Bookworm Opinion

Those Kindle-y ones

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

Like any obsessive book collector, I curate my e-book ‘library’ with some care. So why is it that I cannot read, let alone enjoy, fiction on my tablet?

My Kindle ‘library’ has plenty of ‘items’ that would qualify as literary fiction -- writers whose works I have consumed in bulk, first as a literature student, and later as a reviewer. But I have realised I cannot read literature on electronic devices.

One of the first books I transferred to the Kindle app on my iPad was Anna Karenina. But I never got beyond the, what do I call it, cover screen. Every time I unlock my iPad and ‘touch’ the Kindle app, the moving finger scrolls down to A Game of Thrones, swiping directly to the Daenerys, Jon and Tyrion chapters. The ‘pages’ in any case look the same and weigh the same as those of Anna Karenina, which I finally deleted from the device after writing this sentence, a stunt not possible with a physical book.

G. Sampath
Actually I got the idea of reading Anna Karenina on the iPad from a Mumbai-based journalist friend who told me he’d read it, all 850 pages of it, on his cell phone, during his daily commute from Malad to Lower Parel and back. When I enquired if he had read the children’s edition, he informed me that he was 7.5 per cent through War and Peace. I said I would not read War and Peace on my phone even if I could.

There is something ridiculous about reading Tolstoy on a cell phone. Even if it is not, it ought to be. I know this sounds unreasonable in an age where new publishing houses are coming up with the exclusive agenda of publishing literature with a capital L in electronic formats. But then, as Immanuel Kant’s mom said to him one morning at the breakfast table, reason isn’t everything.

I am sure our brave new publishing world of Kindle and e-books will produce its own canon of serious literature. We could see new forms emerge, alongside new genres, new sensibilities, and new standards of criticism and appreciation. Just as the novel could not have existed without the printing press, something else could replace the novel-as-we-know-it as the pre-eminent domain of literary endeavour and glory in the digital age.

But they would represent a distinct break from what went before. The high modernism of the early 20th century could not produce a Tolstoy or a Dickens or a Flaubert. The post-modern turn of the late 20th century did not produce a Kakfa or a Joyce or a Woolf. And the Kindle age may never produce a Marquez or a Llosa or a Bolano.

But it does have a Teju Cole, who writes Twitter fiction, and a host of young writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith who belong, by whatever margin, to the e-book age. Their imagination is informed, if not shaped, by the culture of digital overload and the pragmatism of the pixel. They may well see themselves as belonging to the tradition of literary labourers going back to Tolstoy and Cervantes, and subscribe to the same idea of authorial vocation.

And yet, what we may call their ‘native literary common sense’ is radically different from those of their 19th century forebears, as it should be. Much as the literary common sense of the digital natives (those who grew up reading on the screen) would be different from that displayed by those who have grown up reading paper books.

This is not a matter of technology alone. It is also a matter of culture, memory, temperament, and the senses, all of which have a bearing on a person’s relationship to books, authors, and literature. With the Kindle, the very memory of buying a book, for instance, the lived, sensory experience of it, is surgically excised from the history of reading.

I have a habit of writing, on the title page of every book I buy, its date and place of purchase. It is an essential ritual of the kind of reader I am. So I know, for example, that I bought Franz Kafka: Stories 1904-1924 (with a foreword by Jorge Luis Borges) on October 9, 1996. I know I bought it from AA Hussain & Co on Abid Road in Hyderabad because its sticker is still there – though the iconic shop itself is no more – on the inside cover.

Such traces of a momentary transaction from the past are almost Proustian in their evocative powers. Preserved in them are memories of afternoons spent in this bookshop, of reading on the bus back to the University, of conversations and friendships sparked by the cover of the book in hand. And what is lost — although not missed, perhaps – with the materiality of the book are also the little movements of the mind, the silent adjustments of the eye, the nameless anticipations of a mood, as one prepares to settle down with a new book for the first time after its purchase.

Like any obsessive book collector, I curate my Kindle ‘library’ with some care, or at least try to. So like my physical library, it too has the mandatory Kafka — Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, though with a foreword by John Updike. But I don’t remember buying it. I must have uploaded it at some point from somewhere. So far I have not managed to read a single story of Kafka’s on my iPad, with one exception – a one-page story titled ‘An imperial message’.

I read it yesterday after many years. It is now clear to me it’s the original Kindle story — the one that gave Jeff Bezos the idea. The narrative is directly addressed to the reader. It opens thus: “The emperor, so a parable runs, has sent a message to you…”

The you, of course, is you, the reader. In the present context, the e-book reader.

According to the story, this all-important message from the emperor is communicable to only one device, the mind of the reader, your brain. At the same time, it is impossible for the messenger to deliver the message. That leaves only one option for the reader anxious to know what the message — meant only for her — is. It is the final line of the story: “you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself.”

I can say no more about this story except to recommend that you read it first in print, and then on an electronic device of your choice. It is my contention that had Kafka known that this story would one day be read exclusively on gadgets, he would have written that last line differently.

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 9:08:31 PM |

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