (or whatever device inevitably succeeds it) is the only book on the shelf. But it’s a future I’m fairly convinced is awaiting us, and it’s one that I, as a consumer, am playing my part in advancing us toward. There are moments when I wish I could follow the lead of Borges’ retired librarian and bury my book of sand on some obscure shelf in a library basement and just forget all about it. But then I realize that the thing is just too useful, too crazily convenient a tool to not embrace. And then I tell myself that it’s not possible, anyway, to shelve the advance of technology, and that history is filled with examples of beautiful things being supplanted by more efficient versions of those things. Ultimately, you’re never going to win an argument against convenience, no matter how much you love the anachronistic, heavy, unwieldy, and beautiful thing you want to save.

 

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60 Responses to “The E-Reader of Sand: The Kindle and the Inner Conflict Between Consumer and Booklover”

  1. range
    at 6:19 am on August 15, 2011

    I do read some ebooks, but I dislike the process. I’ve come to the realization that I need to get an ereader, probably an iPad. I don’t like paying for ebooks. I like paying for physical things, like books.

  2. Janet
    at 7:31 am on August 15, 2011

    I am on the same page as you. I was gifted a Kindle, probably because my book hoarding is worthy of intervention. I keep it in my bag so I never find myself in that stifling position of having nothing to read. It is comforting to know I have access to a library in case of boredom or being stranded on an island.
    I still love my books though, and do not think the demise of paper publishing is that imminent. This one is actually a replacement e-reader because the first one was defective which proved the fact that books are still better: they rarely break, and do not need recharging. Even when they are well-used, slightly damaged, or centuries old, they still WORK! Bibliophiles like ourselves will always still collect tomes to appease the addiction and decorate our homes. And, yes, to inhale deeply the smell of paper and ink and that indescribable scent of literary magic.

  3. Kris
    at 8:55 am on August 15, 2011

    Mark – Really great points here about the space issue, which is indeed a problem, especially for city-dwellers. I was recently in the same boat … I had to move and found that more than half the battle was getting books from one apartment to the other, and then unpacked onto bookshelves… and of course many of my friends joked I should chuck them all and get a Kindle.

    What I’m curious about though is this… I can see the benefits, hugely, of being able to transport the complete works of Tolstoy or The Instructions… but does that appease the impulse you mention in the beginning, to accumulate new books that you know you aren’t going to get around to reading for a while? I think a lot of book lovers do this too – I know I do! I’ll pick up Tropic of Cancer or The Moviegoer because I’ve heard a lot about them, and then they sit around for years.

    So my question is… does having a Kindle mean that now you impulsively buy those same sorts of books but in e-form, and they sit on the hard drive? (I can see doing that with non-copyright books, but not as much with something I had to pay for?) Or do you not feel that impulse as much because you know that the Kindle would allow you to buy them at any point, if you really wanted to read it?

    (PS – I recently wrote a similar article, though I do see a future where books and eBooks can peacefully co-exist… :) http://electricliterature.com/blog/2011/08/09/literary-artifacts-the-gutenpad-bible/)

  4. Nick Moran
    at 9:09 am on August 15, 2011

    Great piece, Mark.

    Whether this is the voice of my hope or the voice of reality, I find it harder to concentrate when I read a digital book. Something about the buttons, the impermanence, the infinity beyond the words. As a Kindle-owner, I tend to view the tiers of book releases in this way:

    1. Hardcover releases are bought almost never, saved solely for monumental “it” books I must read in order to keep up with water cooler chatter; (e.g. The Pale King, Freedom).

    2. Paperback releases which comprise the majority of my purchases.

    3. Kindle editions which for me tend to be only those books I would like to read once and have no interest in ever re-reading. Most recently this was Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and before that it was Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars.

    To me, the type of book long considered the “beach read” has a perfect home on the Kindle. It’s portable like you say, and it doesn’t require page-flipping or the tracking of marginalia, two things the Kindle will need to address if it wants to totally supplant printed books. Though, like I said, perhaps that’s wishful thinking.

