My employer disperses interesting technical gifts every Christmas, and this year it was to be the Kindle. However the endorsement of the Kindle by Ms. Oprah Winfrey had apparently caused a run on the digital reader (thank goodness she did not endorse the American banking system) and so, now in mid-February, we are still not in possession of the item. Fortunately, the Kindle 2 has been announced and our original order of several hundred Kindles has automatically been upgraded, with a release date at the end of the month.
I enjoy reading and disposing of books, which has led me to be a avid user of the local public library system. At the same time, I rather enjoying collecting — on a modest budget — titles that I can display on my bookshelves, often unread, sadly. Browsing my own books, which bring back memories of the periods in my life when I was inclined to peculiar interests — I have a shelf full of Husserl with titles like Ideas I, Ideas V, Ideas VI, etc. ! — is a source of great pleasure.
Whenever I open one of my books I am uncertain of what will fall out. Sometimes its orange peels, sometimes the whiff of stale cigarettes from college, sometimes money I thought I had cleverly hidden from robbers. The other day I opened up a dog-eared paperback copy Benjamin’s Illuminations and naturally came across his essay on unpacking his books.
My basement is currently filled with crates of Russian books and journals, inherited by my father-in-law from a distant relative and emigre historian of the Russian imperial family living in Prague. The books this distant relative chose to collect reveal a thoroughly different world in which an interest in the newest theories of evolution existed side-by-side with an interest in how best to uplift one’s serfs.
The digital revolution has made many of these books now generally available, especially with the ubiquity of one-off printing. But what mind could gather this particular collection together, with its hidden references made through the course of a life, entangling interests into an ultimate statement of a man’s life pursuit. Absent the fact that a certain man, our distant relative, found something valuable in each of these books, and that by handling each of them we can to some degree reconstruct his life — would any computer program be able to generate this particular collection based on algorithms of selection and indexing?
While I look forward to receiving my Kindle, I find myself secretly believing that books possess an élan vital that Kindles, by their nature, lack.
My friend Mr. Conrad Roth blogged a few months ago about his less ambivalent attitude toward e-books at the Varieties here and here — which I highly recommend to anyone considering the Kindle. Another friend, Bill Ryan, blogged about his own very positive reaction to the Kindle a few months back, as well as his attitude towards the most common criticisms of the Kindle.
Always interested in bringing my friends together, I just wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to link both of them in one page.