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Why I'll Never Buy a Kindle

Fancy new book readers save lots of trees, yes, but I'll pass.

A green crochet cover envelopes the Kindle of Eileen Messina in Freeport, Maine. She has downloaded a number of popular titles onto her reading device – one of many new handheld digital gadgets now available to read books. New Yorker reporter Nicholson Baker wrote that Messina lamented that books at the library sometimes smelled of cigarette smoke. Baker says, “a Kindle book is a smoke-free environment.”

But a lot of book-readers, myself included, enjoy the smell and palpable history of a book from a library or used bookstore. There is something comforting about the shared experience of reading a physical book many others have read, and will read in the future. I like the story of a used book – a folded page, the markings on the margins, the hints at its past. Sure, sometimes they smell like cigarette smoke, but they can also smell like the places they’ve been, whether it’s a dusty old used bookstore or the tropical funk of Asunción, Paraguay. You can’t share a Kindle book and so history doesn’t cling to it the same way.

One bookstore in London has a display of the items left accidentally in used books that were donated to the store. In the Guardian, Theresa Malone writes that the display includes “a chest x-ray, an air freight invoice and the handwritten guest list to a party, complete with notes for the host's speech. …about a dozen photo albums containing family holiday snaps, wedding day memories, pictures of pets and more are laid out on a table for customers to browse through.”

These leftovers from another period in a book’s history aren’t something you can ever get with the Kindle. As Malone writes, “The creased spines and turned down pages, those makeshift bookmarks from a bygone age, all signs that the book, which is now yours, has been in the past a real, tangible, treasured possession.”

There is also the story of the actual geographic journey of a book, the travels of something born out of a keyboard that later takes on a life of its own. One reader wrote me to say that a copy of my first book, The Price of Fire, was on the back of the toilet seat when her toddler woke up early one morning raising havoc and ended up knocking the book into the toilet. Once, just after finishing a copy of Ramor Ryan’s book Clandestines in Argentina, my backpack – with the book in it – was stolen in Buenos Aires. Who knows where that book might be right now?

Such stories of books have parallels to the widely circulated news of 30,000 plastic toy ducks that were washed into the Pacific Ocean in 1992 when the container carrying them fell off the cargo ship. The Times Online reported that “Two thirds of them floated south through the tropics, landing months later on the shores of Indonesia, Australia and South America. But 10,000 headed north and by the end of the year were off Alaska and heading back westwards. It took three years for the ducks to circle east to Japan, past the original drop site and then back to Alaska on a current known as the North Pacific Gyre before continuing north towards the Arctic.”

Like one of these plastic ducks, one never knows where a book might end up. There isn’t the same mystery with the Kindle. As Rebecca Solnit writes in her book, Hope in the Dark , “Writing is a model for how indirect effect can be, how delayed, how invisible; no one is more hopeful than a writer, no one is a bigger gambler... You write books. You scatter seeds. Rats might eat them or they may rot..."

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