I’m an old lady

I just read this article about donating Kindles to poor schools in Ghana, and, well, I have mixed emotions.

First off, it’s wonderful that these kids have access to books, especially to read in their native language. The way English glomps local languages is a serious problem for diversity and beauty in literature. And it’s very true that book drives often turn into book purges: ship the unreadable or extraneous to Africa and everyone wins — except the children who were meant to benefit. (This happens with medical drives too; expired drugs: no good! If you wouldn’t use it here, don’t send it there.)

But there’s something deeply disturbing to me about distributing Kindles instead of real books. The economics are simply unsound. A donated Kindle costs $69 just for the device itself with intrusive ads; for that you could buy over one hundred books from the 48 cent carts outside the Strand. These people want to get 1 million Kindles out to Africa; for that you could buy up the whole goddamn Strand, even the basement that no one ever bothers with. Kindle e-books cost less than new editions, but far far more than used paperbacks. So from the sheer standpoint of providing quality literature, used books win.

Then there is the problem of battery charge. Apparently these Kindles can be recharged with solar and wind power? If so good for Amazon, because if rural Ghana is anything like rural India, electricity is a precious commodity and power cuts a near-daily occurrence. (This is the irony of the modern age: that peasants will have cell phones and no way to recharge them.) On a side note, I find it really amusing that Kindle’s big selling point is that you can read it in the sunlight. Like … a book?

And last, the deep and real pleasure of a book itself. The cover design. The typography. Reading on a Kindle is just plain boring. (I know. I’ve tried.) The pleasure of fiction is in the imagination, sure, but there is also the sensory pleasure — the smell of old books, the weight of them in your hand, the crinkle of the page. And you learn a lot from the physicality of a book: when it was made, how it was read, the assumptions in the cover design (have you seen those lurid 1930s dime novels?) Yes, sentimental, but real nonetheless. Books, hardbacks and paperbacks and little homemade chapbooks, insist on their own reality in a way that an e-reader or tablet or electronic delivery system of choice cannot. Electronic media are ephemera, and presenting something as enduring as literature in electronic form just doesn’t make sense!

Just ask yourself, would the opening scene of Fahrenheit 451 retain its power if the old woman were clutching an e-reader? Would Catherine Morland get so hung up over a virtual Udolpho? Would you choose to read Curious George on a pictureless device instead of with its vibrant illustrations?

Don’t get me wrong, I think the Kindle does provide portability, which is great for long bus rides or plane flights. (But I still do prefer the ritual of looking through my books and choosing just the one — or ok, maybe two or five — that will be my companions for a week.) I just got a tablet for the primary purpose of reading journal articles, and it’s working out great — but journal articles are, essentially, ephemera, to be digested and used until the next clinical trial comes out. They aren’t Anna Karenina.

So back to the kids in Ghana. I’m glad they are reading and I hope they continue reading, but I also fear greatly that the delivery system, being electronic, will fail to compete with the other electronic demands on their attention: computers, cell phones, television. And so no one wins, except Amazon, which gets to look good in the media while continuing to fill their coffers.


2 thoughts on “I’m an old lady

  1. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia, I remember going to my school’s library and browsing through the books. I have to say, probably about 10% of the books were actually relevant in any way to the students there. The health books talked about eating balanced meals using foods that didn’t exist in Liberia, and about social issues that weren’t issues in that culture. Most of the textbooks were several years out of date. In short, the books weren’t what Liberians wanted, but what Americans didn’t want.

    I agree, something about the idea of donating Kindles is pretty off-putting. Sadly, I think it is just one representation of larger issues in international development work.

  2. Just ask yourself, would the opening scene of Fahrenheit 451 retain its power if the old woman were clutching an e-reader? Would Catherine Morland get so hung up over a virtual Udolpho? Would you choose to read Curious George on a pictureless device instead of with its vibrant illustrations?

    *clutches real books tight and joins you in old ladyhood*

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