Upstairs, Downstairs: Torn Between My Books and My Kindle

My husband gave me a Kindle for my birthday. (Forgive him, O Indie booksellers. He is an engineer who knows not what he does.)

At first I protested. As a writer, avid reader, and patron of indie bookstores with cats curled on floral armchairs, what did I want with this devilish contraption?

"Give it a try," my husband suggested. "A lot of the books are free."

Did he say free? As the daughter of a Do-It-Yourself-Or-Die-Trying gerbil farmer, "free" is my middle name, whether I'm surfing for curbside antiques or checking out sample cheeses at Market Basket. How could I resist?

Of course, like any addiction, that first hit lures you down the slippery slope of, "Oh, hell, just one more can't hurt." Soon I was downloading books by the dozen, bemused and freaked by the fact that the Magic Hand of Amazon could find me even in bed. It could even find me in the White Mountains or riding the subway in New York City. Need a book? Press a button!

The thing is, I started to love my Kindle. But I couldn't give up my obsessive fondling and purchasing of books. I also worried that my books -- waiting so patiently in their pretty bright book cover dresses on my bookshelf, or climbing over each other on my nightstand in their zeal to be read -- might be hurt by my disloyalty. Alternatively, I worried that my smart-mouthed, quick-on-the-draw Kindle would know I was cheating on her with her plumper, more beautiful cousins.

I agonized for weeks over which was better: digital books or "real." At first, reading the Kindle was downright confusing. For one thing, what to do with that free hand flapping around while you hold such a slim rectangle and touch buttons to flip pages? (And why didn't I have a Kindle while I was breastfeeding my kids?)

How do you pretend not to notice an annoying neighbor if you can't hide your face behind an actual book? How do you loan your books to friends on a Kindle? What do you put on your bookshelves if you stop buying books? (Either wine glasses or my son's Lego collection, in our case.) And how do you stop ordering books on Amazon once you've seen how easy it is to get a fix?

Gradually, though, things smoothed out. My house has become like that popular British TV series, Upstairs, Downstairs: my supposedly more refined (though not necessarily more entertaining or informative) books reside upstairs, on the table next to my bed, where I contentedly read for an hour or so every night before I go to sleep. My Kindle stays downstairs with the dogs.

At the moment, my upstairs book is Island, a collection of lilting, atmospheric stories by the brilliant Canadian Alistair MacLeod. Reading his textured, elegant, emotional prose, it is impossible not to imagine that Cape Breton's misty cliffs loom just outside your window.

For instance, MacLeod's description of rain in the title story goes like this:

Sometimes it slanted against her window with a pinging sound, which meant it was close to hail, and then it was visible as tiny pellets for a moment on the pane before the pellets vanished and rolled quietly down the glass, each drop leaving its own delicate trickle. At other times it fell straight down, hardly touching the window at all, but still there beyond the glass, like a delicate, beaded curtain at the entrance to another room.

Downstairs, meanwhile, my Kindle seems best suited to books by comics or mystery writers, as well as indie authors like Darcie Chan, whose books were never published by traditional publishers because they weren't deemed "good enough." (Many of those authors, like Chan, have gone on to sell thousands of copies. Go figure.)

Digital books accompany me throughout the day, because they are so easily stowed in my purse or coat pocket. My Kindle does its work during doctors' visits, in the car while waiting for kids to leave sports practices, or on business trips that would otherwise require an extra piece of luggage for my paperbacks.

On my Kindle, at the moment I'm reading Holidays in Hell by the conservative but consistently hilarious P.J. O'Rourke -- somebody whose books I never wanted to pay full price for because of his politics. Check out his description of General Omar Torrijos of Panama:

Torrijos was a half-baked socialist and a blow-hard, but he was lovable and good-looking... He had genuine feeling for the poor, started some only moderately useless social programs and maintained a modest style of life, keeping no more than two or three mistresses on the side.

I once read that Hemingway used to write his dialogue on a typewriter because it sounded more like people talking, but chose to write his descriptions in longhand. As a writer, I also go to different places and use different tools, depending on what I'm trying to work on. I often write in a journal when I'm collecting ideas, flesh them out at my laptop, and then edit on paper, standing up in the kitchen with a cup of tea at my elbow, I suppose because then it seems like my work is by a different writer and I can be more objective about revisions. For me, reading has become like that: I choose a book's delivery mode based on what kind of reading experience I anticipate.

So my books reside upstairs and my Kindle is downstairs. Different rhythms, different lives, different sensibilities lead me to choose whether I read fiction or nonfiction, short stories or poetry, ebooks or paper. The important thing is that, for every mood and moment, there is a story to treasure, no matter where I am -- or in what form I read it.

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