  5. Emilio Largo
    at 9:50 am on August 15, 2011

    My thesis: No book threatens the human species to such a dizzyingly terrifying extent as the radiation emitting, lap-dwelling Kindle/Ipad. My nuts are my future, and I’m sure as hell not putting a gonad murderer near them. Long live The Book.

  6. Craig
    at 10:02 am on August 15, 2011

    It’s not the medium, it’s the message. For me, books are all about narrative and language. The fact that they are in digital form means nothing. I can still hear the music when I read on my Kindle. I love books, but they’ve never been a physical obsession of mine; it’s always been about story and what it means to be human. You can find the answers discovered by various artist through all the arts, in various artistic forms and mediums. And in various forms of presentation.

  7. Peter Krass
    at 10:19 am on August 15, 2011

    If e-books bother you (as they well might), then why not simply continue to buy physical books? That simple option does not seem to be seriously considered here.

    So what if others are doing differently? You’re a reader — so start following the advice of all those wise books you’ve read. March to the beat of your own drum, etc.

    As far as overloaded bookshelves go, why not simply rid yourself of some old, unloved, unread books? Recycle, sell, swap, donate, etc. It’s not that complicated.

  8. Mark O'Connell
    at 10:36 am on August 15, 2011

    Kris: I don’t have quite the same compulsion to buy e-books, no. So far, I’ve tended to buy electronic versions of books I don’t really have any desire to have hard copies of, to keep around for re-reading or reference or whatever. Although it’s early days yet, I can’t see myself buying an e-book of, say, The Brothers Karamazov over a hard copy. Looking forward to reading your piece.

    Nick: Yeah, I’m pretty much handling the paper/e-book divide the same as you then.

    Emilio: That’s a whole other can of worms you’ve just opened.

  9. DAS
    at 10:44 am on August 15, 2011

    In the future we have been told that our walls will be covered with some sort of material that will be able to display any sort of image we want. In movie depictions we usually see amazing landscapes.

    Why not a wall of books instead? The homeowner moves his hands about in some sort of conductor-like motions and the image zooms in to a particular section, then on to a particular book. The book is then visually removed from the shelf and opens for the reader who remains comfortably ensconced in the couch.

    You can even have a slight odor of paper injected into the A/C to complete the experience.

  10. Peter Krass
    at 10:58 am on August 15, 2011

    One more thing – Reports of the CD’s death are highly exaggerated. CDs still account for 2/3 of all recorded-music sales, says Nielsen.

    And vinyl? Sales in UK just reported up 55 percent.

    Not that digital isn’t trending. But that it is neither total nor irresistible.

    For CD, vinyl stats: http://mashable.com/2011/08/15/vinyl-record-sales-rise-uk/

  11. Sue Lange
    at 11:20 am on August 15, 2011

    I prefer CDs. Mostly because I like the buttons on the CD players. It’s easier to find where I’m at in a song when I try to learn a new one. I guess there are mp3 players out there with old-fashioned buttons, but I haven’t found them and I’m not interested in looking as long as CDs are available. That’s the question, though, isn’t it. How long will my preferred format be available?

    As for books, there is one major advantage to books that no one ever mentions. You carry it around and people can see what you’re reading. It’s great for prestige if you are reading Dostoevsky. On the other hand an e-version of Karamazov would be infinitely easier to search if you were doing a piece on, say, all of Ivan’s rants or something. Print books are a drag when it comes to finding quotes and passages quickly.

  12. Random Linkage « Writing and Rambling
    at 12:15 pm on August 15, 2011

    […] insult to injury, I started off my day (post-garage) by reading this. I enjoyed it very much and agreed with him entirely, right up until he reached his conclusion. […]

  13. daveweiden
    at 12:38 pm on August 15, 2011

    I echo everything that’s been said about the pleasures of actual books. But, as the owner of a Kindle for just over one month, let me add one benefit of the Kindle that I’ve not seen mentioned yet. I like to take a book into a bar and have a beer and read. Yet, I often get quizzical stares if not actual hostility. Reading the Kindle at a bar seems to evoke fewer strange reactions, perhaps because people think I’m just surfing the Web. My .02. . .

