Prairie Lights: Keeping up, sort of, with new technology


An early codex, when reading material started to look like what we know as books. There are those, probably, who would think it good only for kindling.

Years ago, in an essay I wrote to explain how I had become an amateur collector of old books, I talked about discovering the pleasures of a good hardback.

“The very weight of a book,” I wrote, “the sturdy feel of its pages, the soft thump of a book falling closed: all these conspired to persuade me that mere paperbacks were no longer enough.”


Ed Kemmick

More recently, after reporting on a panel discussion on the future of the printed word, I had some disparaging things to say about reading books on an electronic device. That was before I had actually used one, however, an instance of drawing conclusions from insufficient evidence.

That was then. Last week, I read my first book on a Kindle. How did I find the experience? I feel like a traitor to admit it, like someone turning his back on everything he once believed in, but I actually enjoyed it.

The Kindle itself is a satisfying piece of technology, quite different from a well-made book but pleasing in its own way. There was some heft to it, the type was as pleasing as in any good book, and the action of swiping to the next page was tolerably enjoyable.

Best of all, when I took it to the “Y,” there it sat on the little reading ledge on the elliptical machine, lying flat and uniform and perfectly easy to read, something that cannot be said of a magazine and certainly not of a book in the same situation.

I felt as I imagine a reader in the ancient world might have felt about the transition from a scroll to a codex (see photo above)—full of nostalgia but understanding the advantages of the new format.

I realize that I am a Johnny-come-lately, and I realize that this is not a dispatch from the front lines of the technology revolution. But that’s more to the point, which is that I am stuck uneasily between the old world and the new.

If I were 10 years older I might be able to ignore Kindles and smart phones, possibly even the Internet, and lead a good life. If I were 10 years younger I probably would have made the full technology leap many years ago with hardly a pang or a hesitation.

As it is, I slowly, warily, make the transition from one device to the next, usually five or six years after most everyone else, while learning exactly what I need to know in order to use the device in the simplest possible manner, and nothing more.

It seems that only yesterday I was the smug one without a smart phone, mocking the people who used to them to communicate during dinner with someone not seated at the table. Even when I finally broke down and got a phone, I swore at first that I’d mostly leave it at home. Is there anything more pitiful than a good intention so lightly abandoned?

And now here I am delivering standard newspaper fare in an online-only format, more or less encouraging people to give up what I’m not able to give up myself, a subscription to the dead-tree edition of a newspaper.

When I spoke to the Breakfast Exchange Club a couple of days ago, I was asked how long I thought it would be until newspapers stopped offering a print edition. I said, as I have on many similar occasions, that when Wayne Schile was publisher of the Billings Gazette, he predicted—and this was in the early ’90s—that there wouldn’t be a print edition of the Gazette in 10 years.

He was a closer student of such trends than I am and look where that got him.

Six months ago I couldn’t have predicted when I’d read my first book on a Kindle. Nor do I know when, if ever, I will look into the question of what the hell Pinterest is all about. I probably won’t know until it goes extinct and I read its obituary in the online edition of the New York Times.

I suppose in time most print products will go away, but some authors will insist on printing elegant editions of their works, like the musicians who still treat their fans to LPs. Newspapers will give up print out of necessity, and maybe they will even be better when they are not pouring so many resources into the process of turning trees into door stoppers.

And I will try to keep up with the flood of devices that continue to wash over our shrinking world. I’ll never be cutting-edge, but I hope I always come around eventually.

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