Kill Your Kindle

by Susan McWilliams on December 8, 2009 · 39 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

Kindle

Claremont, CA. When my mother came to visit last week, she brought a copy of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union with her. Before she departed for the airport this morning, she left the book on my shelf.

And just like that, it was the end of an era.

You see, my mother has announced that she wants a Kindle.

Oh, lots of people have told me about the little advantages of those little gizmos. They are lightweight. They offer instant gratification. They have features that may make reading easier for people with certain disabilities.

For those reasons alone – usually just for the first two reasons – many of the people I know have already purchased electronic book-viewers, or will be purchasing them soon. With both Amazon (maker of the Kindle) and Barnes and Noble (maker of the Nook) making hard pushes on behalf of their respective products this holiday season — “give the gift of reading,” says Amazon’s website — people have been snatching them up. In fact, Barnes and Noble sold out of their holiday-season Nook supply in mid-November. So it’s not hard to foresee a lot of these little guys showing up, wrapped and beribboned, during the next few weeks.

For those of us who are longtime book readers, though, this is the opposite of the gift that keeps on giving. It is the gift that keeps taking away.

First — oh, sadness upon sadness! — electronic reading-devices are going to take away book-sharing, book-trading, and book-lending. You just can’t share your electronic reader like you can share a book.

With one of these devices, you can’t start reading something, decide it’s not for you, and then give it to someone you think might appreciate the story more. You also can’t read something on one of these devices, fall in love with it, and then pass it around to your friends and family. You can’t finish a book on one of these devices and then donate it to a local library or school. You can’t pick up one of these devices at a friend’s house, start reading something, and then promise to return it in a couple of months.

I am a lover of reading, and I think of the times when I’ve shared a book with someone – or someone has shared a book with me – as a real form of communion. When you share a book with someone, you’re not just sharing a material item. You’re sharing an internal world, an imaginative space, a story. Sharing stories has always been a basic way in which humans share ourselves with each other.

The experience of reading may be primarily private, the intimate communication between author and reader. But for those of us who truly love reading, a large part of the pleasure that reading brings is in sharing it with others. Sharing books, lending books, borrowing books, donating books, inheriting books, trolling through used books at stores and sales, have always been among the loveliest aspects of reading culture. It’s hard not to lament the inevitable decline of all of these.

To add insult to this reader’s injury, these electronic reading-devices take away one of my other favorite things about books: the way that you can curl up with them in any hidden corner and will the world away. By comparison, I’m not sure I’d take a Kindle into the bath. Or to the beach.

The corollary here is that these gadgets take away your readerly independence – your “energy independence,” I might call it. Sure, I know that the Kindle’s charge lasts for, like, 30 hours (although it only lasts for four to five hours when you’re using its fancier features), but having to keep track of a battery meter is not something that I want to be doing when I’m trying to keep track of a plot. Forget the fact that if you ever go camping or suffer a power outage, those gizmos aren’t going to provide you entertainment for that long. They yoke you further to the grid, rather than release you from it.

And they make you dependent on more than electricity: I implore my fellow readers to remember that these electronic devices – made by the same corporate bookselling behemoths that have already devastated local and independent booksellers – will further take away traffic from the few of these businesses that are left. Their growing popularity will help to further concentrate all the power and profit related to book publishing and distribution in a small set of global corporations. I find it disheartening that the same intellectuals who disdain Wal-Mart for its evisceration of local economies are basically prostrating themselves at Amazon’s feet, mostly for novelty’s sake.

In the final telling, these devices can provide a bare-bones encounter with text that has, for most of us, only a couple of tiny advantages to offer in comparison with the book. But reading books, for those of us who really love it, has always been about more than a bare-bones encounter with the text. And on those terms, in the transition from books to electronic devices we, as readers, stand to lose much more than we gain.

One of my colleagues, a person I admire a great deal, said that we should all buy these gadgets to “free ourselves from the fetishization of the book.”

