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Chapter one: a booklover’s lament
SMH – Saturday, 28 Jan 2012 – Page 41

The Kindle is like the sensible man your mother wanted you to marry.

Next week I shall make my last trip to a bookstore to buy myself a book. The house may sink into the soft Sydney sands. The house cannot really accommodate another book.

The shelves are full. Teetering piles of books stand like drunken sentries on the dressing table in the spare room. Books festoon my bedside table and clutter the space beneath it.

There are two boxes of books I have never opened since a dear departed friend bequeathed his personal library to me. People know I love books, so this was not the first dear departed friend to have left books to me. I do not want to seem ungrateful but if any other friends are making their wills …

So I have been learning to love the Kindle.

But frankly I am surprised at how the affair is going; not nearly as well as I had expected.

This was a piece of new technology I was determined to embrace wholeheartedly. Who didn’t love their Kindle or its cousins? Even the hold-outs I knew had become converts, and then proselytisers.

And really, I had run out of options. My decades as a bookworm were catching up on me. For the past 20 years I’ve been a member of a book group that reads contemporary fiction – novels so hot off the press they are often not readily available in libraries.

But the tipping point came when my partner joined a book group a couple of years ago, and also started buying books every month. I knew we could not go on like this.

And so the Kindle arrived at our house in September (as luck would have it just before the new, even cheaper, version came out). And since then I’ve been trying hard to love it.

But this is what I have concluded. The Kindle is like the sensible man your mother wanted you to marry. She can list a dozen reasons why this man is good for you. But she omits the crucial ingredient: chemistry. The man doesn’t excite you.

It’s easy to turn the Kindle on. But I have found the Kindle doesn’t turn me on. The thrill is gone: the thrill of anticipation as I toy with a printed book, turn the first page to read the author’s dedication or bits of poetry; the list of his/her other books, the reprints from reviews; and then the flip to the back page to ponder the author’s photo, and skim the acknowledgments.

All these preliminaries, a kind of foreplay to the act of reading itself, just aren’t the same with a Kindle.

With a printed book, there is a palpable sense of excitement in starting the journey of reading, the adventure of entering a new world and wondering where it will take me that I can’t quite recapture.

I don’t really understand why the burst of serotonin felt when turning a page is missing, and why that deep sense of satisfaction is not quite the same as when I close the back cover on a wonderful book.

I know that beautiful, emotional or funny words are the same whatever the medium that delivers them. And yet …

As others have noted, the smell and tactile pleasures of a paper book are missing, too, with these e-readers . This is a loss but not, for me, grave. What is much worse is that you can’t flip pages. You can bookmark and make notes but the random backtracking possible in a book – that is maybe not so random because I intuitively know where to find things – is harder to do.

I feel I am on a fast-forward trajectory with my Kindle, speeding through to the end as the percentage bar that has replaced page numbers urges me on.

Yet mother is always right. How sensible the Kindle is. How good for me it is. I can change the font, and read in bed without disturbing a sleeping partner. When travelling I don’t need a suitcase full of books. Books are downloadable on my Kindle wherever I am – so that, caught short on a holiday in a foreign city with one English-language bookstore, I don’t have to buy The Outsider again.

Instead, I can download The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst’s follow-up to his scintillating The Line of Beauty, and live to regret every moment. Surely a dreary book is no drearier on a Kindle – or is it?

Dreary or marvellous, e-books are much cheaper and so I tend to buy more and ones I might not think worth the splurge in a bookshop. For Alan Bennett’s wonderful Smut, really two short novellas, that I could read in a couple of nights, I would pay $9.50 to read on my Kindle but not the bookshop price of $24.99.

For the past two or three years I’ve been aware the book world was having a nervous breakdown about the future of the printed book. Bookshops in particular were staring into the abyss. They reportedly had a good Christmas. But I’m afraid they can’t rely on me any more.

In my campaign to convert the world into book-lovers , I shall continue to buy books for people who don’t read much. This next book for me, though – the one I’ll take to the beach shack for my week’s traditional summer readin – must be my last.

I want to feel the thrill one last time. But sense has won out over sensibility.

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald