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Kindling

Don't try this with KindleMany people suffer from the misconception that books are just an old fashioned way to share ideas, knowledge, and experience. Books are good for that sort of thing, yes, but before you ditch them for a shiny new Kindle, remember that there are functions printed books perform for us that a Kindle simply cannot duplicate. Consider three of the most important ways a book can be used:

  • To Show Off
  • To Fend Off
  • To Piss Off

A Kindle doesn’t show people how smart you really are.
Imagine what it would be like to have offices without bookshelves radiating intelligence and expertise. A lawyer without law books, an editor without a fat orange Chicago Manual of Style, a marketer without something by Seth Godin. How would you know these people were not rank amateurs? I recently worked with a group of marketers who were keenly interested in taking advantage of Twitter, but they couldn’t be bothered to set up Twitter accounts and talk to actual people. So instead, they obtained free copies of Joel Comm’s book Twitter Power and displayed them on their office shelves like diplomas. That way, people visiting their offices saw the book and assumed they were experts in social media. Brilliant!

It’s hard to fend off strangers with your Kindle.
Surely protection is one of the most important, if unappreciated, functions that books perform for us. When you put a book cover between your face and the people around you, you are showing them why it is better not to disturb you. A good friend of mine brought the following book to his daughter’s soccer practices this year: Richard H. Timberlake’s Monetary Policy in the United States: An Intellectual and Institutional History. The title alone told the other parents that he was morose, aloof, and not even remotely interested in discussing the latest scandal about bikini-clad baristas. I used a similar tactic when I rode the Tube every day as a student back in 1989, in this case wielding Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. This book was doubly effective at keeping strangers away by telling them I was dull and pedantic while reminding them that every breath from every other subway rider could spread disease.

You can’t offend people by destroying your Kindle.
The most grievous of sacrileges in Western Civilization, next to banning books, is burning them. Fahrenheit 451 horrifies us because we equate the burning of books with the annihilation of ideas. If you disagree with an author, nobody cares. But burning a book, now that will get you some attention. The trouble with Kindle is, if the content angers you, you just delete it. If you want to destroy your Kindle, you have to recycle it because it won’t burn. And then instead of offending others, you just look like a good earth-friendly citizen.

Oh yes, and there is one more important way a printed book is superior to any electronic format. Most of us first learned to love books by tearing them apart. I’m talking, of course, about the pop-up book. Long before we learned how to read text, we learned that books sometimes contained pictures that would unfold magically before our eyes when we tugged at the pages. The harder we pulled, the faster the picture jumped up. Until we pulled too hard. And that was when we began to learn about how to be respectful of books and the ideas they contained. You could tug at them a little, fold the corners over if you didn’t have a bookmark handy, maybe write a few notes in the margins. But you were not to tear them, or throw them, or burn them except under extreme circumstances (say, for a blog photo).  You might take care of a Kindle because it is expensive to replace, but not because of the ideas it stands for. After all, the Kindle is as much about deleting old ideas as conveying new ones, so in the end the only idea it really stands for is convenience. And no school or library or despotic little country ever found convenience unsettling enough to ban.

That’s why I’m sticking to books where solid ideas are permanently inked onto fragile paper. Books I can use to keep strangers from talking to me. Books I can use to say, “My Dostoyevsky is smarter than your Dan Brown.” And if a funny picture unfolds when I open the pages or pull a secret lever, so much the better.

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