In theory, it sounds nice. But what I wonder is why anyone – any serious reader, anyway – should prefer to fetishize the electronic reading device.

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Russell Arben Fox December 8, 2009 at 1:43 pm

I have sworn never to own a Kindle; to never abandon the hard, dusty, physical, tangible, touched-by-real-hands aspect of reading and knowledge which is the book. But I also once swore to myself that I would never own a cell phone…and now my wife and my 13-year-old daughter carry them always. I hope my resistance will last, for all the reasons you mention Susan, but I fear for my weakness in the face of the vicissitudes and temptations of modern life.

avatar Justin Gregory December 8, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Very well put. One important point you left out is that these devices enable all sorts of licensing schemes to be enacted. Didn’t finish Ebenezer Le Page by the end of the month? That will be five more dollars to renew your license, please.

Physical books don’t last forever, true, but how can you begin to describe the “shelf life” (forgive me) for a particular arrangement of billions of electrons in a semiconductor?

avatar Gary December 8, 2009 at 2:53 pm

Well said. When I look at the Kindle, I am reminded of Richard Foster’s guidelines for simplicity, particularly “Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry.” and “Learn to enjoy things without owning them.” I am a gadget fan, I have a blackberry, check twitter way too often, my family has way too many PCs, etc.,. but I won’t be getting a Kindle any time soon.

avatar Marie December 8, 2009 at 3:35 pm

Nor do e-readers allow sharing by means of pencilled comments in the margins. I’m always intrigued by those left in the margins of philosophical or otherwise weightier works, left by previous readers. One really does feel part of an ongoing conversation. For some reason, I don’t find many comments in works of fiction, possibly because readers aren’t busy trying to work out a thought in their heads.

But further, I often want to return to a passage I’ve read and am able to locate it by remembering that, say, it appeared in the first few pages, on the right hand side, in the middle of the page. Is there something analogous with an e-reader? I wouldn’t think so.

And last, for now, the e-reader does away with the pleasure both to hand and eye, of a well-bound book.

avatar Matthew Wade December 8, 2009 at 4:11 pm

I’ll sign the pledge of those who will never own one of these things. When I look at a book I’ve read a half-dozen times (Mere Christianity), I love to see the different styles of writing that originate when taking notes in the margin while in the bathtub, on the train, or “riding” the exercise bike. I actually think, like most novelties, these things will fade in a few years. The Kindle is not an iPhone.

avatar James Matthew Wilson December 8, 2009 at 4:42 pm

I can imagine Kindle finding a lasting niche in the long run: for the undergraduate anxious not to buy all his textbooks; for the wonk or scholar, willing to spend a couple dollars to peruse a volume he does not wish to add to the personal library; for the bus-station nincompoops who digest romance novels like bonbons. But the book as we have known it for centuries, and even the book as we have only known it for a couple generations (the paperback), is a well adjusted and exquisitely adapted part of our civilization. I do not think Kindle “does” the same things as a book any more than the Internet does; no surer testimony to this, in my experience, than that the advent of the Internet has prompted me to purchase many more books than I otherwise would.

That said, I resent the Kindle or at least its would-be advocates to the extent that they think such a gizmo calls into question the “fetish of the book.” That is naivette under the guise of avant-gardism.

avatar R-Po December 8, 2009 at 4:59 pm

The true killer app for these things will be when they have color screens and magazine subscriptions are widely available on them. I’d love to get my new magazines instantly via wireless download and not have to sort and throw away so many every month.

avatar John Willson December 8, 2009 at 5:34 pm

Once upon a time there were no books, and books produced, among other things, the ability of academics to publish endless amounts of jabberwok. Susan, God bless you, you already use this damnable device, which is by your own accounting ten times worse than Kindle. My mentor, Russell Kirk, would never drive an automobile, but he had to ride in them. He never owned a television set, but he had to appear on television. He also wrote almost everything on, gasp, an electric typewriter and never a quill pen!