  14. S.
    at 12:46 pm on August 15, 2011

    I can’t even read beyond number 1. ‘Smallish apartment’ is never an excuse! Get a bigger fucking home.

  15. bibliotech
    at 1:13 pm on August 15, 2011

    I still prefer the public library to all other options for book reading. I can download ebooks from them but there is a waiting list for most digital editions that is longer than the waiting list for the print edition.

  16. JS
    at 1:53 pm on August 15, 2011

    Good luck enjoying passing your Kindle down to your kids, or finding that rare edition of a 50 year old book in the used book store in the future? Will the Kindle be the demise of the paper book? Probably not, but it will drive up prices while decreasing quantities which will make it harder for book stores to stay in business (we are already seeing that now)! And, I hope we’re all enjoying the plenty in used book stores these days b/c that will be a thing of the past. The Kindle is kind of like the cell phone 15 yrs. ago – everyone thinks they HAVE to have one and they justify it in 100’s of ways but the reality is that we got along for decades (phone) and hundreds of years (Kindle) whithout them. How many people do you see use a pay phone these days; or even have a land line? If you’re terrified of finding yourself in the position of not having anything to read while you’re out and about, for heaven’s sake, stick a book in your bag/purse, it’s not going to give you scoliosis people!

  17. The Kindle and the Inner Conflict Between Consumer and Booklover « the liquid researcher
    at 7:26 pm on August 15, 2011

    […] more: http://www.themillions.com/2011/08/the-e-reader-of-sand-the-kindle-and-the-inner-conflict-between-co… Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  18. Tyson
    at 8:39 pm on August 15, 2011

    A few thoughts about this subject:

    This morning a man walked into our library’s coffee house with a copy of City of God lashed to his backpack. So I started up a very pleasant conversation with him about early medieval philosophy. That simply would not happen were he carrying it around on a Kindle.

    Every e-reader out there outside of the iPad utilizes a distinctly horrendous user interface. I’ve spent plenty of time with the Kindle and can only come to the singular conclusion that is was designed by a truly demented engineer lacking a single aesthetic neuron. While still not preferable to a book, at least iBooks on the iPad does a decent job of translating how we interact with books into the electronic medium.

    Oh and what happens when Amazon, a company that has only existed for about 15 years, goes out of business? Poof, there goes all your reading material. My hardback books, on the other hand, will survive.

  19. AM
    at 9:28 pm on August 15, 2011

    A very entertaining article. It reminded me the days of mp3 onslaught. CDs are still around but every new car comes with an iPod dock, no more storing piles of CDs. On the other hand iTunes have launched a culture of downloading a single and the rest of the artists work may just go into digital waste land. There is no right or wrong when it comes to aesthetics. I am still a book person, mainly because I find it hard to focus with the eReader. But on the other hand when I really crave a book, it is so easy to download. I am hoping I will evolve into a digital reader someday, before the books become scarce.

  20. minimalist
    at 9:33 pm on August 15, 2011

    I don’t romanticize paper and glue so I see the transition to digital books as an exciting thing as opposed to an invitation to wring my hands and worry about the inevitable. We could also waste a lot of time lamenting the demise of the literary journals and newspaper books reviews but notice where we are all reading this article?

    I guess there will always be some who always think the sky is falling. Instead of lamenting the lack of bound paper artifacts to fill my shelves I see huge potential in the rise of eBook based social networks of ebooks that tie us all together with like-minded readers no matter how esoteric our taste. I could waste my time fretting about the future of independent booksellers. But it’s a lot more exciting to ponder the tremendous gains eBooks offer for readers in less cosmopolitan areas who now have friction-free access to hundreds of thousands of books they might have never encountered before.

