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I work in the publishing industry, and I’m also an avid reader – so it’s no wonder I’ve been knee deep in Kindle speculation for the past few weeks.

Kindle is Amazon’s new portable reading device; it’s smaller and lighter than a book and it holds over 200 titles.

Other companies have launched similar, relatively unsuccessful products in the past but Kindle’s connection to bookselling giant Amazon is making people wonder whether this could be the device that actually redefines how we read.

At work we’ve all been considering Kindle’s implications for publishing, but none of us can personally imagine this new gadget replacing the tactile delight of curling up in our favorite chairs with a good book.

It’s not just that I’m fond of bound and printed pages as physical objects. I’m also partial to reading books in the bath, where I can only imagine dropping Kindle in the water would be a much more traumatic experience than dropping, say, The Devil Wears Prada.

But it’s more than that; books are attached to my memories. When I look through my wooden bookcases, I remember where and when I read a particular book and a whole scene from my past rushes by in a photographic snap.

In Search Of The Perfect Backpacking Book

I was thinking about this relationship to books and where Kindle might fit into my world when I found myself remembering the two years I spent backpacking around three continents.

This was right before I took a 9-5 job and had to worry about things like the future of reading.

As I was preparing for this trip, the biggest packing dilemma I faced was figuring out which book to stuff into an already overflowing backpack that was no bigger than the luggage most people take for a weekend jaunt in the countryside.

The biggest packing dilemma I faced was figuring out which book to stuff into an already overflowing backpack

In my own mind I was packing THE book, the only book I would be able to read in the coming months. Should I bring War and Peace? Or maybe Finnegans Wake? These were the only ones that might actually take me two years to finish.

Having just graduated with a B.A. in English, I was also intent on choosing a text that would accomplish the following goals:

  • show all the eccentric expat intellectuals I was bound to meet on the road that I was smart and interesting
  • entertain me after multiple readings
  • and be light enough so that I wouldn’t need to see a chiropractor for the rest of my life when I returned home.

It was clear that War and Peace and Finnegans Wake were far too heavy (and I also had serious doubts that I would actually enjoy reading them) so I eventually settled on Gulliver’s Travels. It struck me as serious but enjoyable reading and definitely a fitting choice given the adventures I hoped to experience.

“Hey, Wanna Trade?”

Recalling the days I spent contemplating this decision made me think that maybe the mobile library of Kindle would have a place in my backpack – if I ever took off for an extended period of time again. But then I remembered my actual reading experiences abroad.

On my third night in a hostel in Ireland someone asked me if I wanted to trade Gulliver’s Travels for a water-logged copy of The Hill Bachelors. Its pages were swollen and soft and it looked dark and mysterious which is exactly how I was feeling about Galway at that very moment.

I had arrived alone and wet and had been wandering around the city for days now by myself. I was too unsure of my surroundings to either make friends or comfortably eat a meal alone.

My initial excitement was starting to give way to loneliness, so I was relieved when this stranger approached the bottom bunk where I was pretending to read Swift (but really contemplating going back home to a familiar bed and existence).

I needed to interact with someone. But trade?

I tentatively handed over my book. It felt wrong to let a boy whose name I didn’t even know walk away with my story – with what I had come to think of as the definitive book that would accompany me during my journey through the world.

But once I let go of it I felt liberated.

After the trade we started chatting about where we were from and what we were doing in Ireland and a few hours later I was having dinner and drinks with him and his friends.

A Global Community Of Readers

That night I discovered that in the world of backpacking the static rules of ownership no longer applied. This was only the beginning of many suspensions of the realities I lived by back home.

Texts were being traded at breakneck speed, moving from hand-to-dirty-hand as we devoured them on long bus rides through the Outback and cold nights in the Andes.

Hostels, backpacker friendly tour offices, and even restaurants had revolving bookshelves where you were encouraged to leave one or two of your books in exchange for one of theirs.

But this wasn’t where the real action was happening. It was all about book-swaps between travelers.

Books were a particular type of currency in the land of the transients

Here trading provided an easy segue-way into conversations and friendships. Books were a particular type of currency in the land of the transients – like a clean t-shirt or knowing which tour operators would rip you off.

Books were judged not only on content, but also on weight and popularity.

One Grisham title could get you two or three books in exchange in Australia, the same with Allende in South America. Michael Moore’s books were always floating around. Children’s books in Spanish were a hit in Argentina, where many of us struggled to learn the language.

