Kindling for a fire

The new Amazon Kindle offers buyers a downloadable selection of over 270,000 books, 1400 blogs and at least 20 of the hottest U.S. newspapers and magazines around. All items are available for purchase – and delivered in less than one minute – to your electronic-paper screen, which looks and reads like real paper. Kindle comes at a cost of just $359, along with free book samples, first chapters and Wi-Fi access to Wikipedia.org. You won’t even have to locate a hotspot; they’ve already done that for you. Oh, and remember: You will be able to carry over 200 titles on your Kindle wherever you go, cable-free and without wireless bills. And this baby only weighs 10.3 ounces.

So what’s the problem? That’s exactly the point. Kindle seems to have it all figured out: It eliminates paper-waste, is more spatially effective, is easily transportable and, for those with bad eyes, has a built-in magnifying system. Kindle makes a New York Times bestseller available to you from your bed at just $9.99. It’s Netflix for the literary-minded.

Yet Kindle hasn’t made as big of a splash as it should have, given its aesthetic and technical grace. The reason? That most students, especially those at Williams, are the kind of people who keep a book by their bedside at night and know what books smell like. The majority of students and people equally invested in the pursuit of knowledge, are people who have an ideological attachment to books that rejects the reason and logic embodied by Kindle. No surfeit of freebies, promos or benefits will move the faithful from the ritual of literally walking into a bookstore and browsing something other than a Web page.

The digital age will continue to evolve. Two weekends ago, a panel of renowned journalists came to Williams to discuss the future of newspapers and magazines in a digital age. When Kindle was inevitably brought up, it was compared to the iPod, and it is fair to say that Kindle, or objects like it, will ultimately replace books the way that iPods have made the physical purchase of music hopelessly outdated. Given that books have been around for several centuries, we may hope that the replacement of books by digital readers will be more gradual. Yet given that the turnover rate of knowledge is as rapid as it is, it won’t be long before even Kindle is overtaken by a model that is lighter, faster and has the capacity to store two or three times what Kindle now stores.

Will people refuse to read books simply because they appear in digital form? Probably not. In fact, surely not, because the same “materialists” that delight in the tangible novel will most likely never stop reading. What is lamentable is not necessarily that books will no longer have physically turn-able pages, or that opening up your Kindle account to download the latest Grisham novel won’t grant you a whiff of paper and ink. It is that the act of publishing, the setting of the type and the printing of books, will become obsolete, and with it, the camaraderie between cadres of book-readers.

Late-night book openings for Harry Potter or the latest Twilight novel will not fill bookstores with costumed wizards and vampires. Instead, children and parents will sit at home and, with the click of a button, receive that same book in less than a minute. The notion of the book swap will inevitably turn into a pirating of downloads that will drive the publishing business even further into the ground, and the novelty of a favorite, underlined passage will be replaced by digital book-marking and an artificial highlighter.

Will Water Street Books be driven out of business by Kindle-carrying freshmen? It’s hard to say. More likely is the creation of a generational gap, similar to the one that is observable in the Williams classroom almost daily, wherein professors inevitably defer to the younger generation’s fuller understanding of cords, programs and multimedia. Yet given the research that Williams students do almost daily in Sawyer and Schow, and the tattered copies of books that are passed down year after year as a kind of homage to the pursuit of intellectual curiosity, Williams students definitely have something to worry about. What will be the future of that effort-sapping thesis, recorded on everlasting paper, when the digital kings come out to play? Is there a place for the light-sensitive manuscripts of the Chapin Library of Rare Books in an age of Kindle? Not to worry: the answer is online, attainable with the click of a button, a single minute and 99 cents.

Rebecca Gordon ’09 is an English and art history major from Newport Beach, Calif.