Reading E-Books: A Contemplative Guide

Yesterday, I finished Nicole Krauss’s beautiful novel Great House, a compactly written, deeply poignant book that follows the lives of a handful of characters influenced by a huge and majestic writing desk, which had been stolen from a Jewish family’s vacant house during the holocaust. Whenever I read Krauss’s writing, I am struck with the thought: how could she so deeply know her characters’ innermost emotions? How can she know the insides–so well–of so many different people? How has she felt so much? This novel, for instance, contains the line: “When at last I came across the right book the feeling was violent: it blew a hole open in me that made life more dangerous because I couldn’t control what came through it.” Ahhhh! Heart explosion! And that sentiment describes pretty well what it’s like to read her own work.

When I finished the book, my Kindle told me I should read other books “like” it. Specifically, it suggested that other people I’ve never met finished this book and tended to buy Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her. This kind of advice can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophesy, and yet: I have wanted to read that book since it came out, and it’s not a bad suggestion that I read it next. Thanks, Kindle! I originally bought my Kindle because I appreciate the ink screen, and because I wanted to highlight passages and add notes. In practice, the Kindle works best when all you want to do is read, especially in a linear fashion, because taking notes is arduous, and because something about the software makes you feel boxed in to the text while reading it. Digital technology is fantastic in so many ways, and I assumed those ways would translate seamlessly into e-book reading (instantly searching passages by keywords, or flipping ahead to chunks of the book with a touch of a fingertip) but in practice, turning pages is way harder to do on an ink-screen Kindle than in a paper book, where flipping pages with one’s finger takes microseconds, and where, because you can visually recognize variations in the type on the pages themselves, the eye semi-instantly recognizes passages of the book. Paper is amazing technology, after all, as are fingertips. Kindle advertises that you will get lost in your book, and this is true: many times while changing subway trains I accidentally brushed the screen with my jacket and skipped ahead pages, or chapters, depending on my jacket’s movement, and I would return to my reading on an unfamiliar page, with unfamiliar things going on–a bewildering experience. And so because I recently bought an ipad mini I’ve been reading my e-books there through a Kindle app, a far preferable experience. But on an ipad I can purchase my e-books from any vendor, so I finally have a chance to buy Junot Diaz’s book from another book seller.

It surprised me that when I googled “Best Places to Buy E-Books” that most bloggers recommend only the top five: Kindle, iBooks, Sony, Nook, and Kobu. Do most people truly purchase objects non-politically? Maybe they do! I have a perhaps old-fashioned desire to buy books from bookstores rather than from tech companies, and so I searched instead for “Buy an E-Book Through an Indie Bookstore” and here I found my answer. I want to buy “indie” because it worries me that so few companies have so much capital power, and yet, physical bookstores work for physical books because their owners curate their selection, and because they have physical warmth. Does an independent e-book store provide that kind of service? I decided to find out.

Independent bookstores were on the verge of striking an e-book deal with Google, but it fell through when Google decided to sell books through it’s own service exclusively, instead. And so Kobu, itself an e-book reader giant, stepped in and made a deal with independent bookstores to sell Kobu e-books, which strikes me as one of the more intelligent moves Kobu could have made. Meanwhile, three independent bookstores are suing Amazon and the Big Six book publishers over the market clampdown proprietary e-book software has created, also an intelligent move if not an uphill battle. What will come of the e-book industry and the publishing industry at large? I can’t answer that.

But I can tell you where to find independent bookstores across the US participating in e-book sales.

I have to go: I need to buy the new Junot Diaz book from Elliot Bay, my favorite bookstore in Seattle.