Monday, November 10, 2008

Back to the classics

I got my Kindle right before my series of October trips, and in the 24 hours before I left town, I loaded it up with public-domain texts from Project Gutenberg. My first strategy was to download the books in plain text (by right-clicking the page), then transferring the .txt files to the Kindle via USB cable. I reread Mansfield Park on my Denmark trip after getting the text that way.

But before my Chicago trip, while experimenting with putting my panel presentation and board materials on the device, I ran across the directions for the Amazon free conversion service. Send a file in just about any format -- JPEG, PDF, HTML, Word, etc. -- to your Kindle's free e-mail address, and Amazon sends you back a link to download the same document translated into an .azw file (that's the Kindle's propriety format). Then attach the Kindle via USB cable and drag the file into the documents folder. Boom -- Kindle-native "books" out of your own files. (For ten cents, Amazon will deliver the converted document wirelessly to your Kindle -- no connection required.) I loaded up the Kindle with the hundreds of pages of information for the the Board of Directors meeting, sent to me as PDFs, through this service.

While in Chicago I read My Antonia, an American classic that's intrigued me ever since I read a long New Yorker piece about Cather some years ago. And now I'm a few chapters into The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. There's something about the Kindle, frankly, that makes these celebrated books easier to swallow. I think there are two reasons for that unexpected effect.

First, the physical package of "a work of great literature" -- a musty library book, a publisher's classics edition (instantly recognizable by the cover designs), a volume meant to be used in a classroom -- isn't present. On the Kindle, all books are equal. They have no sensory qualities, accidental or intentional, to signal how their content is to be approached. When that canon-indicative package gets in the way of actually reading the book, as I expect it does for many of us, the Kindle removes the obstacle.

Second, while reading, all books are the same length on the Kindle. Well, not really; they just appear that way. The Kindle indicates your progress through the book through a tiny row of dots at the bottom of the page. In all books, the row goes all the way across -- but of course, you will fill up the dots more quickly while reading a short book than a long one. It's a relative indicator, not an absolute one. This has the effect of masking the actual length of the book from the reader.

The actual length of the text, and how far you've gotten, is indicated in the Kindle's Home view, which shows a row of dots under each document that differs in size; a two-page document you upload will have only a dot or two, while an 800-page novel will have dots almost all the way across. But this view disappears while reading, replaced by the full-length progress indicator. If, like many of us, you tend to be discouraged by the bulk of a book -- especially one of the cultural-literacy variety -- and disheartened by the many pages remaining to make any significant progress, the Kindle seems to help. Only one page is visible at a time. The device doesn't get slimmer or fatter. Again, the playing field is leveled.

Sure, many of us fetishize the physical object of the book. And there's something wonderful about a very fat book that you can't wait to read; well do I remember picking books at the library based on page count, unwilling to run out of pleasure too quickly.

But for classics and anointed denizens of the canon, even when we want to read them, their status puts the task into the category of a chore. When our attraction to the work is tenuous, almost anything can distract and discourage us. For me, the Kindle removes those distractions and lets me focus on the content of the work, not its packaging.

And what a reward. I doubt I would have gotten around to My Antonia for decades to come if it meant buying a copy or getting it out of the library. But on the Kindle, its magnificence was plainly evident. It was brilliant, intensely beautiful, pleasurable in a way I didn't expect at all. I savored every word.

I would have done the same if I had read it on paper, of course. But I would have had to get over the obstacles that the characteristics of the printed book present. That's my failing, of course, but I suspect it's a failing shared by many, despite their best intentions. The triumph of the Kindle is that it removed those obstacles. And the result is simple: I read a great book that I'd been meaning to read for years. And I loved it.

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