February
24th 2009
Burn this after reading

Posted under: book reviews, European history, publication, technoskepticism

kindle

Steal This "Book"

Are you ready for another cranky, technophobic rant?

Good.  Kindle.  What exactly are the advantages to a “delicate piece of electronics” that

can be lost, dropped or fried in the tub[?] You’d have to buy an awful lot of $10 best sellers to recoup the purchase price. If Amazon goes under or abandons the Kindle, you lose your entire library. And you can’t pass on or sell an e-book after you’ve read it.

For the absurd price of $359, this too can be yours!  This does not include the $60 wireless bill each Kindle runs up per month, since Amazon is footing  the bill (for now.)  Now, I’ve always been a skeptic of these enthusiasms for replacing paper and ink, especially for replacing them with “delicate” electronics.  (I used to have this argument all the time with Fratguy, who back in the 1990s was for the Palm Pilot as Creflo Dollar is for Jesus.  My answer?  I’d throw my FiloFax calendar and address book on the floor, open it up, and exclaim, “Looky!  It still works!  Praise the Lord.”)

Are the people who invented these things readers of books themselves?  The whole point of book technology as it has evolved to the present is that you can take books to the beach, read them in the bathtub, and read them under the covers with a flashlight to evade the ridiculously early bed time your parents have established.  You also can mark them up by underlining favorite passages, or you can engage in mockery of the author and her ideas with your witty marginalia.  You can then pass your marked-up books along to friends and graduate students, who will think you’re an idiot for underlining (or mocking) those passages.  I can see how people who travel a lot and read a lot would find Kindle appealing, since they could download and take a dozen books with them without adding bulk, but how many people both travel and read so much that the weight of their books in their luggage is a major factor in their quality of life?

gutenberg

Johannes Gutenberg

Here’s an important and very serious question:  will Kindle make its way into public libraries?  Will libraries buy readers for users to check out, or will they expect all users to purchase their own (as they now much purchase their own DVD players in order to use the library’s DVDs)?  Will Amazon charge a different price for e-books that are purchased by public libraries?  Will they ask for a kickback every time a borrower downloads an e-book?  How much of the budget will be allocated for e-books, which may be available only to a select subset of library users, and how much will be allocated for books which can be read by all users?  Libraries are important in a democracy, and so is the democratic availability of information.

Now, think about this:  How will we know who’s reading a “bad book?”  What fun would it be to engage in “Kindle burning?”  Would everyone just agree to simultaneously press “delete” on The Bluest Eye and Huckleberry Finn on their children’s Kindles at the same time?  That’s no way to do political theater, and about as meaningful as aspiring to write the Great American Blog. 

Gutenberg:  after nearly 600 years, we still need you, pal.  Now, let the (probably justified) accusations of Ludditism begin!

NOTE:  After I finished drafting this post, I found this interview with Jeff Bezos about Kindle at The Daily Show, via The Daily Beast.  Jon Stewart isn’t sold, to say the least, and he makes many of the points I make here.  Except with masturbation jokes (ick!), which generally don’t get a broad airing here.

29 Comments »

29 Responses to “Burn this after reading”

  1. ej on 24 Feb 2009 at 10:10 pm #

    I tend to think that part of this is our infatuation with technology, and the conviction that the next generation is only interested in information or entertainment that can be accessed on-line. I just heard a story on NPR about a school in Missouri that went all on-line. No more text books. While there were a number of reasons why this might work for students, there were an equal number of reasons why it wouldn’t. Sure, it cuts down the cost, but you can’t sell back an on-line book, nor can you keep it forever on your shelf. It also would make my job a lot harder-I assign monographs. These aren’t available in electronic form, though I admit, I haven’t checked into Kindle. The saddest part was a clip of a philosophy prof revealing how much he loved the smell of books, and how much he would miss the feel of the pages between his fingers. But of course, he had come around to see the wisdom of the decision…

  2. Dr. Crazy on 24 Feb 2009 at 10:40 pm #

    All I can say is that until they find a way for me to write all over a kindle – and preserve it – in the way that is necessary for my work, it’s not worth it to me. That said, if they did find that way? It might be worth it, as it would mean no more books so torn up that pages fall out and I have to hold books with notes together with rubberbands. My primary need in a book is that I can write all over it, teach from it, do research in relation to it, without it disintigrating. So far, Kindle technology doesn’t let me do what I need to do. But if it did? And if it meant a longer shelf-life than the typical paper book? I’d be all over it. I may not be able to take it to the beach, but I would be able to have a copy of a book that I didn’t need to buy multiple times (most teaching and research books I’ve bought at least three times, because they’ve died in service. and then I have to transcribe the notes from the old copy to the new copy.)