I argue with books, mark them up. I am the only academic person, by the testimony of many colleagues over the years, who, when he borrows books actually reads them and actually returns them. I have given away a library of more than three thousand books (mostly to students and former students) and still can’t bear to part with another several thousand. But just as soon as I can wear down my frugal wife I am going to buy a Kindle. Among other things, I will then buy TWENTY-ONE of Booth Tarkington’s novels for $4.99!

Your instincts are right. I use a scythe instead of a weedeater.

avatar John Médaille December 8, 2009 at 5:46 pm

Actually, I like the kindle and such, or I likely would if I had one. I like bringing a library with me wherever I go, and I find electronic texts have many advantages for research, such as being searchable. There are many things I prefer to read in electronic format. What I don’t like is what you alluded to, the inability to share. Kindle et al. want to maintain control of what you have after you’ve bought it. They have a point, of course; you could buy one copy of a book and share it with the whole school.

avatar Will O. December 8, 2009 at 8:11 pm

I enjoyed reading this with the soft, comforting glow of an Amazon add right next to the text of the post.

avatar Will O. December 8, 2009 at 8:12 pm

That would be *ad* natch.

avatar Fr. Mark December 8, 2009 at 10:05 pm

I was given a Kindle last month and have really come to like it. Thus far, I’ve downloaded the Psalter, St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony, and Hillaire Belloc’s Europe and the Faith – at almost no cost. Makes for a welcome distraction while waiting for the dentist or the mechanic.

And there are ways to make notes and bookmarks – though I’m still figuring that out. The dictionary feature is great, as is the option of searching wikipedia.

Can’t see myself giving up on books, though…

avatar John Gee December 8, 2009 at 11:59 pm

You say that “these devices can provide a bare-bones encounter with text that has, for most of us, only a couple of tiny advantages to offer in comparison with the book.” To begin with, I am not sure why encountering a text through Kindle is more superficial than encountering it through a book. I don’t find the circumstantial aesthetics of book-reading (the heft, the smell, the marginalia – the last of which will continue in the age of the e-reader) to be essential to one’s engagement to the ideas behind the words. Nor do I think that about sharing a book, although the ability to talk to others is certainly a good thing.

More importantly, the above quotation acknowledges that switching technologies involves trade-offs. But I am not sure you address the costs and benefits of both technologies sufficiently. The advantages are far from tiny: as Medaille pointed out above, electronic texts are searchable, which provides enormous advantages to those writing about books. Furthermore, browsing through an e-library of every single book available to you has its own trade-offs versus a small bookstore. I am perfectly willing to trade comprehensiveness for charm in this particular area.

Finally, James, you point out that the book is a “well-adjusted and exquisitely adapted part of our civilization.” This adapted-ness comes from age, which the Kindle does not have, and so cannot be an argument against it. No doubt, the Kindle as it exists now is imperfect, and I don’t own one. But I will in ten years or fewer.

avatar Ross Smith December 9, 2009 at 5:04 am

I’m a 21 year old student, and have been an avid reader since a young age. However, I never truly grew from my reading till I began, through the encouragement of a couple key mentors of mine, to annotate my books…to mark them up, engage in them, argue with the ideas presented with my own writing, underlining, and commenting in the margins. One can have a conversation with a book…a dialogue. Even with the “commenting” feature (which is allegedly hard to figure out as Fr. Mark pointed out), it’s just not the same. You can’t go back to that specific page (as I have many times with Meditations) and see how you have grown since your last response with an idea. However, as I am a man of Hope (and not the false political rhetoric “hope”), I have faith that this will only be a minor blemish on the already hard fought battle for the literary world. Don’t get a Kindle. Get a real copy. Bend the spine, sniff the pages (that wonderful smell of paper and ink!), and mark it all up.

avatar James Matthew Wilson December 9, 2009 at 8:53 am

The point of my comment, John, is to suggest that the book does what it does right. Note that my comment began with another suggestion: that the Kindle most likely will find a niche of its own. To intimate, as does your comment, that the Kindle and books are necessarily in conflict, as might be the past with the present, is a crude judgment; one that I was trying to avoid, precisely because it is clear that the book as an object does some things that Kindles cannot do, including but not limited to providing a number of aesthetic pleasures that others have described.

