Paper or plastic?

A lot of stuff has been said recently about the Kindle, Amazon’s paperless literature machine. Is it worthwhile? Ed Champion has 10 reasons why it’s not. Is it practical? Condalmo says, at $400, not really – especially since the technology isn’t even complete. Is it even desirable? Not to Tim – he’s sticking with paper.

Here’s the common theme. While the Kindle, with a special paper-like screen and amazing capacity, may be a technological marvel, it’s still not a book. It’s just not the same. It just doesn’t have the same feel, the same interactivity, the same person-to-person connection – from one person’s printer to another.

It may be everything a book isn’t – space-taking, non-searchable, cumbersome – but that’s just it. It’s everything a book isn’t.

Reading on its own is a fully interactive experience. Interactive in the old way of thinking – in that you actually interact with the material. You touch it, you smell it, you carry it with you and it becomes a part of you. You take pride in holding it, knowing there’s a flood of words right there under your hand – real words, printed, with ink.

Maybe I run in a different circle of people, but nearly everyone I know is against reading for pleasure on a computer screen. Words are tend to be difficult to focus on. Computers need to render words and spaces and everything in between artificially, so the eye is unable to process it the same way as it does words on paper. Even with new paper-like technology, it still suffers from the same disconnect – those words aren’t printed on there, and you know it, and that makes it instantly erasable, temporary, not as important.

With the solid, wood pulp page, however, you’re getting something concrete, something with an infinite resolution, something that exists not just as code, but as cold, hard reality, as a manufactured bundle of matter, able to be held and transferred and stored and forever found exactly in its original form without fear of losing the content therein or finding it incompatible with the current program platform.

Ultimately, in things of aesthetic value, we go back to what we’re familiar with. We seek out things that are real. True. We want pure orange juice, real butter and pure maple syrup. We settle for the fake stuff, usually because it’s cheaper. But we’d rather have the full out real product. It’s perceived as better. It is better. Sure, imitation vanilla flavor is easier to make, cheaper, and more widely available. I’d still take the real stuff any day.

In other words, improved doesn’t always mean better.

Some people may want this. But I’m willing to guess that the people who are willing to shell out $400 to read books are going to be dedicated readers. I’m also willing to guess most dedicated readers are book lovers – people who covet the entire written package: dog ears, well designed covers, notations, bookmarks; the heft of the graspable, the mass of literature.

These people aren’t going to want to ditch their fixed batch of words, are they? They won’t move away from actually having the book in their hand, will they? They appreciate the solidity, the weight – as if each book was actually filled with potential, with promise, weighted down with thought and brilliance – and won’t settle for some 10 oz. glorified PDA.


The iPod succeeded because music is not visual. It’s auditory. We had suffered with portable, skipping CD players and warbling, low-quality tape players. It was ripe for improvement because the improvement was needed.

How can a book be improved? Books are already portable. They’ve been printed successfully for thousands of years. There is no need to carry 200 at a time – books aren’t like music – they aren’t infinitely shuffled, chosen for the exact mood, partaken of in groups. You can read one book at one moment in life – the one in your hand.

It’s as if we’ve all forgotten the roots of the written word. Written. Not typed, not beamed, not digitized. And while nearly all continue to write by typing, we are reminded of the tangibility of writing in each inked out word, by the words on the paper. If I could write this blog on paper and distribute it to everyone, I would. I think many of us would. The connection – while not as instantaneous – is more human.

It’s that connection that adds to the experience. The experience of reading someone else’s writing. And when presented with the option to rid myself of paper, to read my books on a screen, enhanced and notated and upgraded, I wonder what was wrong with my old dog-eared books in the first place. With everything that distracts us in life from the simple act of reading, why throw another filter in the way?

This was lovingly handwritten on November 19th, 2007