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Paperback reader

Weighing the Kindle: Can curling up with an e-book be as much fun as with a book? J Ford Huffman compares...What the gizmos pack in

india Updated: Nov 07, 2009 01:32 IST

I’m not ashamed to admit it. My textual preference is tactile. And I employ a variety of tactics. I read with my thumbnail, with an erasable pencil, with Post It notes, and by dog-earing the corner of a memorable page. In other words, I read with more than my eyes. (Because I am writing about reading, the tired phrase “in other words” is permissible.)

Uh, what’s with the thumbnail? Let me explain: When I am reading a page and find a lyrical line or provocative paragraph, I impress — with my thumbnail — a vertical line in the margin. Later I return to the page with pencil and Post It paper, and I jot notes beside the digital impression. Call it strategic reading. Reading as experience rather than exercise. To read via Kindle or Sony Digital Reader — or the upcoming Nook by Barnes & Noble or the media-anticipated Apple e-book due someday — is to be efficient, environmentally friendly and e-chic.

Even if the electronic book still evolves. “E-readers are still in their infancy,” says Bloomberg News columnist Rich Jaroslovsky, “saddled with monochrome screens ranging from bad to adequate and user interfaces that few would describe as elegant.” Then why choose egalitarianism over elegance? Can you get a charge out of an electronic book? I’ve tried. I report that reading an e-page on an e-book is like drawing on an Etch-A-Sketch pad, the vintage toy that’s still popular among new generations of artistic kids. On an Etch-a-Sketch, you can draw all the lines you want but each finished drawing looks alike. On an e-book, you get the characters — the letterforms — without the character. You can read all the lines but each page of each book looks alike. One size fits all books.

In both cases, technology trumps theme and tone. With real books, each with different bindings and different jackets, you can read lines printed on a different paper stocks and in different type faces — often described in typographer’s detail in the book’s ‘A note about the type’, called a colophon. Call me old-fashioned. Invite me to curl up with a good book and I’m there. Invite me to curl up with a good Kindle and I’m out in the cold.

Usually I am warm-hearted about technology. I use a computer for correspondence, preferring e-mail to an intrusive telephone call. In the olden days before DVD players, I knew how to program a VCR and its digital clock — to the astonishment of my less tech-savvy friends. I can check in for a flight without cursing at any airline counter’s kiosk. I can begin writing an essay on a desktop PC in Delhi and finish the piece on a Mac in Washington, DC.

What I cannot do is imagine a Khan Market or a Connaught Place without the quiet oases of the bookstores that offer the heart and the mind. I cannot see the point of a Sunday in Daryaganj without sidewalks full of vendors offering thousands of books.

A month ago in Daryaganj I picked up a 1931 volume of The Works of Oscar Wilde, leafed through and admired the woodcut illustrations by Donia Nachshen, noticed a faded stamp (‘The Minerva Book Shop, Anarkali, Lahore’) inside the front cover, wondered how many erudite readers Oscar had wiled with these very pages in the 80 years they had been bound together — and bought the book for only Rs 100.

Imagine Daryaganj in 100 years. Will a handful of vendors, their numbers having dwindled after being Kindled, be selling a handful of used e-books to a handful of e-browsers?