Confessions of a Kindle Convert

Physical books made me a writer, but ebooks made me a daring reader

When I mingle with an audience after I do a reading, I inevitably encounter at least one person who tells me, sheepishly, that they read my book on Kindle. They say it heavily, by way of a confession or an apology. This mystifies me. I am thrilled that anyone reads what I’ve published, and I’m absolutely agnostic about the format they choose. In fact, I do most of my reading on a Kindle.

Before I go further, I should say that I love physical books, and I absolutely love physical bookstores. Love them dearly. I owe my career to the support I’ve received from independent bookstores, which advocate for authors and lead readers to new and sometimes less-than-obvious choices of books. And still, I mostly read on my Kindle.

I never expected this to be the case, because the feel of a physical book was so delicious to me. But about ten years ago, when I was heading on a trip, I decided to try a Kindle just for the novelty of it. I loaded one book on it, and about a quarter of the way into the book (and the trip), I realized I didn’t like the book. There were no bookstores nearby. I was so new to the Kindle that it took me a while to realize I could order another book right off the machine itself. When it arrived, in an eye-blink, I was dazzled. From that point forward, I stopped carrying books with me when I traveled. In an era of trying your best to only fly with carry-on luggage, the space savings alone was noteworthy. It also eliminated having to decide which book I would take with me — I could take an almost unlimited number of them, or get something different once I was on the road if I changed my mind.

Most of my reading is done at night, in bed. I’ve bought every kind of book light and I hate them all. I’m not trying to sell you a Kindle, but I do love the fact that it’s illuminated, and that I can make the text big, for my late-night tired eyes. Physical books are static, and that’s part of what makes them so appealing; they’re objects that have been designed and created to have a certain effect. Ebooks reduce the experience of the book to something almost vaporous, a whisper, as if the book traveled to you on the wind. Oddly, that makes them more like where the whole undertaking of storytelling began, with oral recitation. The fixation on the book as object came much, much later than the interest in storytelling, which is as old as humankind.

I read a lot of books, and I take chances on a lot of them: I’ll come across a promising review and take a plunge. The Kindle has made me more daring that way. The books are slightly less expensive, but more importantly, if I don’t like a book, I don’t have to deal with it physically — I simply move on to the next one I’ve downloaded. My shelves are swollen with books, many of which were books I started and didn’t like enough to finish, but my attachment to the physical book itself meant I keep it, even though I probably will never finish it. Books seem immune to being Marie Kondo-ized; I think most book lovers find it hard to dispose of a book even if it isn’t much loved.

I’ve ended up doing a sort of backwards book system these days: I buy the book on Kindle, and if I love it, I often buy a real copy to have on my shelf. I wish you could get a bundled set, the ebook and the hard copy, for one price, but right now that doesn’t seem to exist.

I’m not a traitor to the cause of books. I would hate to have this be interpreted as 1)I don’t love real, live, three-pounds-of-paper-and-ink books. I do love them or 2)I don’t love bookstores, because I do. But I also love convenience, and backlighting, and simplicity, and I love not clogging up my life with stuff I don’t want but can’t throw away. So if I see you at a reading sometime and you want to tell me you read my book on a Kindle, please don’t apologize: I understand.

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own Literati.com book club (join me!)

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