The Reader

To Kindle or not to Kindle? Scott McLemee thinks that's not really the question....

March 11, 2009

Sometime after my 15th birthday, to judge by the available evidence, I began inscribing my name on the inside of each new book that came into my library, along with the date of acquisition – a habit that continued for 20 years and more. The initial impulse seems very typically adolescent: a need to claim ownership of some little part of the world, and to leave your mark on it.

But there was a little more to it than that. It was a ceremony of sorts, a way to mark the start of my relationship with the book itself. For a while, I also noted when I started and finished reading it.That level of precision came to an end soon enough. In my twenties, the record dwindled to just an indication of the month and year the book reached me. By my thirties the whole routine started collapsing, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of printed stuff coming across my desk. The wide-eyed expectation that any given book might open some new chapter in my life was worn away. It happened, but not that often. Moments of inner revolution occur only just so frequently. In the meantime you had to keep moving.

The impulse to “brand” certain volumes was still there: I developed a fairly precise system for annotating texts, when necessary. But experience had proven the wisdom of Francis Bacon who responded to the publishing explosion of the early 17th century with a plainspoken call for a system of triage in handling the claims on one's attention.

“Some books are to be tasted,” he wrote, “others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books....” (Clearly Bacon predicted the rise of the graduate research assistant, trudging through the monographic literature for some great professor’s benefit.)

These reflections come in the wake of a recent essay on Kindle by the literary critic Sven Birkerts, our designated worrier in matters of print and digitality ever since the appearance of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber and Faber, 1994)

The ability to read books on a portable device violates some sense of cultural orderliness for Birkerts: “I see in the turning of literal pages — pages bound in literal books — a compelling larger value, and perceive in the move away from the book a move away from a certain kind of cultural understanding, one that I’m not confident that we are replacing, never mind improving upon.... The book is part of a system. And that system stands for the labor and taxonomy of human understanding, and to touch a book is to touch that system, however lightly.”

True, that. Yet not the whole truth. I am sympathetic to Birkerts’s argument -- and perhaps even more so to the structure of feeling that rests beneath it, the sense of having been shaped (down deep and for good) by the experience of interacting with print and ink.But the fact that I do not read books on a Kindle, or any similar device, is for me a matter of economics, not principle. When the price comes down, I’ll be a straggling customer.

And an enthusiastic one, given two very obvious advantages that the device offers. One involves the eyeballs; the other, the back. With an e-book reader, it is possible to adjust the size of the type, which is not an option with the printed page. And you can carry scores of books, magazines, etc. in a single lightweight object -- something of inestimable value for anyone who has to travel. Not just on transcontinental flights, either. The advantage to a student of being able to carry a semester's worth of reading under one arm seems obvious; and a beleaguered book reviewer would find it easier to make progress on judging that hefty novel about the reign of Maximilian, emperor of Mexico, if it fit in his jacket pocket.

A willingness to incorporate the Kindle into my routines does not mean abandoning print, any more than giving up the habit of inscribing my name inside the cover of a book has made me any less bibliocentric. The patterns of engagement with text – the levels of concentration you bring to reading, the various degree of intensity with which you connect with a given work – change over the course of your life. The wizards of digital media will get me to part with the Nonesuch edition of William Hazlitt’s selected essays when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers. But reading a collection of scholarly papers like Metaphysical Hazlitt: Bicentenary Essays from Routledge on Kindle sounds perfectly OK – especially for anyone who can't afford $145 for the hardback, while no paperback is to be expected.

And while it is painful to witness the erosion and collapse of large sectors of infrastructure for print culture, this is happening under the strain of internal contradictions, not because of e-book devices.

As Colin Robinson, a seasoned editor who recently lost his job at Random House, puts it in the latest issue of the London Review of Books: "A system that requires the trucking of vast quantities of paper to bookshops and then back to publishers' warehouses for pulping is environmentally and commercially unsustainable. An industry that spends all its money on bookseller discounts and very little on finding an audience is getting things the wrong way round. Following the strictures of their accountants, the large houses will intensify their concentration on blockbusters. High street bookshops will abandon deep stockholding, becoming mere showrooms for bestsellers and prize-winners. Ever more people will read the same few books."

It would be utopian to imagine that Kindle (and its ilk) might reverse such trends. But it's clear that the old way cannot continue -- and that, come what may, nostalgia won't be much help.


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