Only a Medium

I travel a lot. My Kindle is super convenient on planes to avoid extra weight, and on the train when I only have one hand free. I like to highlight passages, and it’s far easier to organize those on the Kindle than on a regular book. Recently I’ve started to look up words when I don’t know the meaning. Conveniently, it doesn’t need to be connected to the internet to give me the definition. Beyond all my books, the Kindle comes with a dictionary. I can buy books a lot easier also. I’m always juggling different genres and right before a flight I might crave a fantasy, or something I noticed in the airport bookshop. That said, I keep a good list of books to read in Goodreads, so there’s always a catalog I can go to when needing a new read.

But real books are better. They’re more enjoyable to read, to flip through and hold. My favorite habit is to sit at a cafe with a coffee and a book, listening to the cafe’s tunes. The Kindle spoils that. Small fiction books are nice, Agatha Christie or something similar. They usually don’t have too many words on each page and it feels nice to knock out a lot of pages in a single sitting. Big, heavy, non-fiction books are great too. When the first 100 pages barely crease the binding, that’s when you’re really taking on a monster. The physical book is necessary. Maps and figures and pictures, they need to be flipped to with such rapidity that the Kindle can’t keep up. Back and forth and back and forth. Maybe a 3-page-flip. Keeping notes is harder with physical books. I use small post-its because writing in the book feels wrong. At least I can eventually share the book with someone when I move the notes.

I transfer these notes to another place, a single Google document, as frequently as I can get myself to it. It’s not often enough but I’ve been happily surprised to find myself using these in my writing, in emails, in conversation. It’s a balance to avoid highlighting too much that I won’t ever move the notes or use them. Some books are so good I could almost highlight the whole thing. Here’s one I just read:

“Ain’t you thinkin’ what’s it gonna be like when we get there? Ain’t you scared it won’t be nice like we thought?” “No,” she said quickly. “No, I ain’t. You can’t do that. I can’t do that. It’s too much—livin’ too many lives. Up ahead they’s a thousan’ lives we might live, but when it comes, it’ll on’y be one. If I go ahead on all of ’em, it’s too much. You got to live ahead ’cause you’re so young, but—it’s jus’ the road goin’ by for me. An’ it’s jus’ how soon they gonna wanta eat some more pork bones.” Her face tightened. “That’s all I can do. I can’t do no more. All the rest’d get upset if I done any more’n that. They all depen’ on me jus’ thinkin’ about that.”

~ John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath

I can totally feel it. I’m surely no Dust Bowl migrant, but I have enough what-ifs for three lifetimes. But the present day needs attention. This type of questioning and internal response happens all the time in my life. Every time someone finishes a question with “forever”, it’s almost a certainty they aren’t looking at “a thousan’ lives” they might live. Fair enough, to each their own, but what joy to encounter a character who experiences the same feeling.

It would be a shame to let important moments like that just pass through my consciousness without a chance, a sliver of hope, that it will impact me later on. Inspiring, thoughtful, insightful quotes are some of the coolest things in life. They get printed on motivational posters, overlaid onto mountains or waves to impart some higher ideal that someone has deemed important. They’re hung on walls in children’s rooms, schools, and offices.

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Mostly, the world does a good job at finding thoughts and quotes to turn into products that we hang, wear, and remember. But moments have different meaning for each of us. For that reason, the inspiration we each pull from books shouldn’t be filtered by the marketing department at a poster company.  For me, that was enough to get me started and keep me going with the Kindle. Taking notes on post-its came later, it was too much energy to start. Active reading is a tricky habit to begin and the Kindle eases the transition. Highlighting is no more difficult than dragging your finger over the words. When that little nugget will reenter your life isn’t important. Letting it pass without so much as a highlight, that’s a shame.

The weight of traveling with the book, its heaviness and volume, has a few side effects also. It can be a pain, literally. It’s also frustrating to know it may be finished during a trip or that your luggage is struggling for more space and less weight. Some books have a better balance than others. Good novels seem to be best. Not too quick and light but also not dense and heavy.

The cost to lug around a book has its positives. I’m not racing to espn.com or a mindless podcast when I have some free time. All that work, whether leaving behind a cool sweatshirt or some fresh shoulder pain from my heavy backpack, put the book at at high priority. Plus, the story hits your mind every step of the way, each time you repack or that shoulder starts to throb. It might seem small, but being mid story and getting reminded of it throughout the day is as good as it gets.

I have a lot of thoughts on this stuff. Like whether to buy new books or used, and whether I should pay a premium to not shop at Amazon (hint: nothing beats a used bookstore!). And what about quotes beyond books, like music, speeches, movies? I’m sure these topics will make their way into your inbox soon.

I’d love to hear your own Kindle vs. physical book thoughts. At the moment, I’m down with both. The genre is definitely the key factor (do they put cookbooks on the Kindle?), but it’s usually best not to worry. There’s no better investment than a book.

And now…Stephen King on e-books.