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Hiding tastes

An NYT piece by Joanna Kaufman wonders whether the Kindle will rob people of the opportunity to do what I talked of yesterday, judge people based on what sort of books they own.

How will the Kindle affect literary snobbism? If you have 1,500 books on your Kindle — that’s how many it holds — does that make you any more or less of a bibliophile than if you have the same 1,500 books displayed on a shelf? (For the sake of argument, let’s assume that you’ve actually read a couple of them.)

The practice of judging people by the covers of their books is old and time-honored. And the Kindle, which looks kind of like a giant white calculator, is the technology equivalent of a plain brown wrapper. If people jettison their book collections or stop buying new volumes, it will grow increasingly hard to form snap opinions about them by wandering casually into their living rooms.

Kaufman notes how publishers will rue the loss of passive advertising that comes from people carrying books around. And individuals will have to become more active about their self-promotion as well. What the Kindle, like other technological developments, will force us to do is find new, technologically mediated ways to project identity. So rather than passively display books on a shelf and let people's natural curiosity run its course, the Kindle, should it catch on, will force us to publish our reading lists online somewhere in a self-fashioning ploy that one can't plausibly disavow. Of course, one could do nothing and use devices like the Kindle as a way to mask one's tastes. But the Kindle itself signifies on a different identity hierarchy. It seems unlikely that the Kindle will signify that one loves books, but probably it will work like gadgets generally and convey where one is on the early adopter/late adopter continuum more than anything else.

The mediated evolution from passive to active pruning and preening of our identity has been the story of the internet's penetration into everyday life generally. Gadgets insert themselves into that process of identity projection; they offer the individual a chance to seemingly extend their personality's reach, while at the same time they give outside parties an opportunity to exploit it. So gone is the idea of seeing someone on the train reading a book that makes you curious about them; coming is the era is using Twitter to blast out to all your followers (the future version of friends) what you are reading, with an automatic link to Amazon already worked in.

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