Last week I ambled into the modern age and read a novel on my Kindle for the first time. Amazon gave me this e-reader two years ago so I could sample its self-published books, but I never have. I’m already swamped with 150 galleys a day; the deep waters of the self-published frighten me. Besides, I have to take notes in the margins to keep track of characters’ names, details about the plot and my gradually coalescing reactions.
But my tech-savvy friend Mike Rosenwald gently implied that I was being a Luddite. The Washington Post writer extolled the convenience of e-reviewing: He types reactions right on the device and then writes his review from those notes.
So I gave it a try.
The book was a slender one: Deborah Levy’s “Swimming Home,” recently shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
The tiny keyboard at the bottom of my Kindle took some getting used to, but soon I was highlighting and annotating with Jetson-ease. And I could see what passages others had highlighted, too, which quickly taught me how commonly we’re attracted to the same epigraphic phrases.
The problem with this process didn’t become obvious until I finished and sat down to write a review.
Usually, I flip through the galley and my endnotes, looking for major points to emphasize and striking quotations to include. A simple but crude system of CAPS, arrows and underlining draws my eye to themes I thought were important. And, what’s more, I have a spatial sense of the book’s architecture in my mind.
On the Kindle, each screen shot floats in space, isolated from the previous or subsequent ones, an effect that left my memory of the book weirdly nebulous. Alan Jacobs wrote an interesting essay in the New Atlantis last year about how the switch from scrolls to the codex 2,000 years ago enabled a different kind of thinking. But something about the switch from the codex to the e-book disabled mine.
My essential marginal notes were reduced to footnote numbers; I could click on each one to read it, but I couldn’t scan them as I flipped through the pages; I couldn’t watch the progression of my own reactions.
Mike told me how to print out my notes and highlights from my online Kindle account, but that produced 10 numbing pages of tightly spaced comments tied to screen-shot numbers: e.g. “The kiss hurt as much as the pains in her throat. Read more at location 1515.”
I don’t have a good sense of where “location 1515” is . . .
And being able to search for words and phrases on the Kindle was ultimately less helpful than having a concrete memory of the story’s physical layout.
In the end, I managed to crank out a review, but it was an anxious, flying-without-a-net experience that I won’t repeat.
If you’re a reviewer, editor or student who has to take notes as you read, I’d be curious to hear how you’re adjusting to the world without marginalia.
Ron Charles is The Post’s fiction Editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.