I have always loved to read fiction. Stories transport me back and forth in time, sometimes to other lands. I fall in love with characters and cry when they hurt or die. Once, during my medical internship, when I was completely exhausted and pent up from having to “soldier on” without processing what I was feeling for 2 days, I went home, pulled East of Eden off the shelf, and found a passage I knew would move me to tears. The relief was extraordinary. Books can do that. I almost always have a fiction book going; if it’s a bad one I find myself grumpy and out of sorts. If it’s a good one I skip through my day in anticipation of getting back to it. Sometimes I’ve completely ignored responsibilities and read all day long. In those rare times when I’m between books, with nothing, I’m unsettled. It doesn’t happen often because I don’t let it happen.
My books always came from libraries and used book stores, or were loaned by friends, and I tried to keep several at the ready. When I moved to eastern Africa in 1989 I had a problem. There were no libraries or easily accessible bookstores, and loans from friends couldn’t fill the need. I’d return to the US once a year and fill a suitcase with paperbacks. It felt so good to stack them in my ever-expanding bookcase back home in Tanzania, like looking at a feast laid out on the dining table. But I had to ration myself to make them last a year.
My family gave me a Kindle sometime in the mid 2000s. It sat in a box for months. When I turned it on, I wondered if I really wanted to read the particular Jane Austen that appeared on the screen. I put off reading the necessary non-fiction I’d need to do to learn to use the Kindle and it lay several more months in the box. Eventually my guilt grew large – after all, it was a present from my family. I dug in. I learned that the Jane Austen book wasn’t even on the Kindle. I learned how to find free books for the the device. I got used to clicking to turn pages. I delighted in the built-in dictionary. I took a trip somewhere and realized I could take dozens of books with me in a device smaller than a trade paperback. If I didn’t like a book I quit and went on to another. I read at night in bed as I’d always done, propping a flashlight precariously to light the page, but it was far easier because I didn’t have to fiddle with the light position as I switched from even to odd numbered pages. One night in Botswana, riding back to my hotel after an exhausting field trip, I craved a return to my current whodunnit set somewhere green and cool. I watched an English colleague on the bus open her backlit Kindle and escape into it. What was this brilliant idea? I bought that upgraded model the next time I went to the US and it solved the teetering flashlight problem. I learned how to check out e-books from the library I still belonged to in the US. During that time, I was traveling around east and southern Africa, maybe two weeks out of every month, but internet was increasingly available. I didn’t have to worry about running about of reading material. I gorged on books.
These days, I must confess that, although I read a novel or two each week, I don’t read more than three or four “physical” ones a year. I don’t miss turning the pages or feeling the heft of a book in my hand. The arthritic nodule I’d developed on my wrist from contortions with the book and the flashlight during long insomniac nights has subsided. I don’t miss thumbing through to look for a passage because I can use the search function to do that on my Kindle. There are many advantages to the device.
But there are drawbacks. I miss walking past bookshelves in my house and seeing old favorites there, just for a second remembering the joy I got from a particular story. I miss standing in front of the shelves with visiting friends, pulling down this one and that. “Oh, and have you read, this?” Some camaraderie has been lost in not being able to borrow and loan books. A peculiarity of using a Kindle is that I often forget the title of my current book because I don’t see it every time I pick it up. And cover pictures are a thing of the past. The “beginning” that one clicks to on a Kindle is the first page of writing and only with deliberate effort will I see the cover or learn who published the book and when.
Reading an essay by Ann Patchett recently, thinking about what her bookstore means to her and her community, I felt both sad and mildly guilty that my fiction is all consumed from a Kindle now. Something has been lost. But then, there are those advantages. I am so fortunate in having grown up in a reading household, of learning early the joys of reading stories. This love has helped me through hard times and ennui. And what is literature? Isn’t its importance in how it transforms our thinking, maybe our brain structure, as we grapple with new concepts and ideas transmitted by language? Isn’t it the delight or sadness or any of dozens of emotions stimulated by an artful or clever arrangement of words? Listening to others read aloud is a time-honored way to enjoy stories and literature, without scanning printed pages. Indeed, although I don’t use them myself, many people love audio books. Surely the essence of story, of literature, is every bit as strong on an electronic device as it is on a sheet of paper. And I’m still supporting authors when I buy their e-books, or check them out from libraries. I admit to a certain unease, but I think this medium is here to stay.