Saturday, November 01, 2008

Book and Nonbook

"The Kindle acknowledges the Internet; it hears its clamorous demands. It just ignores those demands. For the user, this means the Kindle bestows on the contemporary reader the ultimate grace: it keeps the Internet at bay." Virginia Heffernan is anything but a Luddite, so her backhanded praise of the Kindle comes across as both absolutely sincere and technologically meaningful:

In short, you get absorbed when reading on the Kindle. You lose hours to reading novels in one sitting. You sit up straighter, energized by new ideas and new universes. You nod off, periodically, infatuated or entranced or spent. And yet the slight connection to the Web still permits the (false, probably, but nonetheless reassuring) sense that if the apocalypse came while you were shut away somewhere reading, the machine would get the news from and find a way to let you know. Anything short of that, though, the Kindle leaves you alone.

And alone is where I want to be, for now. It’s bliss. Emerge from the subway or alight from a flight, and the Kindle has no news for you. No missed calls. It’s ready only to be read. It’s like a good exercise machine that mysteriously incentivizes the pursuit of muscle pain while still making you feel cared for. The Kindle makes you want to read, and read hard, and read prolifically. It eventually makes me aware that, compared with reading a lush, inky book, checking e-mail is boring, workaday and lame.

But no sooner have I decided that, for now, I’ve discovered in the Kindle a way to tame the anxiety of the demanding digital world without totally abjuring its pleasures, when I find myself explaining the device to my seatmate on the plane. (He asked! I swear!) As I splutter on about it, I suddenly realize that the Kindle is, above all, uncool. I can see him furrowing his brow as I praise the Kindle’s uneasy relationship with the Internet. He looks at the gray screen and says, “That’s way too dim.”

To my discomfort, I struggle to return to my Robinson novel. But after 10 minutes of self-consciously reading and rereading the same pages, I get into it again. The shadowy hue of the “page” and the letters of digital ink become my whole world once more. And my seatmate, with his awesome 3G iPhone, has nothing more to say to me. My Kindle announces me as an oddball, a wallflower. A reader, then.
But when I read the tagline for Heffernan's story in my RSS reader -- "A good electronic reader is just the right mix of book and nonbook" -- I expected something a little bit different, probably because I would identify "the right mix" as something a little closer to the "nonbook" side than the Kindle, probably because despite my incurable bibliophilia, my own sense of what reading is skews much farther away from the traditional handheld codex printed book.

I do not know whether we can begin with the ideal hardware (or more broadly speaking, the interface) for reading or one of several possible ideal media forms for reading but it is clear that the two work together. A device optimized for the experience of reading a novel will be different from a device optimized to read a newspaper, and a device optimized to read web pages will be different from a device optimized to read children's books. All of these will be different again from devices optimized for email, for maps, for notes, for bank statements, for sheet music, for pictures, for calendars, for charts and graphs, for textual chatting, and so forth. We've developed different physical forms over the last few centuries for all of these, precisely because we recognize, even if only unconsciously, that reading is a complex and multifaceted individual experience and social phenomenon. We can't cut-and-paste one player in that ecosystem and act like none of the rest of it ever happened.

The most versatile reading and writing machine we've created to date is the laptop computer. (As I tell my students, the word "book" has meant many, many different things over its history, and there's a reason why they're all typing on MacBooks.) It's possible that either a pocket-sized device like the iPhone could compete with it as a reader or that a tablet-sized version not unlike the Kindle might be able to replicate either 1) enough of that versatility or 2) a handful of forms sufficiently well that versatility ceases to be a problem. But if anything, electronic reading is expanding the types and varieties of reading exponentially beyond the age of wood-pulp and industrial print. I want a reader that can at least keep up -- and preferably might drive some of that innovation itself.

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