Shelf Life

Published: March 4, 2010
The New York Times Magazine

People who reject e-books often say they can’t live without the heft, the texture and — curiously — the scent of traditional books. This aria of hypersensual book love is not my favorite performance. I sometimes suspect that those who gush about book odor might not like to read. If they did, why would they waste so much time inhaling? Among the best features of the Kindle, Amazon’s great e-reader, is that there’s none of that. The device, which consigns all poetry and prose to the same homely fog-toned screen, leaves nothing to the experience of books but reading. This strikes me as honest, even revolutionary.

But I have to stop being so marmish. I’m not a literacy promoter; I don’t run some kind of Reading Rocket Club. And binding sniffers are not illiterate, anyway. No less a reader than the cultural critic Walter Benjamin, as card-carrying a man of letters as the world has ever seen, savored the physicality of books. In his 1931 essay “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting” — one of those essays that’s often called “famous,” though we’re not talking Hello Kitty here — Benjamin turns euphoric while surveying his dusty books. He’s enchanted by each one: “the period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership.” In acquiring books, often in mock-heroic ways, he says he has managed “to renew the Old World.”

Benjamin even pre-empts my skepticism. “The nonreading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of collectors?” His answer: Yes! Book collectors don’t always read! Should a person read all the books she buys? No more — Benjamin writes — than you should use your best china every day.

Hmph. Benjamin is not to be gainsaid. If he says not reading books can be as sophisticated and European as reading them, I believe him, and I will try to think of my books as Sèvres china. But Sèvres china, if I had any, would be for display on its days off, wouldn’t it? So how do I display or otherwise admire all these books I keep buying for the Kindle?

Unpacking my Kindle library, I click “menu” on my screen and find . . . a list. First, the words “The Happiness Project,” the title of a book by Gretchen Rubin, in stout dark gray lettering, underscored by a lighter, less stout line.

This might be depressing. I can’t tell if I’m supposed to consider this underlined title to be the “book” I ordered from Amazon. Maybe it’s more like a catalog listing. If I click on it, I’ll get to the words in the book. Maybe it’s analogous to a book’s spine.

I want to rhapsodize, as Benjamin does, when he remembers the tactics he employed to acquire the book “Fragmente aus dem Nachlass eines jungen Physikers” (Johann Wilhelm Ritter, 1810) after a Berlin auction. But the only memory I have of purchasing “The Happiness Project” is no memory at all. I’ll have to search my e-mail to see when I clicked “Start reading ‘The Happiness Project’ on your Kindle in under a minute” on Amazon. I think I had seen that “The Happiness Project,” a franchise with a blog I read, had become a best seller, and that seemed exciting; if I clicked, a credit card on file at Amazon would be out a theoretical $9.99, and in under a minute I’d be able to see for myself whether the book had more in it than the blog. That is the sweeping, romantic story of my acquisition of “The Happiness Project.” As Benjamin reminds us, Habent sua fata libelli. Books have their destiny!

Going down the gray list, further unpacking my dustless, odorless, weightless Kindle library, I find “Devotion,” by Dani Shapiro; “Let the Great World Spin,” by Colum Mc­Cann; “Wolf Hall: A Novel,” by Hilary Mantel; “Lit,” by Mary Karr; “Manhant,” by James Swanson; “DANCING IN THE DARK” — some titles are unaccountably given in all caps — by Morris Dickstein; and “Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Recipes for Entertaining” (a modern classic).

I have literally no memory of opting to get any of these on Amazon. Most of these books were bought impulsively, more like making a note to myself to read this or that than acquiring a tangible 3-D book; the list is a list of resolutions with price tags that will, with any luck, make the resolutions more urgent. Though it’s different from Benjamin’s ecstatic book collecting, this cycle of list making and resolution and constant-reading-to-keep-up is not unpleasurable.

Beholding “the several thousand volumes that are piled up around me,” Benjamin exclaims: “O bliss of the collector! Bliss of the man of leisure!” With nothing piled up around me but the Kindle and its charger, I may be missing out. But even Benjamin, who managed to see the future of media and technology more than once, knew he was writing an elegy for a way of experiencing books. I like to think he would be the first to recognize that the Kindle delivers a new kind of bliss.



Mere mechanical reproduction: How simple and even quaint modernist anxieties seem now, from the vertigo vantage of the Internet age. Let Walter Benjamin lay out the complexities of his day and even enliven your experience of our own digital culture. Read Benjamin’s Illuminations, the 1968 edition, with an introduction by Hannah Arendt.

Your mind has been asleep! Read Benjamin’s Reflections today! Find it in a library, a Parisian bookshop or in scattered fragments online. But tell Amazon to make it available for the Kindle only if you think Benjamin would have wanted it that way. What would he have thought about the aura of art that is disseminated digitally?

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