I once got stuck with a Judy Blume book for three weeks (don’t get my wrong, I’m a huge Superfudge fan) until I ran into a middle-aged German man who shouted “Yudi Blume, Yudi Blume” and thrust a worn copy of something in his native language at me.

We backpackers created our own bestseller list and the competition was fierce. I read books I had always wanted to read and ones that I never knew existed.

The Traveling Life Of Books

On my last day in Sydney, I traded The Lovely Bones for Not Without My Daughter.

I opened my new used book’s first page. In it, someone had written “Auckland, New Zealand” and below that someone else had put “Milford, New Zealand.” The entries went on and on through New Zealand, Bali, and Australia, working their way down the first blank page and over onto the title page.

The whole geographic history of the book was there. It was like the text itself had transformed into a traveler.

Just then I couldn’t think of anything more depressing than putting it on a bookshelf and letting it sit there untouched year after year.

I read the book on the plane to JFK. Before I handed to it off to a harried-looking young woman extricating her massive backpack from the conveyor belt, I scribbled “New York City” in it. And then I sent it off into the world feeling like I had left some piece of myself in its pages.

Some part of me would travel to far-flung cities long after I was back in the routine of my settled life.

I realized that while I was traveling the whole dynamic of reading had changed for me-the book now owned a piece of me and not the other way around.

It was just one of many shifts in perspective.

So even while Kindle provides easy (and light) access to a wealth of books – I would have missed out on a whole serendipitous experience which was, for me at least, a big part of the adventure.

What do you think? Will digital reading eventually replace paper books? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Rachel Friedman’s travel writing has been published in Get Lost Magazine, The Arizona Republic, and Clever Magazine. She works in publishing and is currently writing a book about backpacking-a kind of Motorcycle Diaries meets Devil Wears Prada-minus all the expensive clothes.

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About The Author

Rachel Friedman

Rachel Friedman's travel writing has been published in Get Lost Magazine, The Arizona Republic, and Clever Magazine. She works in publishing and is currently writing a book about backpacking - a kind of Motorcycle Diaries meets Devil Wears Prada - minus all the expensive clothes.

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  • http://www.rucksackwanderer.com/ Tim Patterson

    Loved this post Rachel – and I totally agree with you. Even when I’m trimming ounces from my pack, I carry around a small library of paperbacks. At the moment I have:

    One Hundred Years Of Solitude
    Voyage Of The Beagle
    Tango Para Participantes
    The Rise Of The Creative Class
    The International Journal Of Circumpolar Socio-Cultural Issues

    That last one was given to me last night in a hostel by the guy who designed the cover. It’s excruciatingly boring.

    -Tim

  • http://gogreentravelgreen.com Elizabeth

    Never will digital replace paperback! You are right– there’s just something about being able to turn the pages of a book that makes it more relaxing. Plus, while traveling, especially on a vacation from work, few people want to stare at their computer screen.

  • http://gregwtravels.travellerspoint.com Greg Wesson

    Two comments – one boringly technologic, and the other emotional.

    First, the technology. It strikes me as highly unlikely that any electronic device will be able to replace good ol’ paper until the electronic device can bend and fold just like paper and display text without any eye strain. Sounds far fetched, but it might be closer when we think. See Fujitsu’s news release here: http://www.fujitsu.com/global/news/pr/archives/month/2005/20050713-01.html

    But as you said, Rachel, books are more than just a conveyance of information. They hold our emotions. For me, the book that is most important to my travels, and that I would never trade, is “A Cook’s Tour” by Anthony Bourdain. A Cook’s Tour documents his journey’s while filming the Food Network show of the same name, where Tony and a camera crew travelled around the world in search of “the perfect meal.” The chapter on Tokyo and Japan, in fact, was one of the two reasons I choose Tokyo as my last vacation destination – the food just sounded awesome and the experiences alien to North American palates but also familiar and friendly and comforting. I have read and re-read the book, and have not tired of it yet. It is a common travel companion with me, and has been in my backpack or suitcase as I have visited 10 countries across 4 continents. That book holds a lot of memories for me, even down to the fact that the book mark I have stuck permanently in the book for the next time I read it is a boarding pass for a flight I took from Omaha to Chicago. I don’t think a piece of plastic with some electrons pulsing through it can replace that.

    All that besides, who would want to lose the joy in the serendipity of finding an interesting English language book tucked away somewhere among all of the volumes of books in a foreign language when far for home.

