By DWIGHT GARNER
THE case against electronic books has been made, and elegantly, by many people, including Nicholson Baker in The New Yorker a few years ago. Mr. Baker called Amazon’s Kindle, in a memorable put-down, “the Bowflex of bookishness: something expensive that, when you commit to it, forces you to do more of whatever it is you think you should be doing more of.”
The best case I’ve seen for electronic books, however, arrived just last month, on the Web site of The New York Review of Books. The novelist Tim Parks proposed that e-books offered “a more austere, direct engagement” with words. What’s more, no dictator can burn one. His persuasive bottom line: “This is a medium for grown-ups.”
I’ve been trying to become more of a grown-up, in terms of my commitment to reading across what media geeks call “platforms” (a word that’s much sexier when applied to heels), from smartphones to e-readers to tablets to laptops.
It’s a battle I may lose. I still prefer to consume sentences the old-fashioned and nongreen way, on the pulped carcasses of trees that have had their throats slit. I can imagine my tweener kids, in a few years, beginning to picket me for my murderous habits: “No (tree) blood for (narrative) oil.”
It’s time to start thinking, however, about the best literary uses for these devices. Are some reading materials better suited to one platform than another? Does Philip Larkin feel at home on an iPad, and Lorrie Moore on a Kindle? Can I make a Kay Ryan poem my ringtone? Will any gizmo make “The Fountainhead” palatable?
Books used to pile up by my bedside; sometimes it now seems that gadgets do, the standby power of their LED lights staring at me like unfed dogs. Let’s talk about these machines, and their literary uses, in order of size, from small to large.
The smartphone has clearly been recent technology’s greatest gift to literacy. Carrying one obliterates one’s greatest fear: of being trapped somewhere — a train, the D.M.V., a toilet — with nothing whatsoever to read.
Most of what I devour on my phone is journalism: out-of-town newspapers and links gleaned from Twitter and Facebook. Ben Franklin would have liked this palm-size medium. He’s the founding father who said, “Read much, but not too many books.”
Franklin’s autobiography happens to be an ideal thing to have on your phone. It’s in the public domain, and thus free for the Kindle app. Here’s another unlikely choice: John Cheever’s “Journals,” the most underrated nonfiction book of the 20th century. Cheever’s entries are bite-size yet profound. They are aching when not outright grim; they’ll place the soul-killing events in your own life in context, and may even cheer you up.
I frequently seem to be scanning my iPhone in restaurants, while waiting to order or eating alone at the counter. I like to read about food before a meal; it sharpens the appetite and can lead to drooling. Two favorites are memoirs: “The Raw and the Cooked,” by Jim Harrison, my true north of food writers, and “Blood, Bones & Butter,” by Gabrielle Hamilton. Scrolling through Ms. Hamilton’s memoir, you’ll find this shrewd bit of advice: “Be careful what you get good at doin’ ’cause you’ll be doin’ it the rest of your life.”
Keep an audio book or two on your iPhone. Periodically I take the largest of my family’s dogs on long walks, and I stick my iPhone in my shirt pocket, its tiny speaker facing up. I’ve listened to Saul Bellow’s “Herzog” this way. The shirt pocket method is better than using ear buds, which block out the natural world. My wife tucks her phone into her bra, on long walks, and listens to Dickens novels. I find this unbearably sexy.
More fetching than a girl with a dragon tattoo has always been a girl with a Penguin Classic. With e-books, you have no idea what anyone is reading. This is an incalculable loss, not just to fleeting crushes but to civilization.
That said, e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle strike me as the most intimate, and thus sexiest, of these devices. They’re the Teddy Pendergrass of platforms. On most, the text isn’t backlit, and thus trying too hard, always a turnoff. You are less inclined to cheat on one — that is, to read e-mail or surf the Web. In reading, like love, fidelity matters.
Because e-books don’t have covers, teenagers may find it easier to consume the books some parents used to confiscate — “Forever,” by Judy Blume, “Flowers in the Attic,” by V. C. Andrews. Their parents will think they are playing Angry Birds.
I’m an admirer of Jonathan Franzen, the gifted novelist who has been outspoken about his dislike of electronic books. But if you aren’t a fan of Mr. Franzen’s, I would guess that reading his novels on a Kindle, a device he loathes, might be considered a literary form of hate sex.
E-readers, excellent for singles — short, novella-length books — are also the platform to turn to when going long, when it’s time to finally pick up Roberto Bolaño’s “2666” or Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” or William Gaddis’s “The Recognitions.” (Shop local, when you can. Ask your local independent bookseller about buying e-books through them.)
The iPad, for me, is thus far the place to toss the kind of big nonfiction books I’m probably going to attentively skim rather than read — Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography, for example, or “Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008,” by the superb cultural critic John Leonard.
I like, too, that some of these nonfiction books offer electronic footnotes that take you straight to a source. Those sources are sometimes much better than the book you are holding. There are often more unusual things to click. The iPad app for Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” for example, is a sensorium of maps and timelines and other things, in addition to the text. “Whither goes thou, America,” he writes, here as in the paper version, “in thy shiny car in the night?”
I’m not sold on these kinds of add-ons, lovely as they are. If I want TV, I have one. But I can imagine a young person being wooed. Art books, too — many of them are available free — are a treat on the iPad. The clarity is breathtaking, like a snort of some visual drug.
I’ve tried poetry on each of these platforms: Larkin, Dickinson, Philip Levine, Amy Clampitt. It’s not happening, at least not for me. There’s not enough white space, nor silence. The poems seem shrunken and trapped, like lobsters half-dead in a supermarket glass pen, their claws rubber-banded. Poems should be printed on paper, or carved onto the dried husks of coconuts, so one can hoard them.
The one bit of verse that charmed me, when read on the iPad, was Clive James’s brilliant and witty “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered.” This poem forces you to wonder: What will remainders look like in our digital future? Where’s the 99-cents bin going to be?
You can’t read an e-book in the tub. You can’t fling one across the room, aiming, as Mark Twain liked to do, at a cat. And e-books will not furnish a room.
Writing in The Times in 1991, Anna Quindlen declared, “I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.”
I am so down with that. But it’s the mental furniture that matters.