I find it amusing how fearful the average person becomes if someone even suggests critical, i.e. thoughtful, reflection on technology. Most persons have so despaired of reason and the meaningfulness of life that they displace their longings for lasting truth onto a fetish of technological progress. The machine alone has not foresaken us, they say with a slavish lisp.

avatar J.D. Salyer December 9, 2009 at 11:31 am

I think the key fetish in question is not “the fetish of the book” nor even precisely of technological progress per se — but rather the American fetish for convenience, an enthusiasm which has graced us with, among other things, the fast-food drive thru and the supplanting of basic arithmetic skills by electronic calculators.

Whenever an innovation is to be introduced the burden of proof should always be on the innovator to justify it, not on the conservative to prove it harmful.

“It makes things easier” and “You can’t prove that there’s anything essential about reading a tangible book” are, to my mind, unconvincing.

avatar D.W. Sabin December 9, 2009 at 11:50 am

I’d go out and get a Kindle but I’m too busy rubbing sticks together to make a fire and the wood is wet dammit. When I caint no longer get my free assortment of arcane books from the Concept who traffics in used books on the internets, maybe I’ll go get one of these fancy gadgets but I’ll likely go to the library first

Do they have an aerosol scent can to spray mouldering scents upon the Kindle, can one hang a Mildew imbued Paper Pine Tree Scent from one’s reading glasses? Can one make notations amid the text in a Kindle? Can one be used to prop a short table leg up? Do they hit with the same resounding thud upon the skull whence firing missiles at the Missus? Can they be easily avoided whence the fired missile is returning?

Inquiring minds need to know.

avatar AML December 9, 2009 at 12:30 pm

An examination of the racket that is text-book sales would be in order. A friend of mine gave me her old French textbook at the begining of the semester, but when I arrived at class with it, I was told I couldn’t use it because it was the wrong edition, changed enough to make it impossible to use for homework and such. So I had to go buy a new (because there were no used copies of the latest edition) textbook. It cost me $200 bucks! I fail to see why such a text is neccessary for me to learn French. It does have lots of color photos and glossy text and lessons about how great and multi-cultural the French are. As far as e-texts go, I had to buy an online “textbook” for an economics class. It was seventy bucks and I have nothing to show for it now as the liscence has expired.

A great way to reduce the cost of educaiton would be to destroy the textbook racket!

I must apologize for my off topic rant but it makes me feel better and is tangentially realted to the post.

avatar J.D. Salyer December 9, 2009 at 12:33 pm

AML makes a good point.

However, this lucrative racket is embedded in the college system itself. The fundamental problem is that higher education has itself become mostly a rip-off. Trying to treat individual symptoms of such a problem via new gadgets is utterly futile.

avatar Will O. December 9, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Let’s not forget university bookstores’ buyback programs. Books one bought for $100 or more at the beginning of the year can be sold back for 10% or less of the price. Then the bookstores go back and mark the book back up to 70 or 80 dollars. The profit margins must be criminal for one textbook.

avatar Will O. December 9, 2009 at 12:55 pm

And the Onion continues to prove that it is indeed America’s Finest News Source:

http://www.theonion.com/content/news/new_device_desirable_old_device

avatar Stewart K. Lundy December 9, 2009 at 1:00 pm

I love books. But if I could carry 1500 unabridged texts with me wherever I go? The Kindle is a gadget, and Amazon’s suppression of better alternatives which it (legally) bought up and cancelled development. I own far more books

Kindle’s problem is Amazon deleting books from your Kindle when it deems them “unsuitable.” Hate Amazon appropriately

The Kindle is excellent for travelling to another country. It also has a marvelous feature which allows you to look up any word you read. The fact that it is subscription-free with access to any G3 network is really quite amazing. Wherever you are, it is a bookstore.

