How eBooks Saved My Father's Reading

For those of you who regard the end of the page as the end of the world as we know it, look to my father.
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Believe me, I can lament the decline of bound books as well as the next girl, but when Ivory Tower types argue that reading on an e-reader is somehow an impure or lesser form of reading, as Andrew Piper does in his remarkably titled book excerpt "Out of Touch: E-reading isn't reading" on Slate, my hackles rise.

Buried under all that high-mindedness is small-mindedness. It betrays woeful lack of awareness of how ereaders have completely transformed the lives of people like my father.
When he was in his early fifties, my father was diagnosed with macular degeneration -- a progressive disease that destroys its victims' central vision -- in both eyes. For someone with macular degeneration, the world is maddeningly blurry, and while some procedures can slow the process down, there is no cure. Terrifyingly, treatment can brandish a Damocles sword: time and time again, my father has undergone procedures that, if successful, could sharpen his vision in one eye slightly, or if they weren't, would condemn that eye to total, permanent blindness.

When he was first diagnosed, my father could "pass" as someone who could see, but before long he began to struggle more and more with actions as commonplace as driving a nail or reading a facial expression. Peering became his new normal. But one of the worst aspects of his descent into blindness was the forfeiture of his favorite hobby: reading.

I come from a family of very hungry readers, but unlike the rest of us, who are admittedly a bit snobby about what makes the cut, my father was always delightfully democratic in his approach: He'd read anyone and anything. He read whatever trashy best-seller I bought him for his birthday (I remember buying him the horror novel Audrey Rose when I was 9, and he read it), but history, particularly military history, was his most enduring love. Our bookshelves were crowded with Churchill's history of World War II, which my father read in its entirety, Bruce Catton's books about the Civil War, and hefty tomes like Frances Fitzgerald's Fire in the Lake, a classic history of the Vietnam War.

But as his disease progressed, books vanished from his bedside table and television colonized evenings at home. The man who had read Churchill was reduced to entertainment by fuzzy impressions of Miami Vice. Hazy versions of Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! were weekly godsends.

At certain points, surgery could temporarily restore at least some of my father's eyesight, and with reading glasses with coke-bottle lenses, he could sometimes struggle through large-print editions from the local library, a few pages at a time. But the library only carried lowbrow in large print, and while The DaVinci Code and its ilk might entertain him for a while, I think he quietly, desperately missed his serious reads. He read trash out of desperation, for a few minutes here and there before his eyes got tired, for almost 30 years. And because the reflective glare of most computer screens was too hard on his eyes, the Internet Age passed him by. Still, even though he couldn't read much of it himself, every Sunday morning he went into town to buy the Sunday Times.

But then a few years ago my husband suggested that buy my father a Kindle DX -- at the time the Cadillac of Kindles, the big one as broad as a hardback. We held our breath as my father opened the package. A device that could restore reading to my father seemed like too much to hope for, and the prospect of disappointment loomed large.

My father's Kindle wound up delivering everything that we hoped. Because he could adjust the print size and the screen doesn't reflect, my father was released from a prison of non-readership, and he's been the reader he's supposed to be for four years now. In a given year, he guzzles more books than he did in the previous 30: Dexter Filkins' The Forever War, David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, Ben Macintyre's new book about D-Day, just to name a handful of the dozens and dozens of books that crowd his Kindle library.

And, just as he did decades ago, he's returned to his "reader reads all" approach to fiction: he's read everything from the Stieg Larsson Millenium trilogy to every single Jack Reacher novel, from Tana French's wonderful Irish mysteries to The Hunger Games. Nothing gives my father's children more pleasure than seeing him enjoy his retirement by doing what he loves most: reading for hours on end.

So, I ask those of you who wring their hands over the demise of the book, who regard the end of the page as the end of the world as we know it, to look my father in his pale blue, 82-year-old eye, and tell him he's not a "real" reader. He'll be the first to remind you what "out of touch" really means.

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