  3. Terminal Degree on 24 Feb 2009 at 10:46 pm #

    I hear you. I just spent a frustrating evening reading a pdf file of a textbook. I kept scrolling to the wrong place, jumping to the next chapter, and I couldn’t see the whole page of the document at once. While I realize this is due to my lack of tech-ability, I didn’t seem to have the problem of losing my entire *page* back when I was four and reading my first book.

  4. Susan on 24 Feb 2009 at 10:55 pm #

    I am occasionally tempted by kindle or similar things. I hate reading online, and I haven’t tried Kindle. But as someone who can’t leave home for two days without 3 or 4 books (what will I want to read? will this last through my flights?) I would love to have a kindle or something where I could load all sorts of books when I’m traveling. The rest of the time I would rather turn pages…. I gather that reading kindle is NOT like reading a PDF online, but I do drop books, and spill coffee on them, and. . .

    And electronic books in the classroom? I find when I post material on the web students only sometimes read it. . . I’m not big on marking up my books, but I do it some times. And I have physical memories of where things are on pages…

  5. PhDinHistory on 24 Feb 2009 at 11:16 pm #

    The Plastic Logic Reader might fit the bill for some of you. http://books.google.com/googlebooks/mobile/ might be how cell phones in the future will access books in the public domain.

  6. Knitting Clio on 25 Feb 2009 at 5:31 am #

    I have a friend who is visually impaired (she is also a scholar of disability history). She loves the Kindle because she can adjust the size of the text. There isn’t a big selection in large print or on audio (why bother unless you can sell a lot of them?) so this is really important for her scholarly work as well as recreational reading. You can also download newspapers and magazines, not just books. These look the same as those on paper — i.e. no pop up ads and other annoying features.

    The text quality of a Kindle is much better than a computer screen — while not identical to a paper page, there is no glare and the contrast is excellent. It’s not much bigger than your average paperback and of course much lighter than a laptop.

    As to taking notes — there are ways to do this electronically (e.g. Zotero, My Stickies) — not sure if Kindle is using this yet or not.

    As to what libraries will do — many are already renting out Ipods for audio books. Maybe the same will happen with Kindles (it may already).

  7. Erica on 25 Feb 2009 at 6:54 am #

    There are e-Ink ebook readers which are NOT tied into Amazon’s sale structure, which gets rid of all the weird proprietary issues (although the delicacy is still there, so reading in the bathtub is probably out).

    But, while I’d never buy a Kindle, I would ABSOLUTELY buy an eBook reader. Once I saw a reader in a Books A Million display (a Sony something), and saw how the screen looked — I was just in love. It’s incredibly easy to read and the power consumption is next to nothing. But do keep in mind I’m a techie geek and fall in love with gadgets far too easily :) Titanium shell and blue LEDs are pretty much all I need (ooooh baby…)

    The iRex iLiad is on my long-term wishlist as the model I want, specifically because includes the ability to make notes (little stylus included) on a PDF that you’re reading, and that would be really useful for when I’m reading a technical paper in the car (not while driving) and need to make notes. Unfortunately, that ability to write notes adds a couple hundred to the purchase price, which is why it’s on my wishlist instead of in my hands.

    This technology can not and should not replace the physical book; but it’s not all bad. Kindle is the best-advertised version, and unfortunately has a lot of unnecessary restrictions which reflect poorly on the rest of the e-Ink reader industry, in my opinion.

  8. New Kid on the Hallway on 25 Feb 2009 at 7:07 am #

    If I could get my textbooks on a Kindle, HELL YES I’d buy one. (My textbooks weigh about 25 pounds.) Though I agree about the writing-on functionality. There’s a Sony reader that allows you to annotate, though I’m not sure how convenient it is (and it costs more than the Kindle). I was impressed at how reader-friendly it was.

    I think the traveling/taking lots of books with me crowd is bigger than you suggest, and makes the Kindle a reasonable niche product.

  9. GayProf on 25 Feb 2009 at 9:14 am #

    I am so with you on this as I never understood Kindle. It also didn’t really seem like that new of a technological breakthrough. The only novel (pun intended) part of it was its link with Amazon.

    My guess is that it will never really catch on beyond a core of devoted followers.

  10. Maren on 25 Feb 2009 at 10:03 am #

    Kindle is odd, to be sure, but many of us skeptics will probably find ourselves using them eventually. I never thought I’d own a cell phone, read documents online without printing them, participate in “social networking” (horrors!), or even own a television. Now? Check, check, check, and check. And I hear via Strikethru’s blog that the hippest among us are now writing novels on our cell phones. http://www.strikethru.net/2009/02/great-american-cell-phone-novel.html. What next, I ask you?