I prefer a book in my hand–one I can give, share, and reread. I like marking them up and making them mine. But for short stories, essays, and a way to read great books without carrying 100 pounds of paper with you? The Kindle is a good solution.

avatar John Gee December 9, 2009 at 4:12 pm

James: point well-taken that the book and the e-reader are not intrinsically in conflict – but they are in conflict. As an economic proposition, I am skeptical that the printing of books can continue in a world where e-readers are widespread. If enough people get enough pleasure from reading physical books, then of course there will continue to be a market for them. But I doubt it. In any case, the title “Kill Your Kindle” seems to begin the conversation from a point of conflict, or at the least conflict at the individual level – not, perhaps, “should we use Kindles or books,” but “should I use a Kindle or books?” I meant to suggest that when making that consideration for ourselves we should remember the room that e-reader technology still has to develop. The commenting features will almost certainly improve. I doubt the aesthetics will, but they might. Computer screens have been built that can roll up like a magazine and fit in your pocket.

I hope you’re not implying that I am fearful of discussing technology critically. As far as this discussion goes, my sense is that in adding up costs and benefits we disagree (for the most part) on magnitudes and not on signs.

@Will O, the Onion earns its reputation once again.

avatar Mitzi December 9, 2009 at 7:20 pm

My problem would be cookbooks. I have used my laptop to store recipes, but in the middle of cooking, covered in flour or vegetable residues, to have to wash up to page down to the next step (just to dirty up again) is pretty irritating. I much prefer my cookbooks and physical recipe files, splattery and dog-eared as they are. I even have a 50+ year old Betty Crocker cookbook I picked up from a pile of attic-cleanup rejects on the side of the road. You probably won’t be able to do THAT with a Kindle.
Kindles will have their place, reducing the number of back injuries and hernias among academics and college students from carrying those insanely heavy textbooks (seen a Biochemistry text lately? Good grief…), but for dirtier applications like gardening, cooking, crafting, car repair, or reading in the wild, give me a real book (or a paper recipe/diagram in a plastic sleeve) any day.

avatar Paul December 9, 2009 at 8:50 pm

I love that the first book deleted from Kindles was 1984. How ironic that the book that first introduced us to electronic censorship was the first book electronically censored on the Kindle.
It is almost to perfect to be a coincidence.

avatar John Médaille December 9, 2009 at 9:52 pm

Somebody explain this “deleting books” thingy to me. Do they really reach into your kindle and take out what they don’t like?

avatar Paul December 10, 2009 at 2:12 am

Regarding the ‘deleting books thingie’, Amazon realized that they did not, in fact, have the right to sell a digital version of 1984 so they deleted the book from the devices of anyone who purchased this book and reimbursed the purchase price.
It was not Amazon’s fault that they were selling this book, but I find their response to be reprehensible. There have been many cases of copyrighted material being published, both in digital and physical form, when the publisher did not have the right to do so – I believe this is the first case where the publisher broke into the purchaser’s home and repossessed the material.

avatar Rick Rose December 10, 2009 at 11:00 am

I’m waiting for the “open-source” version that reaches into Project Gutenberg for its texts and simply formats them nicely for reading. I’m sure one will come along and that Amazon will maintain its grip on electronic text rights about as long as Apple kept its grip on digital music files. God loves hackers.

avatar TN December 10, 2009 at 3:59 pm

I can think of no better response to this than to recommend without reservation Ivan Illich’s “In the Vineyard of the Text.”

