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I’ll Give You a Free Kindle

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 If you decide you’d like to upgrade your Kindle, Sony Reader, or other eReader to a nifty new model, I’ll purchase your old one from you for the full retail price you paid, including the sales tax. How cool is that? There are only a couple of paltry little provisos. Read on, and I’ll explain.

The eReader is unquestionably an elegant example of contemporary technology, and I don’t doubt that a lot of people will be interested in my kindly Kindle offer. After all, the coolness of the Kindle stands in gleaming contrast to printed books, those floppy, antiquated, and ephemeral storage devices that get dusty, brittle, mildewed, yellowed, and foxed (i.e., they develop brown spots, just like old geezers of the human persuasion.)

Oh, and they lay waste to forests when they’re born, and clog landfills when they die.

Whereas eReaders are invulnerable and immortal, preserving the written word forever at no cost at all to the environment. .

I mean, right?

Well, let’s examine this widely held assumption a little more closely. To begin, let’s take one of the oldest books in my collection — an edition of Shelley’s Poetical Works, published by Oxford University Press 80 years ago, in 1929, and containing charming and informative notes and inscriptions from the book’s first owner, a long-ago scholar or student named John Ross Curtis. I open my somewhat frayed-looking blue volume with its still-radiant gold colophon on the cover at random to a poem called “The Revolt of Islam,” which actually isn’t as prophetic or scary as it sounds, and discover that the pages are still intact, albeit faintly sere at the edges, and that the words are still eminently readable:

“Time passed, I know not whether months or years;
For day, nor night, nor change of seasons made
Its note, but thoughts and unavailing tears:
And I became at last even as a shade,
A smoke, a cloud on which the winds have preyed,
Till it be thin as air…”

Next, by way of comparison, let’s look at the oldest electronic device in my home. That would be the computer I’m working on right now, which is about five years old. Since computers age even more rapidly than Afghan hounds, that’s about 85 in human years. I’ll be getting a new computer some time later this year, so my current computer, and any unsaved text it contains, will very soon be toast.

I do have a file drawer filled with floppy discs that are a lot older than five. But they’re now unreadable on any device I own. I also have some 25-year-old Magnavox Videowriter Word Processor discs, which are now most likely unreadable on any device anyone owns, outside of a few hobbyists or maybe some specialist at some Museum of Failed Technologies. If Shelley had saved “The Revolt of Islam” or “Prometheus Unbound” or “Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples” onto an equivalently unreliable form of technology, rather than paper, his life would have been not only evanescent, but unremembered.

And all of my other devices? Over the years, I’ve owned, or exclusively used in a workplace, approximately 20 computers, including desktop models and laptops, and extending all the way back in time to those ancient “dedicated word processors.” I’ve had a total of only three cellphones and two Blackberrys, which I’m sure is way below average, but I’ll be getting an I-Phone at some point in the future. I’ve owned some small but not insignificant number of Walkmen, portable CD and cassette players, desktop CD players, multi-disc changers, calculators, a couple of I-Pods, assorted stereo systems, and even a hand-held pen-shaped scanning device that never worked at all (the tech-support person told me that the problem was that I’m left-handed. Right.) And let’s not even count the televisions.

Nearly all of these items, to my great shame, are now in a landfill somewhere, along with the equally large or even larger pile of electronic stuff most of the readers of this posting have each, themselves, probably bought and discarded over the years. And most of this “stuff” was thrown out either because it stopped working, or because it became so hopelessly outmoded that it might as well have stopped working. So much for the environmental arguments for eReaders and other electronic devices — which, remember, are assemblages of plastics, chemicals, batteries, and rare, nation-destroying minerals like coltan — over supposedly “tree-killing” books. (The calumny that books lay waste to old-growth forests is another subject for another time.)

So here’s where my offer comes in. On the theory that there’s slim historical justification to suspect that the current crop of Kindles and Sony Readers, as clever and nicely designed as they are, will survive any longer than any of the other electronic devices you and I have discarded over the years, I’m willing to bet that the current crop of eReaders won’t even last as long as my Oxford University edition of Shelley’s Poetical Works.

No. Wait. That hardly seems fair. Eighty years, after all, is a very long time, and I probably (ahem) won’t be around in eighty years to make good on my offer.

Let’s, instead, use as a measuring stick Percy Bysshe Shelley’s tragically short lifespan of 29 years.