  11. Rad Readr on 25 Feb 2009 at 10:04 am #

    I actually thought of buying a Kindle for several reasons:

    1) I am having to wear spectacles to get through Signet paperback editions. Thanks to Knitting Clio for sharing her experiences.

    2) I am considering reading or re-reading all of the Leatherstocking Tales plus additional Cooper (Never did get to Deerslayer). And I can download all of Cooper’s 32 novels and additional books for under $5. Cooper in small type for the visually challenged is painful!

    3) It is only a matter of time before the newspaper is no longer a part of morning coffee.

  12. Tom on 25 Feb 2009 at 10:09 am #

    I find it striking (as someone who sometimes writes on the history of literacy, and on the formal and physical impications of various literacy “platforms”) that this discussion is taking place on a blog.

    Kindle, and blogs, are fascinating for a couple of reasons: the biggest change that is likely to come about as a consequence of digital literacy (I’ve often suspected: only retrospect will let us be certain) may be not in terms of the physical form of what we read (paper vs. electronic, virtual text), but rather in the size of what chunks we are likely to read.

    The “book” as we know it is a largely a response to certain efficiencies of portability, legibility, and three-dimensional shape; our nostalgia for these physical forms is very real, and the enduring nature of (many) physical books allows them a possibility of survival into the future that digital productions have still not managed to figure out. That durability is surely of high value to historians.

    But digital literacy involves a whole different set of efficiencies, and the size of textual entities (and visual ones, too) are less constrained, in both directions, by digital technologies. That is, books keep “works” from being either too small or too large (on the whole; exceptions abound), but both blogs and massive on-line archives like Early English Books Online are possible.

    What I suspect that may mean for reading in the future is that the amount one reads consecutively in the future will tend to shorten. No one can read all of [massive online archive X], while one can produce (and read) innumerable shorter texts (e.g. blogs) and archive them together: so that the reading mode of the future may not normally involve “book-sized” chunks. The typical size of arguments (and literature, too) may well change in the future, and my suspicion is it will grow smaller. Blogs and massive archives also suggest that authorship in the future will be multiple and distributed; that also will probably contribute to the shrinking of the “legible” chunk’s size (imagine sitting down to read all of Historiann’s blog and its comments).

    [Finally, I'll point out that the textual efficiencies of size and legibility that give us books today were not really affected much by Gutenberg, whose innovations pretty much involved only the efficiency of rapid textual multiplication; the size and general appearance of books probably show more continuities than innovations across the fifteenth century, and most of the 19th and 20th century changes in print technology haven't yet led to radical changes in form, either, at least for printed objects subject to binding, except maybe for comics.]

  13. Lilian Nattel on 25 Feb 2009 at 12:30 pm #

    If you drop a book in the bath, you can still read it (albeit wavily).

  14. Indyanna on 25 Feb 2009 at 1:02 pm #

    What I want is a tech-tool that works more like a geiger counter, not like a Kindle. You prowl the shelves of an open stack library (necessary) and it emits rays or beams that diagnose the presence of certain pre-programmed word formations in unscanned and closed books. So it beeps, say, when (contrary to all rational expectations) there are thirteen references to, say, Charles Woolfenstone in some book on, say, early modern tax accounting. Then, you move in and execute all of the old-paradigm investigatory operations that you learned in the unvirtual library back there in college or whatever. That’s the next new thing that I’m holding out for!

  15. Mother of ALL on 25 Feb 2009 at 3:05 pm #

    When I heard about Kindle, I was appalled. To not touch a book again was just too far out of my comfort zone. I have been a bibliophile since I first read the little orange books with the black silhouettes at my public library. How could you fall in love with a metal object? I saw the Jon Stewart interview and he sure isn’t convinced. I thought Bezos was a little too hysterical. Anyway, long live the printed page.

  16. overworked like everyone else on 25 Feb 2009 at 5:39 pm #

    I was also skeptical, then a friend showed me her ebook — a Sony (she did tons of research and decided that was the best one). My partner is a crazy traveler and is the biggest reader I have ever known. Books literally take over our house. He reads and re-reads his favorites and thinks of his books as an archive of what he’s read. Two years ago I convinced him to do a purge because we were overwhelmed with stacks and stacks of (mostly) novels. We donated thousands of books to the public library. I talked him into the ebook for a Christmas present. He LOVES it. Started with more than a hundred free downloads of classics. The changeable font is a big hit with his aging eyes. And who needs a flashlight under the covers when you can get a cover to the ebook with a light. All he does is open it up and he’s ready to go. His insomnia no longer makes him get up so as not to spread it to me.