  21. My Daily Tweets 08.15.11 « memoirs on a rainy day
    at 10:48 pm on August 15, 2011

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  22. Dan
    at 11:47 pm on August 15, 2011

    I think you have been smelling too many books…

  23. Daniel
    at 12:50 am on August 16, 2011

    E-books are great, portable and easily available. The one thing I don’t like about them is that they are easily forgettable. A real book comes in a format in which each book has very unique characteristics, its weight, smell, front cover, the creases, etc. When you finished reading a real book, you store it in a defined space and you sometimes glance at it in the living room. An e-book always comes in the same container, font, spacing, etc. You read it and then you do not see it any longer, lost in long list of books in your reader. I have read many physical books and I remember nearly all of them. I recently read a few e-books and I am already starting to forget about them.

  24. sasg
    at 6:38 am on August 16, 2011

    I love the feeling of books too. But I suppose the environmentalism in me is going to win this inner conflict. E-reader books don’t use paper so there’s less cutting of trees. Most books don’t use recycled paper. Also, the space issue, is a huge issue. I need as much space as I can muster. Also, it’s just practical, e-books are cheaper. Though there are some books that I’ll still buy, ones with beautiful hand made covers and illustrations. But for the most part, I use my ereader.

  25. Nathan
    at 7:40 am on August 16, 2011

    To all those who list reasons why physical books are better than ebooks: I agree with you! I don’t think I will ever prefer reading off a screen over a book, but it won’t matter. ebooks *will* replace paper books.

    There’s nothing in the laws of nature that say books must be the way they are. They are an invention like an other, albeit one that has been around for 500 years, and their time has passed. The supposed benefits of printed books won’t matter any more than the benefits of film over digital cameras, or CD’s over mp3s or any of the other technologies that have fallen by the wayside.

    I will always prefer books, but my children won’t. To them it will just be the way we read things, and they won’t pay any more attention to us when we talk about the good old days of printed books than I do to my grandmother when she talks about the many benefits horses have over cars.

  26. Betty Everdene
    at 11:43 am on August 16, 2011

    I love holding a book in my hand too, but not my lifelong faves that have turned to fungus. An archivist I know told me to wash my hands or wear gloves. Ugh! Too sad! Buy new? Not when they’ve been dumbed down! Not to mention the wonderful collection left by my friend and dumped out by his kids. No, I can’t even think about that. Nevertheless, books were my friends growing up and still are – they just don’t need to be physical.

  27. Lisa
    at 12:29 pm on August 16, 2011

    You are totally speaking out what I was thinking for quite a while now. I love the heavy-soft feeling of a good book in my hands. Unfortunately, I also appreciate the portability and convenience of ereaders. Still I prefer reading books when at home (with a cup of tea, in my favorite chair)!
    Thank you so much for your article speaking from our hearts!

  28. Ralph Jones
    at 12:39 pm on August 16, 2011

    I’m curious about how something that is heavily footnoted like Infinite Jest would read in an e-reader. I’m both amazed and scared how easily digital media is freeing up all this space. I like your article, it got me thinking.

  29. justaphotographer
    at 2:13 pm on August 16, 2011

    I still buy cd’s. Not many mind you, and mostly only ones I think I’ll be listening to for years. But I still buy them (and play them on my DVD player – another object not long for this world) because when you download something from iTunes or Amazon you don’t own that file, you always, in some measure, license it. While that in itself isn’t bad, the fact that the file is not a physical object means it can be more easily lost or destroyed or erased, either accidentally by you or perhaps as the infamous Amazon incident illustrates, by the corporation that “sold” it to you. So yes, I do buy books, I do buy cd’s, and until the problem I’ve sketched above is not resolved I will continue to do as for as long as its feasible.

  30. Lauren F. Boyd
    at 8:08 pm on August 16, 2011

    This is a great post. As a writer, I always enjoy finding out what people think about reading a book on an electronic device versus reading a physical book. I really hope the traditional publishing industry survives this e-wave because I, like you, appreciate tangible books – and excitedly await my own work appearing in this form.