If you currently own a Kindle, Sony Reader or similar device, let’s see if it lasts even as long as the doomed, drowned Shelley.

Let’s see if it lasts 29 years.

Twenty nine years from today, on October 6, 2038, all you need to do is send me a photograph, using whatever technology is in place 29 years from today for transmitting photographs, of your present-day. (i.e., purchased in 2009 or before) eReader in good working condition, perhaps displaying on its screen a copy of the October 6, 2038 New York Times (assuming that the newspaper still exists in any form at all) in order to prove that the picture wasn’t taken years earlier and that your 29-year-old device is indeed in good working order.

You’ll also need to send me a scan of the receipt, dated any time in 2009 or before, for the purchase of the eReader depicted in the photograph you send me. In return, no later than December 31, 2038, I will send you the amount you paid for your eReader in 2009 or before, including sales tax, so that you can upgrade to a new model. That’s assuming, of course, that inflation hasn’t rendered the amount in question so negligible that it won’t even pay for one piece of genetically engineered bubble gum for your granddaughter, much less whatever kind of eReader device exists three decades hence.

It’s a simple as that. If, by 2038, your current Kindle isn’t as crapped out as a campfire in a cyclone, I’ll send you a check by the end of that year to upgrade it. Please note that this is an informal offer for hortatory purposes, is limited to the first ten respondents, and is not intended to supersede, contravene, or violate any local statutes governing sweepstakes, awards, contests, or special offers.

In the meantime, speaking of the New York Times, consider a story from Sunday’s’s edition titled Will Books Be Napsterized? In typically tentative fashion, the newspaper of record acknowledges that digitization may, indeed, spell the end of the printed book and that the piracy that digitization makes so incredibly easy will, in turn, spell the eventual end of author royalties and, thus, by extension, the writing of books as a professional career. And, as the Times points out, writers won’t even have the option, as musicians do, of turning to the concert circuit. Unless, that is, the likes of Joyce Carol Oates or David Sedaris begin filling football stadiums with fans.

Just so there are no misunderstandings, as there seem to be so often with blog postings, I like the Kindle and will probably buy one. I think it has many advantages over printed books. But printed books, in turn, have many advantages of their own over Kindles, which is something that everyone seems to forget.

Longevity is only one such advantage, but even that one has many subsidiary attractions, including, ironically, fashionability. By this, I mean that the hardcover books you buy today are gifts that you can pass on to your children tomorrow, knowing that at least some of these books will be objects they will treasure and keep.

Your old Kindle, or the one you buy after that, or the one you buy after the one after that?

Your kids, thirty years hence, will just laugh at them.

I’ll have more to say about all of this in a book, currently in the proposal stage, called The Future Is an Empty Room, which was discussed briefly by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Julia Keller in her Chicago Tribune column this past Sunday. Although my book, as Keller accurately notes, will be an attempt to propose ways to reconcile print and electronic media so that both can co-exist indefinitely, even that modest goal sometimes seems out of reach, the infinite accessibility and replicability of digitial media suggesting to me that I’m racing the clock to get my proposal purchased, and the book written, while ink-on-paper books are still capable of filling our bookstores, and while bookstores themselves still exist.

But perhaps I should take the longer view. With all due respect to the brilliant entrepreneur behind the Kindle, let us return to another genius, Percy Bysshe Shelley, for the final word on arrogance, immortality, and what lasts and what does not:

My name is Jeff Bezos, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”


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2 Responses to “I’ll Give You a Free Kindle”

  1. A recent trial of the Kindle DX prompted not so flattering adjectives from the students such as clunky, cumbersome, etc. But these type of real trials will help today’s e-readers evolve into a much more ‘perfect solution’.

  2. As a book lover and Kindle owner, I understand your point for someone such as yourself that truly cherishes and keeps their books. I have four bookcases upstairs filled with wonderful works. Why would I buy a Kindle? Many reasons. I travel a lot for work – and quite frankly lugging 2-3 books with me is no longer appealing. Another reason, there is a lot of reading material that most people would deem disposable (newspapers, magazine, cheesy paperbacks, etc.). These can all be read on the Kindle and no harm to the environment. Yes, I might end up tossing out the Kindle after a few years for yet another newer device, but at least I didn’t toss out 1,000 newspapers and 200 magazines. My shoulders are also a lot happier. I do miss some book elements and do still buy books when its special. It doesn’t mean the world of books and Kindle can’t co-exist happily.

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