Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Not E-Reading Kafka

Sometimes I think the whole E-reading thing is no big deal. It’s the message not the medium, right?

Today I thought about Kafka and The Metamorphosis, which led me to this link and the whole damn book published online for free. I admit that it’s nice to know that I can read Kafka anywhere, so long as that anywhere includes a computer with web access. Still, I read with trepidation.

Of course, I didn’t make it too far. A long stretch of reading on a computer screen is just no damn fun. And yeah, the Kindle and Nook may boast lighting that simulates a book’s page, but I have to ask why I would want a simulation of an experience. Clearly the real thing is better.

I know the arguments: the E-readers are portable and environmentally friendly. Well, let’s look at those points.

First: portability is overrated. Yes, a Kindle allows you to carry many canonical works of literature (most for free!) in one device. And yes, best sellers, beach reads, and other forms of “light” entertainment are perhaps well suited to an E-reader (god knows I’m not wasting my shelf space on Danielle Steel), but what does such portability and wide access really do for us as readers? Assuming many readers are like me, they might be tempted to see what else is available on their slick gadgets. As Jerry Seinfeld said regarding men and television, we’re not so concerned with what’s on as much as what else is on. We like to surf and our advanced technologies encourage this. We have scores of channels on cable, an infinite amount of websites online, and hundreds of books on our Kindles. Faced with such an expanse, it’s hard to commit to one thing. (Who doesn’t surf the web with many tabs open?) I own upwards of four to five thousand books. I try to commit to one at a time, but when I am at home I’ll often pick up a different book than the one I am supposedly reading. There’s always something else catching my eye. I try to reserve one book for home reading (currently, Vilnius Poker), another for train reading (usually poetry), and, of course, there are the books I am forced to read (texts for school) and the ones I agreed to read (for reviews). Even I, a professed book lover who rejects the E-reader, have a hard time reading just one book. Imagine a hundred in the palm of my hand.

When people speak of plane rides or trips out of town, whether for work or pleasure, they praise the E-Book as a means of carrying multiple texts with them. To me, this symbolizes the above mentioned lack of commitment. Some books require patience and attention. Perhaps these are not the books people take with them on vacation (though the last time I went on a trip I took with me, and finished, My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk... and this was in Vegas!), but I don’t wish to dismiss even so-called light reading as something to skim and toss away. A good book— which I define as any worth reading as defined by you and you alone— deserves better treatment than it gets from the Kindle and its users. Good books require commitment and respect. You take the time to pick out the clothing you will wear; you should also take some time to pick the right book.

Also, it seems that the E-reader makes books into an abstraction. They become illusory, digital, and transitory. Press a button and the book is gone. I cannot abide this. I like my books to take up space and have weight. One may argue that the content remains the same, and this is indeed true, but let’s take another quick look at Kafka online. The link is fine; the site is the standard black on white and the translation is fair (with links to others—I admit, a good feature). But I miss what my paper copy has: history. The smell of that used edition is gone. The cover art is also nowhere to found. Both of those things helped make the book more than a mere collection of words on paper. My copy of The Metamorphosis is an artifact. It was published at a specific time within a specific era. The art looks dated, which I like. To me, it is evidence of the past. It evinces the prevailing attitude of the era regarding Kafka and his masterpiece. It seems to ignore (or miss) the humor of the book and centers on the phantasmagorical. It is an imperfect creation, but it has personality. The E-version is fine in a sense, but antiseptic. Reading it online I miss the context my paper copy provides. The E-version might not make me consider the debates surrounding Kafka— humorist or depressive—and I will certainly not get the sense of history. One of the 20th century's great writers is thus reduced to the same standing as any jerk with a blog. (Ahem.)

Okay, maybe you don’t give a damn about cover art and musty smells. Fine. And maybe you want to argue that the E-reader is better for the planet as it saves trees. True, but I might advise you to look into strip mining, specifically in regard to our constant need to be surrounded by electronics. All that energy consumption exacts a price. The future environmental concerns may very well center on strip mining and the green activists may launch campaigns asking us to shut off our computers, smart phones, TVs, iPods, and Kindles. When the day comes, I’ll have more than enough books at my disposal.