How was your Christmas? Was Santa good to you? I got something cool. Well, not for Christmas, which we don’t celebrate, being Jews, but for Hanukkah, almost a month ago, which seems part of a different era. The last gasp of pre-Omicron society. A dozen people over to the house for beer and brats, latkes and songs.
My wife bought me a Kindle, in keeping with her ongoing scheme of pressing upon me electronics I would never buy for myself because I’m morally opposed to them. It started 20 years ago with my first cellphone (remember a world without cellphones? Me neither). Back then, I wondered whether I should keep the present. Now, if I leave the house without my phone, which never happens, I feel like I’ve walked outside without pants.
A Kindle seemed contrary to my bookish personality. Named in a sly tribute to “Fahrenheit 451” and its book-burning firemen (kidding; some grandiose Jeff Bezos puffery about kindling a reading revolution), Kindles aren’t new, but introduced in 2007. My wife has had one for a few years (a present from me; give the lady what she wants).
She’s been singing its praises. But I resisted. It would be another device that I would have to master and cart around and keep charged. But two years into COVID, I’ll take any distraction I can get. I gave the nod.
I decided to start my e-reading adventure with Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence.” It seemed a visit to a more elegant era, when people gathered in rooms.
This is where the gift aspect was important. Left to my own devices, I’d have given up halfway through the check-a-book-out-of-the-library-and-download process, which at times resembled filing taxes. But it was a gift from my wife.
And here’s why I’m writing this. If you asked me beforehand to imagine what the benefits of the Kindle might be, I’d talk about forests saved, or carrying an entire library in one sliver of circuitry, that kind of thing. Plus they illuminate; you can read in the dark.
Nowhere close. The great thing about a Kindle is you can look up words easily. Who knew? None of this closing the book, getting up, padding over to a dictionary, flipping pages.
With the Kindle, just touch the enigmatic word (with your right hand. Touching with my left; which I at first tried, being left handed, didn’t work. But the right does. The mysteries of technology.). The definition pops up.
And “The Age of Innocence” contains many words that I’d never seen before, and I’ve seen lots of words: “embonpoint,” “sacerdotal,” “valetudinarian” (bosom, priestly, hypochondriacal).
Plus they’re light. My Kindle (officially an 11th generation, fifth iteration Kindle Paperwhite, which sounds like a character straight out of Edith Wharton. “Kindle Paperwhite and Newland Archer entered the opera box...”) It weighs 7.3 ounces. I can easily hold it in one hand, splaying my thumb, index and middle fingers into a little easel.
As if to drive this advantage home, about when I got the Kindle, the University of Minnesota Press sent me a gorgeous new book, “Louis Sullivan’s Idea” by the Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson and Chris Ware, the meticulous cartoonist.
A deep dive into the life and times of Chicago’s first great architect, the book also weighs 5.25 pounds. It’s heavy.
I found myself reading the Kindle more and “Louis Sullivan’s Idea” less, even though it is a compelling scrapbook about Sullivan’s tortured life and incredible work. And the big, colorful images would be monochromatic mush on a Kindle.
A reminder that books will always be around, if only in the sense that lutes are still around. You can train yourself to become a luthier and build your own lute, then learn to play and pluck out renaissance tunes to your heart’s content. Or you can simply pop in a pair of AirPods, plug “lute music” into Apple Music, as I just did, and listen to Andrei Krylov playing on his “Lute & Guitar Music of Renaissance Holland, Ger...” and here the title cuts off and can’t be viewed.
The modern dilemma in a nutshell. Technology wins. You might as well embrace it, best you can. Your phone will play lovely lute music at 4 o’clock in the morning while you write your column. That’s good. But there are losses as well; someone decided “Lute & Guitar Music of Renaissance Holland, Ger...” is enough, thank you. Navigating this confounding world can pose a challenge to our humanity, or what humanity we’ve got left.