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Kitzmann column: Meshing two loves: Computers, books

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As you may have gathered, I am an avid reader as well as a confirmed computer connoisseur.

Books and computers serve different purposes in my life, but I can't say that I prefer one over the other. Reading a book is better for you and has more long-term personal benefit than using a computer, so I try to do that more often. There are times, though, when I feel harried and distressed and need nothing more than to check my e-mail or slay a few Martians.

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That being said, I was rather excited to hear that my two passions, the computer and book, have finally married and had offspring, which, fortunately, has the best features of both of its parent entities.

Commonly called Wireless Reading Devices (I will henceforth use the acronym "WRD."), these little gadgets are capable of downloading and holding literally thousands of books, including novels, works of nonfiction, various monthly publications, and popular newspapers.

There are countless makes and models of these devices, but the Great Paterfamilias of them all is the Amazon Kindle. This particular WRD features, according to amazon.com (its maker): access to over 115,000 digital books, plus newspapers, magazines, and "weblogs", a high-tech screen that is designed to mimic a printed page and is supposedly easy on the eyes, and unfortunately, like all great things, carries an enormous price tag.

Although the prospect of storing perhaps an entire library of written media on a device the size of a paperback is very exciting for some, I can see how it would be a concern to others. Books have held an extremely critical role in the history of man, and for them to suddenly be replaced by digital equivalents could be seen by some as a moral, if not spiritual offense.

Whether found on the earliest Egyptian scrolls of papyrus, or our current novels and newspapers, the written word has not only transmitted information through the millennia, but has also brought people comfort in their times of distress, and a way to escape the harsh and unforgiving "real world."

Books have started wars, and they have ended them; they have incited rage in the hearts of countrymen, and calmed people with passages from The Bible. Who can forget the feel and smell of an old book, pulled off of the shelf and opened for the first time in 25, 50, even 100 years?

The most memorable gift my grandfather ever gave me is a Bible that his father, a Lutheran Pastor, preached from during his ministering years. So understandably, some might see it as presumptuous for anybody to even try to improve upon what man invented hundreds of years ago, and has used since.

However, myriad acres of forest have been leveled to create books, newspapers and magazines. WRDs would undoubtedly be a way in which to conserve resources.

One example I will illustrate involves the typical life of a college textbook. If you have ever seen one, you will know that they can be ridiculously heavy. A typical skinny college student with five or six of these in his backpack has a burden heavier than him.

If he lugs this load around the campus for four years, he's put himself at risk for back problems later in life. If a man manages to endure this for seven or eight years and get his doctoral degree, he has just made himself a candidate for a future career as the town hunchback.

It goes without saying, then, that college-level textbooks consume an enormous amount of paper. What's more, new editions are being published often on a yearly basis, so the "outdated" books essentially become worthless and are disposed of. Can you imagine the toll textbooks alone take on the world's forests?

If America's colleges alone converted all of their textbooks to digital counterparts, the environment as a whole would be much cleaner than it is now. After all, living trees absorb toxins in the air, and cutting down trees, processing them into books, and then distributing the books to stores located in all different places on this planet takes a great deal of time and energy.

WRDs, though they take time and energy to create, are ultimately better for the environment, and much easier to carry around than the equivalent physical copies of books that they can store digitally.

The question then becomes one of sentimentality, against efficiency and environmental friendliness; the feeling of having a physical book in your hand, verses the satisfaction that you are helping the environment and making the transportation of your literary collection much easier; the security of using what has worked for hundreds of years, against the willingness to try something new and different.

Will digital books prove to be the next step in the evolution of the written word? I don't know. But we'll never find out unless we give this technology a chance.

All of the world's great inventions and ideas seemed like preposterous notions at the time, but people have proven time and time again that it is in their nature to try new things, assuming that they are convinced the "new thing" will be an improvement upon what there was before. That's how we've been in the past, and I believe that eventually, considering the obvious advantages to the environment and spinal column, this new means of receiving literary media will be accepted by the world as normal, and we will have done a great service to ourselves, our world, and the future of mankind.

Nathan Kitzmann is a freshman and is homeschooled.

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