New technology, old books

“Silence is the door-keeper of the interior life.”St. Josemaria Escriva

I have some weird competing inclinations.

Take this pairing: Part of me loves computers and gadgets and making them tick, which led me, as a kid at the dawn of the home computer age, to buy a two computers with my saved-up money and write my own word processing program to do school papers. The other is a deep love of silence and solitude coupled with strong temptation to go off the grid (one of my favorite books growing up was Walden), living in a hermitage somewhere and never looking at another glowing screen. The quote from St. Josemaria Escriva sums it up well. I consider zoning into the Internet for hours (or more rarely a TV) among my worst habits precisely for this reason.

I have had both inclinations since childhood, and still have them both. Being half Geek and half Luddite is often uncomfortable.

Kindle 2
Image licensed under a Creative Commons license. Photo by Jon 'ShakataGaNai' Davis.

But I think I’ve found the perfect technology for me in the Amazon Kindle.

I’ve had my eye on them for a couple of years now, and this Christmas, my (much) better half bought me one. I was, and remain, thrilled.

The great benefits of the new generation of e-book readers, of which the Kindle is only the most famous, are the vastly improved reading experience (comparable to ink on paper) and the availability of  more stuff, especially new releases and periodicals. I have bought several books through the Amazon store, and I have read several issues of a variety of different newspapers on it. Both experiences have been good. I may have more to say about newspapers on Kindle in another essay.

But neither is why I wanted a Kindle. I wanted one so I could read old books comfortably and for free. Possibly the greatest thing about the Internet is that it has thousands upon thousands of great old books that are now in the public domain. There’s great literature there — Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Hopkins — alongside old Westerns to read just for fun. You can find the writings of the saints. You can find the writings of the world’s great thinkers who have shaped the world (for good and for ill). With Google Books even the mediocrity of the ages is available.

Even taking the very best of the ages and building a library in paper would cost thousands of dollars and take up a room in the house. (Just ask my wife!) But now you can get it for free and hold it in the palm of your hand. The only major drawback has been the horrible experience of reading on a computer screen, now solved with the e-book reader.

I think I have done more serious reading since Christmas than I had since the previous Christmas. Stepping away from the digital fire hose of my RSS feed, my Twitter account, my Facebook page and so on has become a regular habit that refreshes the soul.

It’s true that you can log on to the Internet from your Kindle, but it’s not a great browsing experience, so it’s no great temptation. And it’s true you can browse the bookstore 24/7 from the comfort of your couch. That’s a real temptation. But it’s been easily solved by simply turning the wireless service off, which has the added bonus of extending the already long battery life even more.

So there it is. For once, high tech has served to increase, rather than diminish, silence, solitude and the interior life. Luddite and Geek shall meet, high tech and old books shall kiss, and now I only  have to discipline myself to stop reading and go to bed at night.

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2 thoughts on “New technology, old books

  1. Hi Kyle, I had heard that the Kindle could not read PDF format – I’m wondering what and where you get access to the free old books? I’ve been on this fence for a while, but without a better half, will have to decide for myself in a data driven way.

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  2. The new Kindle can read PDFs natively. What works better from what I’ve seen is to convert them to a more native Kindle format. You can do this for free, either using free software or sending it through Amazon to e-mail addresses specifically for your Kindle (there are two, one free, which e-mails the file back to you, and the other of which will send the file direct to your Kindle for a small fee.)

    However, it’s really a moot point regarding PDFs. Everything at the Gutenberg Project is available in plain text and MobiPocket formats which work perfectly on Kindle, and in HTML, which can be readily converted. Much of that content is also available from manybooks.net, where you can get it in Kindle format too.

    The Google Books stuff is slightly trickier. There the public domain documents can be dowloaded in PDF, EPUB and plain text, and the plain text isn’t always super clean. However, there is a free software program called Calibre that will convert EPUB for you pretty reliably.

    Hope that helps.

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