If anyone is of the opinion that the advent of devices like these is inconsequential, Illich, I hope, will disabuse you.

avatar Bob Cheeks December 10, 2009 at 4:14 pm

Kindle, smindle! Bah!

avatar John Médaille December 10, 2009 at 9:18 pm

This might be pushing the case, but:

“When I hear the term Kindle I think not of imaginations fired but of crematoria lit. And when I hear the term “hi-tech” I think not of helpful androids efficiently performing household chores or light-speed rockets gliding seamlessly through space but of the fact that between 1933-45, modern technology was used to perform in ever more efficient ways the mass murder of six million of my people. The instruments of so-called progress, placed in the hands of the modern state, disappeared six million Jewish men, women and children, into a void from which they will never return and in which a majority of them remain forever unidentified. This was done in the name of progress by means of technology for the creation of a better world.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-kaufman/google-books-and-kindles_b_380536.html

avatar Stewart K. Lundy December 11, 2009 at 11:25 am

John,

Essentially, Amazon reserves the right (and the power because of the perpetual connection to a G3 network) to delete anything you purchase if here is a copyright issue–even after they’ve sold it to you. For example, earlier this year–irony of ironies–George Orwell was censored: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/18/technology/companies/18amazon.html

A better alternative to the Kindle will be the open-source version, the eReader, which I am looking forward to. Amazon is oppressive by making all of its content proprietary and not allowing for you to load other legitimately purchased ebooks from other stores or from the Gutenberg Project.

This is the reason to hate the Kindle, if we’re to hate it!

avatar Marty December 12, 2009 at 9:10 am

A Kindle is on my Christmas list. I am hoping that my bride has picked up in my hints.

I know a Kindle will not replace my library and books, but it does have some advantages. I rarely buy magazine subscriptions any longer and read most news, on the web. Yet, I still subscribe to lasting journals, such as the journals from ISI.

The same would work for my Kindle. I would get my NY Times sent to my Kindle, blogs and electronic magazine subscriptions sent to my Kindle.

Books form ISI(again) would be purchased and added to my shelf and passed on to my children and friends. Yet, a police novel or Conservative bestseller will do better on a Kindle.

I will use both.

***IT ALSO HELPS LOCAL WRITERS***

You can self publish on the web as many of you know. But, if I want to read your book I need to download 250 pages in PDF format and print out all of those pages on my home printer. Now, I can download those books to my Kindle and read them anytime with so much more ease. So, Kindle is helping local indie writers!!!

avatar Kirk December 13, 2009 at 10:40 pm

Regarding the use of electronic books in our colleges and universities, who will speak for the backpack industry?

avatar Marion Miner December 14, 2009 at 9:01 am

I agree on all points. As others have noted, the mere weight and feel of the book in your hands adds a great deal to the pleasurable experience of reading, in my opinion.

That said, the Kindle does seem to have some beneficial qualities, as Marty has noted. When it comes down to it, however, I will always personally prefer reading the real, hard copy, whose pages I can turn with my own hands.

avatar Paul December 14, 2009 at 10:41 am

For me, this article summed it up best:

http://www.engadget.com/2009/07/23/entelligence-two-strikes-for-kindle-is-enough-for-me/

I am a self-professed Digital Boy and love all things digital. I am also a big fan of backing up, archiving, and ensuring compatibility – in 10 years will the books on your Kindle be as useful as the books on your shelf? I believe in 10 years your Kindle will be as useful as your 5.25 inch floppies are today.
I still refer to my college textbooks – the cost was onerous, but I believe I have recouped my investment many times over.
In a pulpy SciFi novel, the protagonist was asked why he kept a damaged volume of an encyclopedia when he could have an entire library on an electronic reader – the response was that the electronic versions only worked with power whereas the print copy, even though damaged, only required a bit of moonlight or candle light and could still provide something.
For me, the disadvantages and limitations outweigh the advantages and convenience.

avatar fr.christopher February 6, 2010 at 10:19 pm

I think it’s funny/ironic that she’s lamenting kindles via another form of digital media.

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