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Brand Name Faith

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Brand Name Faith
James Wolcott argues in Vanity Fair that the Kindle, along with our increasing retinue of digital extensions, is emblematic of a cultural shift away from snobbery and self-aggrandizement, a kind of progressive, equalizing force that is leading or will lead to a new kind of consumerism in which our possessions “will be arrayed and arranged to show off not our personal aesthetics or expensive whims but our ethics…”

The first idea seems sensible on the surface, and it’s been circulating for a while. That guy reading the Dave Eggers novel on the patio of the coffee shop isn’t just reading a Dave Eggers novel; he’s advertising the fact that he’s reading a Dave Eggers novel (on the patio of a coffee shop). That’s the nature of real books, says Wolcott—they “help brand our identities.” On the other hand, if the guy on the patio of the coffee shop is peering into a non-descript slice of plastic, we don’t know what the hell he’s reading. The Kindle removes the temptation, or so the argument goes, to inject affectation and disingenuousness into the experience of reading, while at the same time preventing passersby from judging us by the covers of our books.

While I thank all my digital storage units for making me a better (fitter, happier) culture consumer, I do have one question: How exactly is the Kindle itself (or the iPhone, or a netbook) not just as much a potential marker of superior taste as a Dave Eggers novel, a Miles Davis CD, or a Louis Vuitton purse? If anything, the Kindle is even more of a social signifier because it’s still new enough and rare enough to be a novelty item, and it’s not like people can check it out in stores. Reading on a Kindle doesn’t advertise the flavors you enjoy consuming, but the means by which you enjoy consuming those flavors, and when the means involves a new technology that is so exclusively acquirable—long-term financial commitment plus sight unseen availability—it has the appearance of being stamped with an esoteric, almost mystical quality, penetrable to the faithful (i.e., those who paid for it) alone. The mission of the exuberant new convert then becomes, now and always, to preach the gospel to the unsaved. (Here’s Bezos again, in Newsweek: “This is not just a business for us. There is missionary zeal. We feel like Kindle is bigger than we are.”)

Just check out the Kindle Boards, where members decry those who cling to real books for their feel and smell, while simultaneously gushing in a different thread about the cute names they’ve given their Kindles; or go to the “See a Kindle in Your Area” forum on Amazon, where thousands of total strangers offer (plead, even) to show their Kindles to thousands of other total strangers. This is the kind of thing that happens when you mistake the shell—be it a real book or an e-book—for the pearl.

I’m not implying that all Kindle owners (or Kindle resisters) are snobs or zealots. I’m only thinking that the infatuation many of them drape over the machine comes down to the novelty effect and a heightened brand loyalty (“Kindle is bigger than we are”) as does the claim that a human being unrestricted by cataracts or arthritis is able to—abracadabra!—read more on electric pages than the real paper the electricity tries so hard to emulate. Let’s face it—It simply doesn’t take that long to flip a page. Also, if you loathed reading before and—presto chango!—can’t get enough of it now, then you’re probably the one crocheting a sweater for Katie the Kindle, because it’s sure not what’s inside books that you’ve got a thing for. There is no magic in Amazon’s e-reader, I’m afraid, except perhaps the sham alchemy that conflates buying books with somehow understanding them, thereby vanishing that troublesome, soon-to-be anachronistic intermediary step of having to read more than a few paragraphs of any given narrative.

And what should we make of the more serious claims that the Kindle marks “a cultural revolution” of Gutenbergian proportions, to once again quote Jacob Weisberg? Or how about this one, from the Wall Street Journal, referring to the global availability of the Kindle 2: “The only other events as important to the history of the book are the birth of print and the shift from the scroll to bound pages”? I said before that, as long as books are equally readable and malleable, it doesn’t matter what kind of package they come in. But there’s something just as important as intelligibility, and that’s accessibility.

Right now Google is involved in litigation that will determine whether or not they have a monopoly on the millions of books they’ve digitized and will continue to digitize, books they ultimately want to make available to the rest of us for a fee of their determining. Amazon, no doubt, is paying tenaciously close attention. There is, I’m sorry to say, nothing new, and certainly nothing revolutionary, about having to pay cash for the means to gain knowledge. A digital library that boasts every word ever written means precisely zip to those who have long been marginalized from traditional education at all levels, and now stand to be locked out of the next phase of information delivery. The fact is that right now anyone can check out a “dead tree edition” (as many Kindlers refer to real books, as if paper wasn’t more biodegradable than Kindle plastic) from the library, but not everyone can afford to read one on a Kindle, despite absurd pronouncements that the e-reader “pays for itself.”

