I Have A Kindle Now. But I Won’t Read A Book On It. Discuss.

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…

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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….

57 thoughts on “I Have A Kindle Now. But I Won’t Read A Book On It. Discuss.”

  1. John, I agree with all of your points and think you underestimate the number of other people out there who do too. Your point of view “may not be consistent” with most of the people who read your blog, but I bet it’s consistent with most un-techie people out there who just like to read books. There’s just a visceral connection people have with books, the paper pages, covers, etc. that aren’t (yet?) replicated by an electronic device. But I also agree that we’re still in the early stages and many of our objections may yet be overcome by future enhancements. So for now, I’m with you, great for newspapers and magazines, but I still prefer to read a real book.

  2. It’s nice to hear someone state the same concerns I have with the Kindle. Everyone is so excited and full force about them and I know for certain I will resist them for as long as I possibly can. I’d like to add that you also lose the physical feeling of holding a book and the smell of the pages and the feel of the book in your hand. More importantly, you lose the ability to reference back within a text as easily by just looking at where in the depth of the book it was, or where the book is most dog-eared, or where the spine is broken. There’s no physicality to it. I just can’t get behind it.

  3. Obviously, I guess it depends on how you view books and reading…

    I don’t generally lend books out to friends. I’ll share them with my wife… Maybe my kids or other family members… But that’s about it. And there’s no reason I couldn’t do that with an ebook – all we’d have to do is register the Kindles/nooks/Sonys/whatevers under the same account.

    I also don’t have a problem with purchasing physical books in addition to digital ones. Much of what I read is enjoyable, but just not that outstanding. Certainly not outstanding enough that I want to keep it on my bookshelf for years to come. And if it is that good, I don’t have a problem buying another copy of it… Hell, I’m usually buying a paperback the first time around, and then a hardcover if it is good enough to keep.

    As for the social aspect of being able to see what someone else is reading… Personally, I love this about my new nook. I can load it up with erotica, or bizarre science fiction, or fringe magazines… And I can actually read them in public without having to worry about people judging me.

  4. A solution to the serendipity problem: Kindle should have a second display on the BACK of the device that would show the cover of the currently read book. Wouldn’t it be nice.

  5. The Kindle. Hmmm. Nice and thin and light and handy–but, as opposed to what is intimated by its (British only?) advertising campaign, is there anyone out there dumb enough to put the thing in their hip pocket? I think not. (Forget its there, just once, and sit down. All you can do then is thow it away.)

    Size: despite the above, the Kindle seems to have been designed specifically to fit in a bluejeans hip pocket. It’s certainly too big for a shirt pocket–or inside-jacket-pocket. (Any of mine, anyway; not without force.) And yet its screen is decidedly smaller than any paperback–any one of them, btw, being universally renowned for their ability to survive hip pockets.)

    Personally, I expect to see the usual seventy-two characters by thirty-nine lines in 11pt font–which, unless you shrink the font down to a size that demands a magnifying glass, will not fit on the Kindle. I find that truly annoying. To fix that problem you have to fork out for the (oddly, far too large and) much more expensive Kindle DX–more of Kindle’s answer to the iPad, really. For me, the correct screen size is right in the middle, as I said: a screen that will accommodate 72×39@11points (plus a decent margin: at least a centimeter).

    What I find most irritating, however, is the “color” of the screen. Granted, the text is as clear as clear can be–but the print, which is not actually black is, rather, a dark shade of gray. Add to that, the background is far from either of the two colors anyone expects to find in most any book: white or crème. Thus, contrasting the dark-gray print is an ugly grayish shade of “white” that reminds me too much of the sole of an old sports sock. Sorry, but as handy as the Kindle is, I just can’t bear to read off that miserable gray-on-gray screen. It actually depresses me.

  6. the reasons you stated for not liking the kindle are the ones i like the best about my kindle. 🙂 i hated when people could see what book i’m reading, i like a little privacy, and put paper covers on my books, also it was a bit annoying when i used to borrow a book to a friend and they gave it back much later that they should have or in not such a great shape. a + for using the kindle is the fact i can read even books with 500+ pages and not have to carry around such a heavy book. also i like to have on my kindle stories so i can read them to the kids at the kindergarden where i work. my kindle just made it easier for me to read, because i didn’t have the space to put all the books i wanted to read, or the time to go at the library to read them there, and it allows me to read books in english(not my native language) which i can not find in the bookstores. i looooveee my kindle!

  7. I realize that this article is long past, but I will add just a little to the conversation in case someone picks up on it. I do not own the Kindle, but a Nook. The Nook has one major improvement over the kindle and that is that I can put my books on a mini SD card, share them if I want or change them in just a minute or two. BUT the main reason I bought the Ereader was that my eyes have given up on me and I can read the Digital books much better due to changing of “Brightness” or ‘Shade” as well as increasing or decreasing the Font size and type. I have several hundred Hard and Soft bound books in my library and LOVED them when I could read them, but now just look at the covers once in a while… LOL….
    Consider that I just recently got a book at a yard sale which I really want to read, but it is 917 pages of size 6 font……………….IMPOSSIBLE for me to read, let alone lug around from place to place as it weighs just shy of 3 pounds….

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