Three of us were taking a walk recently in Central Park: my wife Marie-Dominique, myself, and our dog, Basile, who in spite of his French name is a Welsh corgi. To be more precise, we were four: the fourth member being small enough to carry in my pocket, thinner than any book. Until that day, my wife had not been impressed by my latest acquisition from Amazon.com, which she perceived as just one more gadget. Wasn’t I satisfied, she asked, with my BlackBerry, which connected me to the world 24 hours a day, and which I kept tucked under my pillow, in case I received an interesting e-mail from Japan or France in the middle of the night? (Of course, that rarely happens; I do get e-mails in the middle of the night, but they’re usually not interesting.) My BlackBerry addiction, however, has not prevented me from becoming addicted to the Kindle. But it is a daylight device: you cannot read the Kindle screen at night, unless you switch on the bedside lamp, which will not make your sleeping companion happy (the BlackBerry, of course, lights up when you touch it).
While we strolled through Central Park—the four of us—my wife and I talked about books and what we considered the summits of American literature. I mentioned Billy Budd. I’m a fan of Moby Dick, but I place Billy Budd above all. I would not say that Billy Budd is more of a masterpiece than Moby Dick, but it has the advantage of being much shorter. My wife had never read it, in French or in English. I was shocked. “You must read it now,” I said. “Let us walk to Barnes and Noble,” she answered. No need, I said, we’ll read it now, sitting on a bench. I could smell victory.
I switched on my Kindle. I typed “Billy Budd” on the keyboard. It took five seconds to complete the wireless download and cost me approximately $6, debited from my Amazon account. We sat on the bench under the shade and read Melville together. It was as easy and agreeable as reading any paper book. Turning the pages with a gentle push on the side of the screen was no more cumbersome than turning the page of a traditional book; we could go backward by pushing on the left side of the screen. I thought to myself that everything on Earth that can be digitalized, will be digitalized: this is the new law of our time.
Will the Kindle—and all future, and doubtless even better, electronic reading devices—replace books as we have known them since the beginning of Western civilization? Will downloading replace browsing at the bookstore? Will books follow the vanishing species of CDs and DVDs? Printers and bookstores might become extinct, too, like candle makers before them. And what about writers? Writing has rarely been a financially rewarding profession—just ask Melville. Thus I doubt writers have much to lose by going electronic. However, as I am neither a prophet nor a publicist for booksellers, printers, or Chinese computer-chip makers, let me stick with anecdotal evidence.
It so happens that I recently had to fly from New York to Seoul and back, in connection with the Korean release of one of my books (on paper, so far). What do you do on a 14-hour flight if you do not care for the mediocre movies that the airline offers? You read. But how many books can you pack in your carry-on luggage to keep you company on such an interminable journey? I ambitiously decided to read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which some pessimists consider a timely rediscovery for those living in the U.S. You can guess what comes next: yes, I downloaded Gibbon in seconds on my Kindle—all eight volumes—for a modest sum. Would Korean Air have accepted Gibbon’s eight volumes as carry-on luggage? Doubtful: he’s too heavy. While I did not make it through all of Gibbon during the trip, I could browse his thick volumes on my Kindle screen. I could even take notes and mark pages.
Since those happy moments with my new digital companion in Central Park and on planes, I have, however, known some disappointments. After returning to New York, I wanted to read some of Saul Bellow’s earlier novels. I went WiFi, to the Kindle store, and was flabbergasted to learn that there was no Bellow available: “unknown author,” the message read. I shifted to Philip Roth: “unknown author.” Bernard Malamud: the same. William Styron? Yes, he was available. It cost me about $6 to download and read the recent collection of his essays, edited by his widow Rose. I suppose the unavailability of the others has to do with author’s rights. No copyright exists any more for Melville; Rose Styron probably included electronic rights in the publishing contract. Bellow likely falls somewhere in between: copyright still protects his work, but he may have died too early to secure electronic rights. As for Roth, perhaps he prefers that his readers turn actual paper pages. What about saving the forests and closing paper mills to fight global warming? Maybe Philip Roth doesn’t care about global warming.
I tried to reach Kindle customer service, by Internet and by phone, to understand why certain authors were available and others were not. I asked computer technicians about author’s rights, but they knew little about literature in general. I got no answers. Customer service cannot be fully digitalized, and therefore it will remain as unreliable as human nature is.
As for most everything else—if it can be digitalized, it will be.