Roger Ebert vs. the Kindle

July 13th, 2010

Roger Ebert

I once interviewed Roger Ebert back in 2001. (It happened via a brief e-mail exchange, I remember him as exceedingly gracious, and I’ve been a huge fan of his ever since.) But I also remember asking specifically — nine years ago — whether he had a “dream PDA” that he’d like to see someday? After all, he was a newsman (and a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist.) Wouldn’t he like to read newspapers on a special tablet-sized reading device?

And his answer surprised me.


“For my news I still prefer the voluptuous combination of newsprint and coffee in the morning.”

Spoken like a newsman. Although to be fair, Ebert has always spent a lot of time surfing the web, and acknowledged that those tiny 2001 screens (and tinier keyboards) were also driving him crazy. And he was even more sensitive to the keyboard problems because — guess what? — he’s a professional writer. “A writer lives through a keyboard,” Ebert e-mailed me. “Palm Pilots are useful for people who don’t write a lot and need phone numbers, a calendar, etc.”

So now it’s 2010, and I had to wonder: had Ebert changed his mind when he heard about the Kindle?

I did a Google search to see if I could find a recent comment, and found two Ebert links that didn’t answer my question and one that did. But first I’d found a touching essay from a blogger who’s an even bigger fan of Roger Ebert fan than I am. (When his oldest son got married, the blogger wanted to present his son with a very special gift, and finally settled on: a copy of Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies. Plus two other books…) “The more I read from his keyboard, the more I understand why he won a Pulitzer and is considered America’s best pundit,” the blogger wrote.

“His love for books is obvious. And, of course, his love for books helps explain the depth of his thinking and his writing.

This is a blog primarily about business books. But underlying it is a simple love of books. Roger Ebert has given us a great read to remind us about our own love for books.”

So naturally, I followed the link…

And there I read a gloriously rambling essay by Roger Ebert himself (written just eight months ago) called Books Do Furnish a Life. During the course of it, Ebert mentions one book after another that he’s cherished through his 67 years of life, and then admits that he still has a home library that’s filled with 3,000 different books. “Of course I cannot do without a single one of these possessions,” he writes, including more or less “every book I have owned since I was seven, starting with Huckleberry Finn.” He has trouble throwing away any of the treasured reminders of great reading experiences, and in a sweet conclusion, considers whether what he really needs is just a cozy private place where he can sit and read his favorites. Except that then he’d miss his wife.

And his other 3,000 books.

I was a little confused by the format of the blog post, but at the end Ebert seemed to approvingly quote a 22-year-old reader in Arizona who had a humorous observation of her own. “I love how the kindle is marketed as a ‘wireless reading device’ – isn’t that what a book is?” And soon I’d discovered the third link, where Roger Ebert finally shared his own personal feelings about the Kindle….

It was in a fairly technical essay where Ebert explained why he prefers seeing films in celluloid prints (vs. newer digital projection systems), titled Why I’m So Conservative.


“In the earliest days of home video, I published an article in The Atlantic calling for a ‘wood-burning cinema.” In recoil from the picture quality of early tapes, I called for the development of low-cost 16mm projectors for the home. No, this didn’t have the invisible quotation marks of satire around it. Seldom has a bright idea of mine been more excitingly insane…”

It’s hard to argue with his fondness, and the memories that go along with them. And it’s in the essay’s final sentence where he mentions the Kindle — and then brings all these themes together.


“I love silent films. I miss radio drama. In some matters, I feel almost like a reactionary. I love books, for example. Physical books with pages, bindings, tactile qualities and even smell. Once a year I take down my hardbound copy of the works of Ambrose Bierce, purchased for $1.99 by mail order when I was about 11, simply to inhale it. Still as curiously pungent as ever. I summarily reject any opportunity to read a book by digital means, no matter how fervently Andy Ihnatko praises his Kindle. Somehow a Kindle sounds like it would be useful for the wood-burning cinema.”

It’s an argument I’ve heard before, though I’ve never heard it expressed quite so eloquently. The wry resistance of my hero left me a little stunned, until I realized that the two of us also shared a tremendous common ground. After all, maybe Roger Ebert doesn’t love the Kindle.

But he definitely loves reading…

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