  31. The future of the book « Digital Authors Australia
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    […] future of the book Yesterday I came across this really well-written article by Mark O'Connell on 'The Millions' web site, titled The E-Reader of Sand. It started many echoes […]

  32. Seth
    at 10:37 am on August 17, 2011

    Will future generations even understand the bound book references in “The Book of Sand?” Obviously, you use this particular Borgesian reference to illustrate the infinite pages within your Kindle, but seriously, without the reference point of an actual book with pages in it, will people understand what a “clothbound octavo volume” is? Your love for this new technology – which, whether you like it or not, outweighs your self-professed love of books – threatens to push stories like “The Book of Sand” into quaint obsolescence. Will we be a better society for it if that’s the case?

    As someone who has the same “arguments” with my own wife over book space in our home, I hear you – but I can’t bring myself to eliminate (or have a hand in the elimination of) the objects that I care so much about.

    Great post, by the way, even if it makes me sad.

  33. Family Life Stories » Blog Archive » Physical books vs. E-books
    at 12:29 pm on August 17, 2011

    […] came across this thought-provoking essay over at The Millions written by Mark O’Connell about one reader’s love of books and the cognitive dissonance […]

  34. Elyse
    at 1:23 pm on August 17, 2011

    Thanks for this. I’m a book-lover; I love holding them. But I’ve been considering a Nook/Kindle for many of the same reasons: price of books, convenience, portability. This article much more eloquently explained all the reasons I do and don’t want one. I think I’ll get one :)

  35. Tttttt….tweeter! Tttt tweeter pet! | Ars Longa, Vita Brevis
    at 8:07 pm on August 17, 2011

    […] relationship with his Kindle, told as a metaphor to The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges: http://www.themillions.com/2011/08/the-e-reader-of-sand-the-kindle-and-the-inner-conflict-between-co…  I have felt all of these emotions, but have not expressed them in such a lovely manner. Definite […]

  36. A Long Goodbye for D&D – metagame
    at 8:08 pm on August 17, 2011

    […] There’s more than one rea­son. Much of the fade in pop­u­lar­ity can only be blamed on William Shock­ley and Al Gore. These days, if you’re the socially rejected, mod­er­ately escapist child who D&D has his­tor­i­cally appealed to, we have things for you. They’re called video games. And the inter­net. Sure, they may be more expen­sive than a Player’s Hand­book, but they demand a lot less work. It is eas­ier to learn to play WoW than it is to make a sin­gle role­play­ing char­ac­ter, much less build dun­geons or whole cam­paign worlds. And more impor­tantly, these vir­tual fan­tasy worlds are open 24/7/365. I believe this is true: The his­tory of what we call progress is a cat­a­logue of ways in which the desire for con­ve­n… […]

  37. On The Shelf: e-Readers, Borges, and The New Weird « the contextual life
    at 6:01 am on August 18, 2011

    […] his essay this week, The E-Reader of Sand: The Kindle and the Inner Conflict Between Consumer and Booklover, Staff writer for The Millions Mark O’Connell spoke for all of us book nerds when he reflected on […]

  38. filigreegirl
    at 8:34 am on August 18, 2011

    It’s probably only a matter of time before I am the owner of some brand of electronic reader. It will not mean that I ever willingly give up the joy of reading a real live book or stop buying books, or stop patronizing my public Library.

    As I was reading your article I started to think in terms of an author, which I am not but would like to be in the great someday, and being a manufacturer (one who actually produces a product and not just a thought), I have to wonder about the satisfaction an author must feel when his or her book is published, and they hold a copy of their baby and proudly show it off to the world. This cannot happen when all a person has “published” is available at the whim of a satellite and some silicon chips.

    I’m torn.

  39. Bruce Miller
    at 8:39 am on August 18, 2011

    This is a very well-written and thoughtful article, however, it contains one giant error and some of its poetry is dependent on a (no doubt unintentional) sleight of hand to cover this mistake: the kindle is bad for the environment, printed books are less so. Printed books are made from a renewable resource and are recycled for hundreds of years as Borges well understood. Ereaders are small computers with many toxic elements that will need to be disposed of as new “generations” are manufactured. The additional satellites and batteries the ereader infrastructure requires are NOT green but ultimately polluting, so putting the ereader o the bookshelf does not change these facts.