  17. kb on 25 Feb 2009 at 6:25 pm #

    well, I like the look of the iRex I must say, but more for the stacks of pdf littering my office. Being able to annotate and search them sounds great to me! I saw a Sony ebook reader in a shop once and I was quite impressed by the readbility – it was actually quite easy on the eyes. I can also see how this could be a god send for research assistants told to look for that quote that was “somehow a little like this or that, I am sure you’ll find it…” :)

    As for books…other than travelling (24-hour trips on the plane do make me apreciate a lightweight solution) I can’t really see the appeal, although I do take the point by others about readability in terms of font size etc. For now it’s too expensive…

  18. susurro on 25 Feb 2009 at 9:45 pm #

    When I had to schlep my 50 boxes of books to our new house at the beginning of this academic year, I was very clear on the beauty of what Kindle offers. I suddenly had this image of the gf and I in one car, our entire libraries set comfortably beside our new netbooks full of our manuscripts and emails and the like, all tucked into my purse. I imagined the sound of silence when all my students could no longer demand to know why I dared to put things on reserve at the library that were not on e-reserve b/c they had Kindles and just as I was nodding off into techno heaven the gf said “Mmmhmm, and how are we going to digitze all your clothes, shoes, and accessories?” Oh well.

    Seriously, I’m with Clio, it is a great invention for a wide range of differently-abled students.

    However, it is also a horrible one for working class students who already carry a high enough financial aid debt burden as it is. And if I can’t fold the pages, how will I find the quotes to dazzle with when one of my students triggers a memory of why I folded it in the first place? Contradictions . . . contradictions . . .

  19. a convert on 26 Feb 2009 at 12:47 am #

    Before I saw one (the Sony e-reader, not a Kindle, as I’m outside of the US) I was a sceptic also.

    But not anymore – I’m as much as a bibliophile as anyone, but I love my e-reader – for both work and pleasure.

    The immediacy of being able to get and read something immediately makes a surprising difference – finished Book 1 of 3? Don’t want to wait until tomorrow? It’s only a 30 second download away.

    The ability to read a ton of classics (freely available from Project Gutenberg) without struggling with Penguin’s standard 6 point font? Awesome.

    And taking work related reading into a cafe, or similar, without needing to print out a mass of A4 is also great.

    And for anyone who regularly travels with a mass of books, they are priceless, I understand.

    I love books and will always keep buying them, but my BeBook is also a valuable addition to my love of literature.

    I hope, also, that it leads to a shift in the industry – e-books have the potential to ensure that revenue streams go to authors and publishers, and not so much to Borders and the big distributors. Though that may not work out as well as I would hope.

  20. Clio Bluestocking on 26 Feb 2009 at 6:37 am #

    I have to say that I love the concept of changing between reading and listening (at least that’s what the guy said it could do on The Daily Show).

    Also, Knitting Clio makes an excellent point. I watch my grandmother, who loved to read, become cut off from books because of her eyesight and hearing. Something like this, in which she could bump up the font to a readable size or turn the volume up to 11, could bring her back to books.

  21. Clio Bluestocking on 26 Feb 2009 at 6:40 am #

    P.S. On the issue of low-income students. Maybe schools could cut deal with the makers of these to get discounts for the students. The savings might add up over the course of an education given the crushing cost of textbooks these days.

  22. Historiann on 26 Feb 2009 at 9:16 am #

    Thanks for all of your comments on this topic. I’m sorry that I was out of the conversation yesterday–I taught and had other university business to attend to, and then when I got home I had to prepare a fish dinner for a family member who is taking Ash Wednesday and Lent very seriously this year.

    Knitting Clio, Susan, and others have convinced me that there is a market for e-books, especially given its power to make any book large print or otherwise accessible to those with limited eyesight due to medical disability or old age. And I’m certainly not making an absolutist argument that Kindle should be outlawed–I’m just not sold on its utility for me, and for most scholars I know. My concerns about the affordability and power to replace traditional books stand–again, I don’t want to stop all e-book innovation or the explansion of e-libraries, but rather, I wonder how this new technology will work with our existing public library system.

    Thanks also to Erica, overworked, kb, and a convert for their thoughts on the Sony e-book versus the Kindle.