  • http://www.govisithawaii.com Sheila

    I have to admit, I don’t feel any warm fuzzies about reading a silly chick-lit book from an electronic pad while lounging on a beach. I’ll stick paper for now.

  • http://www.allsafetravels.com/TravelArticlesPage.aspx Elizabeth

    I love this article too! Books are more than just text. I also feel that books allow us to connect with other people (particularly other travellers) in a way that electronic devices might not.

    For example, I’ve had many great conversations with other travellers about what we’re reading at the time — all started because of an interesting cover or intriguing title. However, I’ve never asked someone with a laptop or PDA what they’re reading. It seems like an invasion of privacy.

    I’ve noticed that many travellers are more engaged with their devices (listening to ipods, text messaging, checking email, etc) than with the people around them. I wonder if we’ll have the same experience with the Kindle?

  • Daniel Harbecke

    Short trip – why not. Longer trip – zero interest in carrying an adapter kit for when the battery in my book croaks. Books are comfort gear – they even smell good. NiCad novels seem harder to chill with, though not impossible… I think it’s good to unplug from monitors now and again.

  • http://www.kango.com/california/long_beach Kango Suz

    I agree with Daniel. I’m desperately craving a Kindle, but for reading at home. I have this habit of reading 3-4 books at a time because I always am misplacing the one I’m currently working on. I would not, however, take it with me on a longer journey. Just another thing to loose. I actually try and avoid technology more than my digital camera when traveling. That and a flash drive and if I need to I can go to an internet cafe. That’s plenty of ‘stuff’ for me.

    But yes, I still want one. Like I still want an iPod.

  • John M. Edwards

    Hi Rachel:

    Nice job! I like your distinctive voice and style, much agreeing with you that the book will outlast new inventions. Unlike the CD which swamped our nostalgia with Vinyl, I doubt we’ll feel very cultured or civilized downloading 1500 books into our Kindles. Which I guess is the book-like equivalent to the Ipod.

    Anyway, I’m very suspicious of books anyway, and I always make sure to read the review blurbs first before risking engagement–you know, stuff like “I read until I stopped! I laughed until I cried! Rachel has imagined a dystopian universe where readers flippantly play bestsellers while antiquarians guard the real libraries with heavy firepower. . . ” Remember that Twilight Zone episode where the bookwormish last man on earth, played by Burgess Meredith, stacks up all the books he will read until the end of time, then breaks his coke-bottle glasses. Yikes!

    It’s better to judge a book by its cover, than stare vapidly at letters flashing on a screen.

  • Julie

    This was a wonderful piece and I enjoyed it a lot. I can’t possibly add anything else to your vivid defense of “real” books, other than to say I’m happy to overstuff my pack with an impossible stack of books I know I’ll never finish on any of my trips.

  • http://www.msadventuresinitaly.com/blog Sara, Ms. Adventures in Italy

    I fear I’m the total opposite of everyone that’s commented so far! I definitely think digital is the way we are heading, and I have several hundred digital books in my library now.

    I think especially as a traveler / expat living abroad it gives me the most flexibility and mobility possible to have a large library of books and not be weighed down if I need to move. I also read quite fast so adding 100 books a year to my library doesn’t make much sense. I like swapping books, and still do with friends but we don’t all have the same taste in books so it’s unlikely you’ll find a home for every book. Living in Italy also means that some genres don’t even get published in this country and digital is not only an easy option, it’s cheap!

    The Kindle has gotten so much press but unfortunately they are not trying to help the digital book world – they are continuing the DRM-madness that plagues the ebook industry by forcing you to buy only their books. Sony Reader was another example of this. Dedicated reader: good. Proprietary format: bad.

    I hope that soon ebooks will soon converge to a single format readable by any device or they will make dedicated readers that can read any format.

  • Rachel Center

    As a fellow book-lover, the threat that my precious bound pages be replaced by a computer screen breaks my heart. It would take all of the joy out of reading for me. I’m also thrilled that books are traded among backpackers. Keep us updated about when your book is published. Sounds like it’s going to be a great read–maybe one I can take with me when I embark on my own backpacking adventure. All the best!

  • Rachel Friedman

    Thanks for all these great comments–so cool to have a dialog about people’s various relationships to books and to learn what others have in their packs!

  • http://jeelago.net jeela

    Thx for this article, Rachel.

