You Never Know Where They’ve Been!

In the August 3 issue of the New Yorker, Nicholson Baker (of Double Fold fame), offers a little personal essay on his experience with Amazon.com’s e-book, the Kindle 2.

I was about to skip the article, frankly, until I read the following quote from a Kindle reviewer:

“I’ve always been creeped out by library books and used books,” she wrote on the Amazon site, “You never know where they’ve been!”

Another, similar opinion from the article, this time from the manager of a British import store in Maine: “Her Kindle was in her purse; she’d crocheted a cover for it out of green yarn. In the past, she said, she’d taken books out of the library, but some of them smelled of smoke–a Kindle book is a smoke-free environment.”

Now I love new books, mostly for the feeling of “This Just In!” that you get when you browse them at the superstores, but my deepest regard and passion is (of course) for books which have lived lives. Book which have existed hand-to-mind in a repeating cycle for decades, centuries, and even (in the case of our cuneiform tablets), millennia.

I, too, have smelled smoke on books, and I love it. But I think my experience is probably different than the above; mine is of leather-bound books which smell of pipe and cigar smoke–one imagines from old Oxford college rooms, or a nineteenth-century gentleman’s library. Hers was likely the ashtray-smell of cigarettes clinging to a Dan Simmons novel.

My challenge as a professional (in one sense) is to attempt to convert, or at least, enlighten, readers like these to the romance of the book as artifact–the the realm of inspiration and its many vistas which open at your feet when you have the keys to its portal.

I have no problem with the Kindle. As a librarian, any vehicle which promotes reading and reflective thought is a Good Thing. As a special collections librarian, it actually could be a boon–eventually, if media like the Kindle “replace” paper books–ALL printed material will end up in special collections. My job is to make sure that they don’t die there, but rather live on in the imaginations of the romantics who will always want to use them.

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