Digital Ivory Towers and the Philosophy of READ MORE
I prowl Amazon’s customer reviews every chance I get. The last paragraph of one of them jumped out at me while looking for free Charles Dickens Kindle editions:

This is another example of how the Kindle has, overnight, made vast and important literary collections instantly accessible to the ordinary reading public without having to make the public library your second home, or impoverish oneself, or devote thousands of square feet at home to musty, smelly, roach-loving old books.

First of all, and as I just discussed, literary collections aren’t instantly accessible unless you buy a Kindle, and the assumption that the “ordinary reading public” can do just that, as well as commit to continuing iterations, is as common as it is wrongheaded. The statement about libraries is incredibly strange. Why would I need to make it a second home if I can bring a whole bunch of books back with me to my first home, that being an essential function of libraries? And then there’s the last bit, about the Kindle liberating so much space (thousands of square feet?), and about real books hogging up so much of it, and doing it so uncleanly. It occurred to me that I’d been reading very similar sentiments (“SPACE! SWEET, SWEET ACTUAL SPACE!” ran part of one) over the last few months while poring over Kindle articles and Kindle boards and Kindle blogs and Kindle reviews and Kindle comments.

In an article for PopMatters called “The Future is an Empty Room,” Michael Antman, after extolling the legitimately democratizing, “almost miraculous” forces of the internet and paradigm-exploding digital technologies, talks about his wariness of the preoccupation with the mere space carved out by this digitization, and the accompanying (and evolving) 21st Century perception of the shabbiness and awkwardness of real things like CDs and paintings and neighborhood shops, and especially books, all of which he identifies not as clutter but as “signs of pleasure and happiness and life.”

He’s not talking about the practical desire, which I share in a big way, to squeeze a few more square feet out of (to use an example close to home) the one-bedroom apartment I share with my fiancé. Digital culture tends to consecrate the harvesting of space not only as a bottomless, indiscriminating data bank, but as an embodiment of the future, both aesthetically and ideologically. If what we want, really, is more of everything, then there’s nothing better to hope for or emulate than infinite fill-ability. Who cares, really, about what’s inside, about what might live on all these new worlds pinpricking the void? We’re too upgraded for that—we move too fast now. No one wants to be stuck in the old program, that musty, smelly, roach-loving, beat-up world of “real” objects and face-to-face relationships that are prone to so much dullness, error, breakdown, rejection, corruption, death. 


The last email I got from the Kindle—GIVE THE GIFT OF READING—wanted me to know that it was now only $259, and that it offered even more (360,000) of the most popular books, newspapers, magazines, and blogs. The delivery time remains stuck at “less than 60 seconds,” but nobody’s perfect. Not yet. I don’t know how many years it’s going to take, but eventually everybody who’s anybody will be carrying around an all-purpose slate or tablet of some sort, and we really will be able to call up “every book every printed, in any language”, instantly.

If this future is anything like Gene Roddenberry’s utopian Star Trek incarnations, we’ll still be compelled and fascinated by the original, unabridged, un-upgradable chains of words that make up Asimov’s I, Robot and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. When I think about the final frontier these days, I think mostly of that early scene in 2001, when a professionally pleasant, well-dressed man arrives on a space station on his way to the Moon and clicks down that silent, curving, gleaming white corridor, passing the prim, cold windows of a Hilton and a Howard Johnson’s. He stops for awhile among some colleagues, sitting down at an orderly spread of slight white tables and bright red chairs for what turns into an awkward conversation, everyone stiff but perfectly cordial.

A systematic, tragic irony pulses through this violently clean, HAL-9000-automated universe: We had to become like machines to get to the stars, and we’ve just discovered something strange and wonderful out there among them that requires the long-form intelligence and long-form empathy of a human being.

Kelly Roberts is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. You can reach him atopus17 at gmail dot com.

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