‘There is no frigate like a book,’ wrote poet Emily Dickinson, ‘to take us lands away.’ And recently, the captain of my soul has been Dickinson herself, that master of floral economy and passionate doubt. Dickinson’s poetry (crisp, chiefly unadorned) and ideas (skeptical, unorthodox) are surprisingly modern, however steeped in her life and era.
But this book, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, is more modern still. It might have been unrecognisable to the author. Not only because the poet rarely published in her lifetime, but also because of the format: charged pigment particles in black and white, in a light plastic. No paper, no ink. I’m reading Dickinson on a Kindle, the e-reader from Amazon.
The Kindle was a birthday gift, alongside a Leuchtturm 1917 notebook — proof of the mongrel pedigree of writing and reading. I’m writing this with a vintage fountain pen, made in c.1959. It will soon be transcribed into my laptop, and emailed to Meanjin. Readers will then choose their format: some will read onscreen, some on an e-reader, some on printed paper. I believe this ‘transitional’ stage is actually normality: different technologies are usually side-by-side over generations. They are rivals in the market, but not necessarily in literary life.
Of course, as an author I’m right in the middle of this market — the eBooks of Distraction, for example, are competing with my paperbacks. I receive less royalties for Kindle editions of my books, and some are selling better in their paperback incarnations. The so-called ‘new business model’ is important to me.
But as a reader, I’m more interested in the literary value of this new technology. What differences does it make to reading and writing?
Much of what I notice is practical. For example, the Kindle is light and small. With two volcanoes children at home, I sometimes write in a café. Instead of lugging seven hundred pages of Dickinson, I have all of her poems in a small handheld rectangle, which weighs less than my notebook. Add to this a horticultural biography of Dickinson, the collected Plato and Aristotle, Diogenes Laërtius’ Lives, the Webster dictionary — and still only two-hundred and fifty grams. This saves spots for coffee, pens and notebook on my table, and eases the strain on my Judo-injured neck.
The Kindle is searchable. Looking for my Dickinson quote meant typing ‘frigate’ and clicking, rather than pawing pages and hurriedly eyeballing the text. This is nothing extraordinary, but it is handy: like having a precise concordance for every indexed book. Instead of dog-eared paper or post-it notes, I can click directly to bookmarked pages. Fewer minutes for looking, more for writing.
Electronic books are usually cheaper, and faster to receive internationally. Dickinson’s complete poems, plus the collected Plato and Aristotle, cost less than a coffee, and arrived more quickly. (More express than an espresso.) As a professional writer, I want living authors to receive a fair fee for their work. But for the long-dead pensmiths, I’m happy to get a discount — this living author has to live austerely. (How frugal is the chariot,’ writes Dickinson, ‘that bears a human soul!’)
All in all, the Kindle has the advantages of weight, indexing, cost and speed of delivery. But what of reading itself?
The Kindle has an odd purity to it. Dickinson has the same charcoal plastic frame as Aristotle or Young. eBooks have unique covers, of course, but they are not really ‘covers’ — they are just one screen amongst others, which do not physically wrap the text. In fact, most of the physical features of paper books are removed: uncut pages, embossed ex libris stamps, tooled leather bindings. Gone are different smells: pencil shavings, spilt coffee, and generic old-library funk. What remains is black text on a light grey background.
To me, there is an intimacy to this: I am in a more immediate relationship with Dickinson, and her words. Her poetry’s curt lines — ‘A word is dead/ When it is said,/ Some say./ I say it just begins to live/ That day.’ — are even more direct. Of course I can ignore the decorations of a colourful paperback or gilt leather tome — but the Kindle makes this easier. It has a simplicity to it, which holds consciousness.
Yet the Kindle does not goad me. When I shut the hardback edition of Habegger’s My Wars are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson, it calls to me. Whether it’s on my writing desk or bookshelf, it whispers to be read again, until it’s completed. When I shut down the Kindle, the book vanishes. I know the information is there, but by some psychological trickery — probably repression or delusion — it ceases to be.
I welcome this break from reader’s guilt, but I’m wary of writer’s liberation. If I’m to finish my chapter-in-progress, my book-in-progress, and receive my advance-in-progress, I need to be pulled back into the text. The Kindle allows me too much independence from my books. I can turn Dickinson off as easily as she turns me on.
These observations are early — I have more Dickinson to read and re-read, and years of eBooks to go. With the poet, I put my hand up for ignorance: ‘This timid life of evidence/ Keeps pleading “I don’t know.”’ (She’s speaking of immortality, not vertically-integrated hardware and software. But still.) Perhaps the format will become invisible to me — because the differences I’ve discovered are false, or because they are true but trivial. But at this point for me, the Kindle is a curious combination of straightforward efficiency and precarious intimacy. Sail on, Emily.
Damon Young is an Australian philosopher, writer and commentator, and author of the books Distraction, Philosophy in the Garden and How to Think About Exercise.