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Staff Pick: Elizabeth Onusko

August 20, 2009

beth_onusko-small.jpg When it comes to technology, I am reluctant. I still own a VCR; I have never owned a car with a CD player; and I only recently acquired an iPhone. I suppose this is because I am, somewhat inexplicably, faithful to inanimate objects that have served me well. And there is no object for which I feel greater passion than a book.

This is why I found myself nodding vigorously while reading Sven Birkets’ “Resisting the Kindle,” which appeared in The Atlantic last March. When I first heard about the Kindle, I had a hard time understanding my strong resistance to it. Why dislike something that facilitates reading?

Birkets pinpoints why: “For me the significance of this is not whether people end up reading more or less, or even a matter of what they read. At issue is the deep-structure of the activity.”

When I was a child and blessed with hours upon hours of unscheduled time, I devoured books. While I remember some of the plots and some of the authors, I remember best the physical books themselves—how they felt (the textures of the pulp varied based on publisher and age) and most vividly, how they smelled (the delicious crispness of a new mass market paperback, the peculiar mustiness of a well-worn library book). Recently, watching a woman on the train reading a Kindle, I noticed that what she seemed to enjoy most about the device was the attention she received from her fellow passengers. As she gleefully shared with us the Kindle’s features, I found myself thinking that the Kindle made reading look like work—it was a personality-less computer screen that made one’s eyes spend even more of the day staring at a hard brightness. I could not imagine settling into a comfortable armchair with a Kindle and feeling like I was escaping the world. The funny thing is that I don’t feel this way about magazines (obviously) —I equally enjoy reading them electronically or in print. The book, to me, is unique.

Like Birkets, I understand that the Kindle has its place. But when I hear “experts” extol of the virtues of California’s recent decision to use electronic textbooks because kids today are so digitally savvy—I find myself wondering why our culture seems to value that which is new and novel without asking a few questions first. Do electronic texts make reading easier or better or more fulfilling? Or are they just another, albeit flashier, option for an activity that, in my opinion, is incredibly satisfying as is?

Bio: Elizabeth Onusko is managing editor of Guernica. Read her last recommendation “here”:http://www.guernicamag.com/blog/1198/staff_pick_elizabeth_onusko/.

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