    If I felt I could afford it ($400?!) I would use Kindle at home or for study/living abroad, but as far as moving around, I’ll throw the paperback into the pack as per usual.

    Question: can you swap e-books? Like if each person has a Kindle? Or idk, print out a copy? Admittedly not very romantic but I’m wondering if it’s possible?

  • Simon

    Just FYI, the RSS version of the article looks like it has lots of leftover cruft that didn’t make it into the final article. I was reading lots of half sentences and grammar mistakes. Might want to have that looked at.

  • http://www.lostinplace.net Kelly

    Rachel, I enjoyed your piece very much. It provided me with a refreshing perspective on traveling with books — and has inspired me to be a bit more generous during future travels. I gave a copy of The Sun Also Rises to a New Yorker I met in Slovenia, and left a copy of Vincent Van Gogh’s Letters at a hostel in Berlin (with my email in it, but I’ve yet to hear from anyone yet)…BUT, I most often use travel as a way to accumulate books as souvenirs, as I wrote about here: http://lostinplace.net/2007/12/12/books-as-souvenirs/

    Collecting books from bookstores I visit is surely something I will continue doing, but now I’ll also look for ways to GIVE books while traveling…I see how it can add an entirely new level of cultural exchange to the travel experience. I’ve been a bit greedy it seems :)

    As far as ebooks vs. the real thing — as much as I use the internet to read news, articles, and even poetry, there is no way I’ll ever read books electronically. I’m guessing the way my dad has never used email, I’ll be one of those oldies who never goes the way of ebook…I can’t possibly imagine it. And I know there are environmental/green reasons to make the switch, but this die-hard book lover just can’t fathom it.

    One final note — I work for an indie bookstore in NYC as an events/marketing manager. If you work in NY and ever want to talk travel and/or book, please send me an email.

    Cheers!

  • Anu

    I’m surprised at everyone who seems to think e-books vs. real books is an all or nothing proposition. I’ve ordered my Kindle and should be receiving it any time now, but that doesn’t mean that I’m never going to read a paperback again! It just makes a lot of sense for someone who loves to read many books at once and doesn’t have a lot of space to keep them all at home. Also the e-ink screens have to be seen to believed — there’s really no eye strain. I love reading books and I’m confident enough that I’ll continue to love reading books whether the medium is a small electronic screen or a printed page.

  • http://www.lostinplace.net Kelly

    Another really interesting perspective on the Books vs. Ebooks:

    5 Reasons I Won’t Give Up Books:

    http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2008/02/the_case_for_ink5_reasons_i_wo.html#comments

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  • john

    “CD’s will replace vinyl” how many times did I hear that. “Downloading will replace CD’s” and guess what, vinyl never left and is making a comeback. Whats new is not always whats best.

  • http://www.fastbookswap.com Jane

    I totally agree that new sites can take over how we get our books. I now use http://www.fastbookswap.com to get my college text books.

  • Joe Steinbrunner

    I enjoyed the article and agree books are special. I have purchaced many hardback and paperbacks over the years and traded many and still have 6+ bookcases of books. I just recently bought a Kindle and have only read one book and one magazine on it. It’s not bad but so far not as good as holding and reading actual paper. I plan to give it a workout, taking it on a 17 day vacation, so I packed it with a few new books, a couple of old favorites, 2 magazines, and a week of the Washington Post. All of which took up hardly any space so I loaded up a bunch of my favorite songs that it can play in random mode only as background music. I’ll post again end of the month how it fares.

  • dave

    ah yes finnegans wake. id bring it if i could only understand it:)

  • Wulfette Noire

    I don’t think the Kindle and any other digital books format would kill paperback. I love this article because I used to backpack and enjoy the same trading experiences and finding books in the nook of a hostel. But I am one of those who are in between. Yes, I love paperback, and yes, I would also love to have some digital copies of it. Let me explain:

    I travel a lot and used to carry about three to five books on each time, but since my son turned three years old, it’s harder to carry plenty of books (his and mine) plus toys during travels. I’d love to have a digital book on my ipod so that I can have a much lighter carryon. I’ll have the paperback version in my luggage to read when I reach my destination.

    If Amazon and others could just stop being so greedy, it would be nice to have a digital version of my book as I wait for my paperback to arrive in the post. Why do I have to pay digital at almost the same price as something I can hold and admire on my shelf? It’s not as if they need to retype the whole book – books needed to be in digital format nowadays before being printed!

    That’s just my thought.

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