I had a birthday a few weeks ago and to mark the occasion, my wife bought me a Kindle.
OK, yes, I’m a pretty digital guy, and despite writing my 1992 Berkeley Master’s thesis on “The Future of Print in the Age of Interactivity” – a thesis that celebrated the rise of a digital tablet fed by a world wide network – I didn’t run out and buy a Kindle as soon as they came on the market. In fact, I was rather suspicious of the device, with its cultish clan of devotees and its somewhat insidious approach to purchases (Whispernet is free – just use it to buy stuff!). I actively demurred my wife’s consistent implorations to buy one – much to her frustration as a card-carrying member of the aforementioned cult.
I couldn’t explain why, but something about the Kindle just struck me as wrong. (Well, the lack of an open development system is one big Why, but it wasn’t the elusive Why. I’m getting to that….).
So when my wife handed me an Amazon box to open on my birthday…well it was awkward. I’ve already purchased two Kindles – both for her (she had to have the second version) – so I knew what was inside the box. But I have severe reservations about the thing, so pretending to be thrilled was difficult. We’ve been married over 16 years after all.
Then again, my wife was clearly thrilled with her Kindle, and her enthusiasm carried with it the whiff of a movement . Now thanks to her, I owned a ticket to Seeing What The Fuss Is All About.
So we fired the thing up, set up my account, and I began to poke around the Kindle store.
And that’s when it hit me, in a very visceral and almost reactionary sense: I never, ever, EVER, want to read a book on this device, at least as the device is currently set up. Perhaps that’s a bit too sweeping: Put another way, I don’t ever want to read a book that I would ever want to share or keep – one that I’d want to put on my shelf in my library at home.
It was as if I was paralyzed: I literally couldn’t even imagine purchasing a digital version of a book, downloading it onto this device, and then reading it there. Newspapers and magazines? Sure – I immediately got the New Yorker, the NYT, and the WSJ, and plan on happily consuming these periodicals and more as time goes by. I might even take a few blogs – but then again, it seems rather silly to pay for something that comes free over the web (wait….oh never mind.)
But books? No way.
I imagine you have probably figured it out – I was stuck in a physio-digital dilemma – my attachment to the physicality of books was affronted by the idea of digital long-form narrative.
Now, I’ll be honest here and say this was a rather uncomfortable place to be, given my career as a producer of texts about the future of digital. What’s wrong with me? Am I turning into my (grand)mother? Am I hopelessly out of date? Will I soon be muttering under my breath about how my kids are texting too much and failing to have “real” relationships with their friends?
Yikes. (David Byrne doesn’t have this issue, so what is WRONG with me?!)
So I got to thinking about what was wrong with the Kindle, from my point of view. Now, I’ll grant that my point of view isn’t consistent with most (or even many) folks out there, but I think it bears airing out in any case. And as I pondered why, really, I don’t like the idea of reading a novel on the Kindle, it became quite apparent it had to do with the book’s physical nature, certainly, but more importantly it’s social nature – the infrastructure of our culture that supports a book’s social identity through its physical transport. (Countless books have been written about this mystery of the book as artifact, of course…)
It was clear to me that the Kindle breaks just about every one of the unwritten mores of how we, over hundreds of years, have honored books socially. (If this has been said before, endlessly and better by others, please forgive me, and leave a link in the comments…) And as a writer and lover of books, this makes the Kindle nothing more than a glorified Netbook – without the Net.
A few examples:
- You can’t share a Kindle book with anyone else. That’s just nuts. The sharing of a book is perhaps one of the most intimate and important intellectual acts between humans, ever. I’m not stuck on whether or not that sharing is physical. I’m stuck on the inability to share. It’s a crime.
- You can’t declare to anyone (including, importantly, reminding yourself) that you’ve read this book – an obstacle I’ll call “the library problem.” I love being surrounded by books I’ve read, and I love the fact that people who come to my office or my home library can see the books I’ve read. Yeah, part of it has to do with status. And does digital mean that status is going away? I don’t think so.
- You lose the serendipity of reading in public (and judging, as well as being judged for what is read in public). This issue has famously been pointed out before, and I do find it rather compelling. A Kindle suffers from a kind of social blindness – no one knows what you’re reading, unless they ask. Something important is lost when no one knows what you’re reading on the subway, the airplane, or the park bench. The opening salvos of countless relationships will no doubt be lost (though I suppose any number of romances have been kindled by the exuberant declaration of one’s love for the Kindle…).
Now, before you consign me to the Luddite woodpile, let me state that I don’t think any of these obstacles will stand, over time. We’ll figure out how to share books as digital objects, how to quicken The Book into the mercury of digital social relationships.
But I’m deeply disappointed with the Kindle’s current lack of understanding of this critical aspect of a book’s meaning in our culture.
And I’m pretty sure that ten years from now – perhaps sooner, if Google has its way – we’ll look back at the first Kindles as important but ultimately flawed “fish with feet” in our ongoing evolution as a culture that honors what a book truly is. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying my free three week trials of periodicals. We’ll see if they convert into paid subscriptions….