The Cult of Kindle and the Myth of Digital Utopia

Will Amazon’s Kindle Forever Change the Way We Read?

READ MORE, the Kindle ad beamed from the margin of my Yahoo! mailbox. It was a promise, but it was also a subtle rebuke: If I could read more with a Kindle, it stood to reason that I wasn’t reading enough without one, and getting and consuming increasingly more information is an end in of itself these days. About a week later, as if it could sense my indifference to its high-minded sales pitch, Amazon’s intrepid e-book reader emailed me. It thought I’d like to know that it only cost $299, and that over 300,000 of its most popular titles were available for “free wireless delivery in less than 60 seconds.” I logged out and anxiously waited for the Kindle to rap, ever so curtly, on my front door.

You can’t really blame the Kindle for trying. The idea that someone might not want it, or might not be able to afford it is simply not part of its program. When the first generation hit Amazon’s cyber-shelves in November of 2007, it sold out in mere hours (we’re currently on Kindle no. 2). Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote a letter a few months later, and while reading it out loud to his shareholders, it came out sounding awfully like a love poem to his new toy. “Kindle is purpose-built for long-form reading,” he wrote (not “the Kindle”, you’ll notice, just “Kindle”).

“We hope Kindle and its successors may gradually and incrementally move us over years into a world with longer spans of attention, providing a counterbalance to the recent proliferation of info-snacking tools.” (“Information snacking”, he explained earlier in the letter, is our networked devices’ tendency to drive us to distraction.) The Kindle, in other words, unlike that nasty iPhone (on which Kindle books can be read) and Twitter, is the solution to our mind-shrinking malaise. It’s spreading the Written Word in electronic ink, and Bezos is the self-described missionary whose “admittedly audacious goal is to improve upon the physical book.” The fact that he is “fervent” about making billions along the way is almost to miss the point.

Before I’m dismissed as some sort of frothing neo-Luddite and/or would-be saboteur of the House of Bezos, let me first say that I’m an unwaveringly enthusiastic Amazon customer—when I buy something, that’s where I get it. So I want to assure the Kindle, as part of the Amazon family, that I bear it no ill will. In fact, I think it’s really cool. I had a hell of a time finding one, (as they’re only available through the mother ship), and apparently everyone in my city is, like me, too vindictive to want to READ MORE—but I digress.

The Kindle is super light, easy to use and the screen is easy on the eye, unlike my computer monitor or the iPhone. The ability to change text size is genius, especially for the visually impaired (though the blind have a powerfully legitimate gripe about the text-to-speech feature), and if I were a business traveler, I’d probably own two Kindles. What bothers me however, is not the Kindle’s functionality, or the decommissioning of the physical book (to the sound of Taps) that will inevitably result, but the outlandish, and at times outrageous rhetoric surrounding a machine that displays a fraction of available texts for a minority of people who can afford yet another endlessly upgradeable technology.

Even Better Than the Real Thing“At the beginning of our design process,” Bezos says in the same letter quoted above, “we identified what we believe is the book’s most important feature. It disappears… We knew Kindle would have to get out of the way, just like a physical book, so readers could become engrossed in the words and forget they’re reading on a device.” He’s talking sense here, despite the overall creepiness of the address, and even though many people have come to regard reading as an intellectual and tactile pursuit. A book is fundamentally a bunch of words strung together to tell a story of some kind, and it shouldn’t matter how those chains of text are transmitted to the eyes or ears or fingertips, provided they are equally and readily intelligible.

So if content is king and words are just words, why then, do we need the Kindle? On the one hand, Bezos says he wants to “[improve] upon the physical book.” On the other hand, he admits he can never, in fact, “out-book the book”. What gives? Well, Bezos decided to add lots of cool stuff to the Kindle, that’s what—stuff you don’t and can’t get with traditional books. I’ve mentioned a few of these extras already, but did I mention that you can also search texts, instantly define words, access Wikipedia and basic web functions and keep running notes while you read? Not to mention the fact that you don’t have to lug around hefty tomes or flip pages on windy beaches. According to Bezos, the most important capability however, is the “seamless, simple ability to find a book and have it in 60 seconds.”

Even though Kindle books, when available, are generally cheaper than paper copies, I don’t see how uninterrupted access to the Amazon book store and the web make the Kindle “get out of the way”, thereby shoring up the ever-eroding art of long-form reading. The Kindle is very much in the way, as Bezos very well knows. He has to redefine the book to beat the book, and the only way he can do that is by making it more like a portable PC–something that flaunts all the built-in shortcuts and distractions the wired generations have come to expect, where a traditional book, by its very (soon-to-be outmoded) nature, has none.

Steven Johnson, who wrote the most even-handed article I’ve seen on the Kindle so far, put it this way: “(The Kindle) will make it easier for us to buy books, but at the same time make it easier to stop reading them.” He goes on to say what everyone already knows: that the Kindle will eventually allow us full access to the Internet (a la that nasty iPhone), the sine qua non of information snacking. And if the Kindle doesn’t, another e-reader surely will, although at that point it won’t really be an e-reader anymore. “As a result,” Johnson continues, “I fear that one of the great joys of book reading — the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author’s ideas — will be compromised.” And if the book is redefined, entrepreneurs are already refashioning “one-dimensional” novels into multimedia extravaganzas and interactive, “open work” experiences—how we “read” them will also change.

There is no denying the excitement of having every single book ever written instantly available and searchable and cross-referenceable. The prospect of downloading a recently “found” history of ancient Greece while standing in the shadow of the Parthenon is awesome, but only if one actually reads the book. The Kindle makes the first part possible, and that’s a great thing for those who can afford the privilege. But to say that it somehow increases the likelihood of the second part is disingenuous. And yet Kindlers and journalists alike insist not only that they can read twice as much on the machine, but that, in the words of Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, it “provides a fundamentally better experience” than printed paper. Clearly I’m missing something here.

Did Bezos endow his product with magical, cerebral and visual cortex-enhancing powers? If I shell out for a Kindle 2, should I expect glassy-eyed men from Amazon’s Sunshine Carpet Cleaning Division to beam into my abode offering up the divine secrets of READ MORE in exchange for the one thing that can’t yet be collected over the internet—a blood signature?

Brand Name Faith

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.

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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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