Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Devil Kindle

I was over at a friend’s (Doug Merrill) house one day when I was about thirteen years old. Standing in their cavernous living room, I happened to notice the family’s spectacular collection of books. Such things would not normally command the attention of a hormone-sopped teenager, but the Merrill’s book stash was particularly impressive to me because it required a gleaming, track-mounted stepladder to reach its topmost heights. The room itself was always impressive: ceiling many stories high, arched by truly substantial wood beams, and floor to ceiling windows overlooking a cliff on the most glorious point on the Severn River - maybe all of Anne Arundel County.

But for some reason that day, it was the books that caught my eye.

“Man, you all have a lot of books,” I said to Doug. “Where’d you get them all?”

Doug looked at me with a bit of a confused expression. “Those are my mom & dad’s books… They’ve read all those books.”

I didn’t argue, but nor did I believe that any two human beings could devour such a towering stack of prose and history. I didn’t really believe him.

Well, now Teresa and I have our own budding library. It’s not quite as impressive as the Merrill’s, but to be fair, Teresa and I have not had as much time as the Merrills when I stood marveling at their hoard that day. But now that I look at our own, I am beginning to think that ours might rival Phil & Ellie’s someday in the not-too-distant future. I’ve revised my calculation of whether the Merrills actually read all those books, and offer my apologies to Doug. In retrospect, it’s not all that surprising – his parents had to get all that formidable knowledge from somewhere.

The End

Well, now Teresa has gone and gotten a Kindle. She won it at a charity auction and was up all night, playing with it, downloading various books, articles & newspapers. I was similarly intrigued, and although I’ve been avoiding it because I don’t want another travel gizmo that needs to be recharged in my hotel rooms, I must admit that I was smitten.

But walking through the library today, I stopped, looked around and realized that our unofficial book collection project has officially ended. We’ll never catch the Merrills. From now on, every book that Teresa buys will be electronic. It will sit on the virtual shelves of her Kindle, rather than on our real shelves.

And that’s a real shame. There’s something majestic in a hoard of real books with real pages and real worn bindings. I’ve even got a section in our own library with all of our college textbooks, from Serge Lang‘s Calculus to Nordhaus’s Economics. What a pleasure it is to walk into someone else’s library, crane your neck sideways and learn a little about what makes them tick.

As technology has continued its ineluctable march through history, delivering one feature packed device after another to make all our lives easier, I’ve often made fun of those who choose to spurn the latest thing, calling them Luddites.

But standing in our library today with a hole deep in the pit of my stomach, I couldn’t help but think that maybe even I might have to spurn this latest bit of technology. Who knows, maybe all those Luddites were onto something.

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