    Tom is right to note that this conversation is taking place on a blog–indeed, it’s taking place only because of blog technology. (That’s kind of what I was hinting at when I called my post “Burn this after reading!”) I think his comments about the way that digital reading is changing reading are spot-on. (At least they resonate with me. I worry that I may be damaging my reading attention span by being on-line so much.) And, he’s a scholar with a millenia-plus perspective on the history of the book and of literacy, so his comments bear serious consideration. By and large, I am thrilled by the digital revolution and what it has meant for reading, communicating, and scholarship. I remain, however, quite skeptical of pronouncements that a new technology will replace everything that came before it because it is teh awesumm…kind of like “Blog Triumphalism” from ca. 2004 or so?

    Great American Blog, indeed. If anything, blogs have returned us to 18th century-style news circulation and consumption. Most colonial Anglo-American newspapers published little original “news” or writing, and in fact just re-published stuff they ripped from English newspapers or other colonial papers, along with inflammatory opinion pieces and (usually failed) attempts at cheap humor.

  23. susurro on 26 Feb 2009 at 4:26 pm #

    I just discovered another feminist bookstore closed its doors and I thought of this post. Will feminist bookstores transform into independent feminist centers or will they simply close their doors when ebooks replace real books? So far the narrowing of the market has meant the latter not the former and with every closure the opportunities for non-academics to be exposed to feminist authors, artists, and musicians narrows and for queer youth to have somewhere they can go with less stigma attached than a youth center, dries up. Suddenly I find myself being far more political than self-interested in thinking about this issue. How do we honor different needs that are aided by Kindle and the like and those that are lost . . .

  24. Erica on 26 Feb 2009 at 8:52 pm #

    It’s a very salient point that “this is REVOLUTIONARY!” is never a reliable indicator of how long-lived a technology will be. The Walkman, for example; I was overjoyed when I got one as a child, but who needs a portable tape player nowadays? (Rather sad, because it still works just fine. Ah, robust 80′s technology!) Even portable CD players are soooo 1995. And while I’m watching developments with interest (and I don’t expect them to be rapid), Jeff Bezos is definitely overstating the potential.

  25. hysperia on 26 Feb 2009 at 11:44 pm #

    The last time I travelled I got charged by the airline for the extra weight of the books I was carrying. That piqued my interest in Kindle but we don’t have them in Canada. Now here’s a new kid in town:

    In Canada, http://www.shortcovers.ca
    and in the US, http://www.shortcovers.com

    They just opened up shop today and so are still pretty limited in what they have to offer but I’m sure that will improve. What I like about this service is that it works with the Sony eReader but also, you can upload to an iPod or MP3 or to an iPhone as well as to your computer. You don’t have to spend $400. I don’t know how useful this might be to me, but at least I don’t have to spend all that money to find out.

    You can read excerpts and chapters of books without buying them. You can buy just a chapter of a book if that’s all you want. I really like this feature for deciding if I want to buy the book or not and for fishing out research and not necessarily a whole book every time. Also, I sometimes find myself in places without bookstores and it will be great then, especially as they get more material digitalized. And honestly, it’s not that hard to learn how to make notes on the page via your computer.

    Re: Kindle, I read an article today pointing out that they have huge audio book resources and don’t pay royalties to authors for them – the biggest business is still in the audio department. I hope someone holds them up for this and soon.

  26. Paul T.S. Lee on 01 Mar 2009 at 3:58 pm #

    In defense of e-text readers (I read my e-texts mostly on my iPhone, and before that, a long lineage of Palm devices), I can categorically state that it is easier to waterproof my iPhone or Treo than it is to waterproof just one paperback novel, let alone the entirety of my leather and paper based library. Also, it is infinitely easier to search the contents of an ebook, though the technology is still limited to literal text matches. Those are just two of the advantages of “e-readers” over p-books.

    As for disadvantages, many of the complaints about the Kindle are those shared by technophiles who are voicing them in the very same reviews where they praise the device. The very common complaint about not being able to mark and annotate text has been solved in software. The real problem is that no one has come up with a good interface, except possibly in those labs researching touch sensitive displays and how we might want to use them.

    Ultimately, it comes down to if we are willing to accept that reading long form text on a portable device is a viable option for the “book”. If we do, then it’s worth considering the possibility (maybe the inevitability) that such devices will get more features and we might also change the way we read, and with that mindset, take a stab at imagining what the “ideal” e-text reader should be able to do. We shouldn’t let Jeff Bezos confine our imaginations to the Kindle, and we should definitely not let the Authors Guild limit our use of legally “purchased” e-books.

    @Indyanna
    Your textual geiger counter already exists in the form of Google Books. Of course, we all know that not every book in the world has been digitized. And even if they were, good luck tracking down anything that’s out of print and not very popular in its day.

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