The second emotion I felt when I unwrapped my Amazon Kindle was fear. It was Christmas morning. Up to that point in the morning and in my life, I had maintained a cool detachment from the allure of ebooks. But when the wrapping paper was stripped off to reveal the Kindle image on the box, my first emotion surfaced.
I flashed back to another Christmas morning when I was about 8. I had the same feeling then too. My sister had just opened a gift, and we were all admiring it. But I was anxious, distracted, waiting for that subtle shift of attention, the conversation to slow, the eye contact from my parents, the cue that I could proceed to open my next gift. It was sitting here, big, heavy, on my lap. I couldn’t imagine what it might be.
My sister was still reveling in her gift. The attention hadn’t turned, but my hand simply found a corner and began pulling. The first strip was gone, the box underneath showing. I hesitated for a moment realizing that I’d started in too soon. But by then it was too late. The box was colorful. I was tearing at the paper with abandon. The Nintendo logo, Mario’s red cap and blue overalls. I was screaming.
It was that same elation, upon seeing the Kindle now revealing its midriff from behind the Christmas wrappings. That same feeling surfaced now, twenty years later. My screaming fortunately had matured somewhat into something akin to laughter. Perhaps it was laughter at myself, embarrassed at the 8-year-old giddiness that was still inside me. Can I still be a little boy inside?
Apparently so. Apparently shiny new toys, new high-tech gadgets still excite me. I still grin with embarrassment at it.
But like I said, the second emotion I experienced was fear. Why? Because I realized how susceptible I am to the sheen of new technology. It made my eyes shine. It brought joy and wonder and anticipation. It opened up new worlds and new possibilities. I had believed I was detached from this allure. I thought I had a clear perspective, understood technology’s Faustian bargain. I had even told myself I wasn’t interested in having a Kindle. But that first emotion, the giddiness of 8-year-old me, chastised me. I was afraid because I knew I wasn’t so self-controlled, so rational, as I had prided myself I was.
For all the rational arguments and careful analysis I might offer from this blog, that moment, with the Kindle undressing before me, showed me that I cared nothing for these arguments. I was excited. And I wanted to continue being excited. Arguments be damned.
I looked at it in my hands, the box. I hadn’t taken the actual device out yet. Fear had checked that impulse. But I still sat with wonder, gazing at it. Imagining myself using it. Imagining what books I might buy. Imagining what it would be like to browse the Kindle store. Setting up an account. Being seen by others while I coolly tapped, next page. A new persona was being created right then and there. I was a new man.
I didn’t take the device out of the box that day. I didn’t take it out the next day either. I thought about it for a while. I wasn’t ready to commit. I knew the excitement would continue—me smiling—with each layer being peeled off. The box. The specially molded packaging, bedding the Kindle snugly. The plastic wrap. I imagined turning it on. Getting lost in navigating the new features. Learning the new environment. It was an experience. Tactile. I wanted it.
But I didn’t open the box the week after Christmas. I had decided to return to work, where a number of my colleagues own Kindles, and ask them about theirs. I asked a friend who had one. “How do you use yours?” What I meant was when and where did she read them? What sorts of books did she read on them?
She told me that she read mostly fiction books on hers. She wanted to highlight some of her nonfiction reading, and besides, most of her nonfiction was for grad school. The Kindle is just bad at highlighting, she told me. Easier with a touchscreen, but still. She said, too, that she really used it mostly when traveling, on a plane or on vacation, but not at the beach or near the pool. And not really on the bus or on the train during her commute. Some of us still consider 150 dollars enough money to think twice before flashing it around.
At work the following week, I asked my colleagues and they said similar things. Fiction is good. It’s good for traveling, but they’d prefer reading a book at home. Not everyone said that, but it was common.
So I found the receipt for my Kindle and the bag that it came in and I put it on the counter by the door. I was planning to return it. It sat there on the counter for another week and a half. I was going through the stages of grief.
I was mourning the loss of the future I’d imagined. I was letting go of the hopes and dreams and identity I had wrapped up in that status symbol. I was grieving for the excitement I’d felt at first.
But, since returning it, I haven’t really looked back. I made the right decision. Using it just for fiction books seemed foolish to me when I could get most of them from the library for free. I do read plenty of nonfiction too and a highlighter is always close by, with its yellow cheeriness. I always hesitate to make the first highlight in a book, but after that I do so with abandon. And I like the record it leaves, like tracks behind me in the sand. I was here.
And another thing. I still love having a bookshelf. I browse it once in a while. Friends come over and do the same. They pull one off and ask me about it, or judge me for having it. And I love it all. And that’s one of the hidden realities about eReaders. They aren’t just books. They’re bookshelves. They’re bookshelves that I’d have to upgrade every couple years. I’d have to upgrade just to keep my bookshelf full of my books. I don’t like having obsolete bookshelves.
And those are choices I don’t want to be forced to make. I mean, I’m a nostalgic guy. Think about it: I had trouble parting with a Kindle I’d never even used. How much worse would I feel at losing books I owned because of a technical glitch? Or for being strong armed into purchasing a new Kindle just to keep the bookshelf I’d created? Nostalgia and resentment have a lot in common.
No, I wasn’t going to navigate those emotional tides. I’d found out that there was still an 8-year-old boy inside of me. And maybe I do still need to grow up and learn to be more detached, more adult-like. Or maybe I need to stoke that fire.