To the right, though it's too small to be viewed here, is the image that greeted me when I logged into Amazon.com today (click the pic for a full-size, readable image). It's a message from Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, the purpose of which is to plug their latest gadget: Kindle, "a wireless portable reading device with instant access to more than 90,000 books, blogs, magazines, and newspapers."
People have for the most part been rejecting electronic books and reading devices for years, and Bezos seems to know why. While Kindle would pay for itself after about approximately twenty books (figuring an average price of $20 per tome), most people I know would gladly continue to fork over the green (or its virtual equivalent) for the "real" thing--the real thing giving us some undefinable tactile experience that for all I know flips some sort of nostalgia switch in our brains or helps us to disconnect from a world all too cluttered with all too many things that beep or squawk at you when they need recharging. I for one like to nibble absentmindedly on the corners of my books, dog-ear their pages, and utterly ruin them for others with tea-stains, chocolate smudges, and obnoxious marginalia. If I should happen to want to throw the book at something, I am also reassured by the knowledge that it is the target rather than the book that will sustain the most damage in the transfer of energy. Can't go throwing $400 doohickeys about unless you're a celebrity or producer of some sort.
Bezos et al. have been working for three years on this latest attempt to lure us literary luddites away from the pleasures of pulp. He acknowledges the elegance of the physical book in an opening salvo that would have your average materialist pulling out his or her very real hair:
"The physical book is so elegant that the artifact itself disappears into the background. The paper, glue, ink and stitching that make up the book vanish, and what remains is the author's world."
I tend to sneer a bit more than I should at book historians who insist I need to sniff at two centuries' worth of dust and foxing in order to understanding a text, so for the most part I'm prepared to agree that once the act of reading has gotten underway I tend not to consider the binding. I don't think the artifact quite disappears, however, and in his heart of hearts I don't think Bezos does either. What he seems to suggest is the crucial element of the new gizmo is its realistic recreation of the appearance of paper. Not forgetting that reading is a visual business, and well aware that reading Clarissa on a screen would have us looking for even faster means of suicide than hanging, the authors of the Kindle product page write: "Revolutionary electronic-paper display provides a sharp, high-resolution screen that looks and reads like real paper."
Looks and reads. I'm not quite sure how to parse that bit of ad-copy--can't quite figure out how you'd get something that looked like real paper but didn't "read" like it--but that's as may be. A Marshall McLuhan fan would definitely like the idea of throwing three years of development into recreating paper: the old technology definitely becomes the content of the new in this scenario. It would seem that in this case the decision is really driven by aesthetics in the pre-nineteenth-century sense of the term. There's something about our sensory interaction with ink and paper that can't be topped by any other graphic representation (perhaps if they can figure out how to "upload" content Matrix-style we'll give up the graphic).
As always, I'm thinking about archives, and it's interesting to me how technodetermined the archive is with a doodad like this one. I don't know how many "classics" of literature will be available; at the moment it seems that you can get any number of magazines and blogs, and almost anything from the NY Times bestseller list. So if you decide that Kindle is how you're going to consume literature, you're really letting the technology determine what you're going to have access to. It's like the "problem" with JSTOR I heard described at a recent job talk--users get the sense that if it's not available electronically, it's not worth reading or simply doesn't exist.
I don't think Kindle is going to have that kind of impact, of course--I'm just theorizing about what it represents in an abstract sense. I'm fairly certain that it's going to be literature's answer to the Segway. Toni Morrison and James Patterson are already shilling for it, if that means anything to you.
There's also something to be said about its offering the availability of a bazillion blogs, magazines, and newspapers as major selling points when no one has ever read blogs on anything but a screen, and when newspaper circulation keeps going down every quarter.
Would you buy one?