    I’m not suggesting no one should use a computer or a TV, but let’s be honest about the consequences of our actions even if we “love” the kindle.

  40. Geek Media Round-Up: August 18, 2011 – Grasping for the Wind
    at 9:02 am on August 18, 2011

    […] E-Reader of Sand: Kindle and Inner Conflict Between Consumer and Booklover […]

  41. Cary Loren
    at 11:38 am on August 18, 2011

    A major impact unmentioned seems to be the entire editorial process and publishing/ bookselling network that will be threatened as the e-reader funnels our resources into a single outlet such as multi-national giants Amazon or Google. The control and diversity of a book’s content was once somewhat democratically spread out among thousands of booksellers, editors and publishers making informed decisions.

    As this network has been ruptured and further degraded it seems likely that decisions of what books get distributed, published (or corrupted) in the future will rest in the hands of a couple gadget makers. That decision making process was once tested by the rise of the big box chains bookstores. The kindle seems less likely a source of infinite variety and more like a prison cell for multitudes. I don’t think the future is entirely bleak for the physical book and would hope that publishers and book lovers will help to ensure it.

  42. Lluis
    at 6:57 pm on August 18, 2011

    I enjoyed your musings on e-readers, but as an actualy audiophile I’d like to clear something up: mp3 is indistinguishable from CD quality in blind tests, provided the bitrate is V0 or higher (~240kbps). Furthermore, certain online stores sell digital music in formats that match or even surpass CD quality (44.1KHz, 16 bit lossless). Hope you’ll forgive this pedantic intervention, I’m on a crusade of sorts to clear mp3’s name. Cheers.

  43. Jenny
    at 6:59 pm on August 18, 2011

    I think you captured the conflict most bibliophiles feel about eReaders perfectly. I’ve owned an eReader for over a year, but I really only use it when I’m on the go. I love the way books look in my house and on my shelves, and curling up in an oversized chair in pajamas while it’s raining outside with an eReader just lacks the same appeal. So, for now at least, I’m sticking with printed books.

  44. minimalist
    at 8:29 pm on August 18, 2011

    “mp3 is indistinguishable from CD quality in blind tests”

    The assumptions about CD’s being better quality then mp3’s are directly analogous to the assumptions that paper books are better than eBooks. Fundamentally they are emotional positions and are often repeated by people suspicious of technology.

  45. Slip slidin’ away… « View From the Ledge
    at 6:22 pm on August 19, 2011

    […] – The E-Reader of Sand: The Kindle and the Inner Conflict Between Consumer and Booklover, by Mark O’Connell Reading Bench, Northport, August 2011 © Jeff Kopito […]

  46. Stu
    at 9:32 pm on August 19, 2011

    By the way, The Instructions is available right now as an e-book, via an in-app purchase through the McSweeney’s iPad app.

  47. Kirsty
    at 7:38 pm on August 24, 2011

    Mark – thanks for this beautiful article – it really resonated with me – from living in a house where the overflowing bookcases threaten to topple on unsuspecting passers-by (we actually have a small room co-opted as a ‘library’ that the kids currently call “the scary room” due to the real risk of being crushed if you bump too violently against one of the stacks), to the guilt of unwrapping another book that has arrived at the door which will encroach yet further on the family’s space, to the fact that I travel a lot for work and nothing beats my e-reader for long transatlantic flights when you have a 7kg total carry-on limit – I never could pack enough books for each trip, but now I can read contentedly without pause, which is bliss.

    Daniel’s earlier comment is something I have noticed as well though – I remember books I read in physical form far better than those I read on my e-reader. The sheer ‘physicality’ of the experience – the cover, the weight, the smell, etc – somehow manages to cement what I have read just that bit more strongly than uniform electronic text.

