One of the many charms of their house was that it was crammed with books. Some of those reflected busy professional lives; she had a lot of books in Chinese and his dealt with environmental issues around the world. But many fell into the category of books I should have read but hadn’t — serious fiction whose titles I knew well though not their contents, scholarly biographies of important people, deep studies of philosophy and religion, big books on politics and economics. Indeed, a whole year of full-time reading would not have been enough to get through even a tenth of them.
I did read a dozen heavy tomes that appealed in one way or another, like Jared Diamond’s “Collapse,” which I had started when it first came out but never finished. There was a John Keegan history of World War I that I had somehow missed (be glad you didn’t live in Europe in 1914) and I re-read Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror” (be glad you didn’t live in the 14th century). But after a while I began to yearn for books that weren’t in the “should have read” category. I wanted lightweight popular history or complete fluff like detective stories. The “light” part was important figuratively, since my brain needed a break, but also literally, since it’s just too much effort to hold up a 700 page book while reading in bed; lightweight is good.
Maybe this is where the Kindle and its kin shine. Smaller e-book readers don’t weigh as much as even one real book but they store lots of them, and online book sellers make it seductively easy to buy more — one click and you’ve got it, no matter when or where you are.
Are e-books the future of reading? In Amazon’s latest earnings report, CEO Jeff Bezos ’86 says “Kindle books have now overtaken paperback books as the most popular format on Amazon.com.” Barnes & Noble said much the same for Nook books, though one should be careful to read the fine print — that applied only to online sales, not those in brick and mortar stores.
I don’t understand the economics of e-books. Since their production and distribution costs are close to zero, one would expect them to be quite a bit cheaper than their physical equivalents, but they are often comparably expensive — immediate gratification has a price. For instance, when a new cop novel by one of my favorite authors was published last fall, the Kindle version was only 10 percent less than the physical hardback. The paperback version just appeared; it’s five bucks cheaper than the Kindle edition! This all seems weird, given that when you “buy” an e-book, you don’t even own the bits. Like most digital media, the book is “licensed, not sold,” and you only have a transient right to make limited use of it. You can’t sell your e-copy to someone else nor can you donate it to a local charity for their annual book sale. And as we saw with the Orwell copyright fuss in 2009, Amazon can even unsell the book.
I don’t own a Kindle, so when we returned home, I headed over to Firestone to find some lightweight entertainment. To my delight, sitting on the shelf in the Dixon collection was the very same hardback cop novel by the favorite author that I had seen on Amazon. No waiting, no fourteen dollars, just bring it back within a month.
As I was checking out my handful of books, the young woman behind the counter commented on my choices. I said that they were only for enjoyment (I probably said “trash” to convey that they were certainly not “learned”). She said, “I’m really looking forward to reading books that I want to read.” From this, you could safely infer that she was a senior and had finally had enough of books that other people told her she had to read.
Naturally I asked the standard and probably irritating question — is your thesis done yet? “Not even close,” she replied, which is definitely the standard answer, especially at the beginning of April. Hang in, dear seniors. In a couple of weeks, your theses will be done. In two months, you’ll be free. You’ll miss Princeton more than you could imagine, but you will finally be able to read any book you want and purely for your own pleasure. With a bit of luck, you’ll be near an outstanding library that lets you wander freely through its collection, wherever curiosity and serendipity lead. It’s a great experience and a lot more fun than any e-book. Enjoy.
Brian Kernighan GS ’69 is a computer science professor and a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.