  48. Traci
    at 12:18 pm on August 25, 2011

    Think, too, of how a nook or Kindle does nothing for impoverished libraries in not-so-fortunate places in the world. How in the world can a Kindle help a library in sub-Saharan Africa? I’ll continue to send books.

  49. Tegan
    at 1:32 pm on August 26, 2011

    As an independent bookseller in a neighborhood bookstore that sells ebooks through Google ebooks on our store’s website, I have to point out that the Kindle is the ONLY ereader to which I cannot sell. In addition to the quandary about real books vs. paper books, Kindle owners have to confront the dilemma of whether to support independent booksellers or amazon.com. Users of any other ereader (nook, iPad, etc), whether they purchase paper books or digital books, can shop with indies regardless of format and thus keep bricks and mortar bookstores in communities so readers and authors still have a physical place to gather, buy, and celebrate the written word.

  50. Laurie Kingsleyl
    at 12:20 pm on August 28, 2011

    Until ereaders have resolved the problem of glare in outdoor settings, I will always take a book to the beach, my favorite outdoor cafe, my backyard.

  51. theoncominghope
    at 9:50 am on August 29, 2011

    I read Infinite Jest on the Kindle, and I have to say that it is a MILLION times easier to read than in print, as the footnotes are actually hyperlinked!

  52. the book of sand in the modern age | the paper's edge
    at 12:23 pm on August 29, 2011

    […] lovely and essential newsletter Shelf Awareness directed my attention to this article recently; I was astounded to find perhaps the best, and most gorgeous, analogy to the advent of the […]

  53. Lettore e consumatore « minimo.
    at 7:53 am on September 17, 2011

    […] L’e-reader di sabbia: il Kindle e il conflitto interiore tra consumatore e lettore – di Mark O’Connell (via Terza Pagina) […]

  54. Is the medium affecting the message? « Making Book
    at 5:25 pm on October 9, 2011

    […] The Millions Mark O’Connell gives a thorough and touching review of the advantages of ebooks over the physical objects. Just the […]

  55. Interesting thoughts about ereaders vs. real books. // Parker has a website.
    at 7:12 pm on November 25, 2011

    […] Interesting thoughts about ereaders vs. real books. […]

  56. Chazzbot
    at 4:22 pm on December 2, 2011

    I love this essay, but I realized a potential flaw in the author’s argument when I started looking for the print button so I could preserve the essay in a hard copy. I will probably not be able to access this web page forever, but if I keep my print copy carefully, I can read the essay anytime. I love reading on my Kindle, but if I come across a book I really like, I want a hard copy. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Even if we someday reach a point when we can access any book ever written at any time electronically, I think people will still want old-fashioned books.

  57. Rod
    at 8:32 pm on March 4, 2012

    I love to read, and in saying this, it doesn’t really matter what I read,just as long as long as I do. I have a ton of physical books and love being surrounded by them, but the convenience of carrying around many books, newspapers, magazines in a device lighter than a single paperback can’t be beaten. I agree with those who choose physical books over e-books for their favorites, but what I do for books that totally rock my world is to buy the physical version for my real library and buy the e-book

    for my nook STR for my read anywhere version on the subway, bus or waiting for the oil to be changed in my car.

  58. Why I won’t read e-books | joshjulieblog
    at 2:02 am on March 19, 2012

    […] ebook is going to take over. It is inevitable. This essay in The Millions, by Mark O’Connell convinced me. It  is very convincing. It also helped me get a […]

  59. gladly
    at 10:05 am on August 22, 2012

    I’m a late adopter of nearly everything. While I’ll probably own an e-reader within the next few years, I won’t do it until they sort out the rights issues that prevent me from lending a book from my own or borrowing a book from a friend’s library. Or, even giving that e-book away to someone. Until my e-library gives me the same rights as my physical one, I am wary of e-books.

  60. Link tag Tuesday #91 – accidents, Kindles and underwater photography
    at 3:41 am on August 28, 2012

    […] found this article on The Millions website about Kindles very interesting.  It discusses the inner conflict between being a consumer and being a booklover, […]

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