Monday, August 15, 2011

Kindle™, schmindle

Somehow or other (I do most of my Web-meandering late at night, and thus the pathways are soon forgotten, blurred by sleep), a few weeks ago I came upon the E-book Skeptic. As you may easily judge from the chosen name of his blog, he deplores the modish novelty of digital books and reading from screens. However, he has transcended the impotent mutterings of irritation that most of us make do with, and has heroically devoted himself to collating scientific research which adds rational support to his - our - instinctual rejection of this new technology. (Apparently, there are a number of studies which suggest that stuff you read on a screen just doesn't stick in the brain in the same way. My own floundering with recalling exactly what I've read on the Internet - or where exactly I've read it - perhaps offers further evidence of this phenomenon.)

The "Skeptic" has more of a personal stake in this battle than most of us, since he is a beleaguered bookstore owner in an American college town (Durham, North Carolina, as it happens, home of the well respected Duke University; a place I have visited a number of times, since one of my best friends from my own university days has been teaching at Duke for some years). I wish him well in keeping that noble enterprise going. Almost all of the bookshops I so enjoyed during my undergraduate days in Oxford - all of the secondhand ones, anyhow - have ceased to exist now; it is heartbreaking.

I am particularly in sympathy with the argument he presents about the essentially multi-sensory nature of the reading-a-book experience: selecting a particular book and page from onscreen menus and prompts just isn't as tactile as pulling a well-loved book from the shelf, feeling the weight of it in the hands, savouring  the texture of the paper, its sun-fadedness, its smell.... and searching for that favourite passage marked by a turned-down page corner.

Another blogger I was reading recently (again, alas, I forget who or where or why) noted that he'd recently realised that as soon as he'd downloaded something on to his Kindle, that meant he was almost certainly never going to read it. Adding a text to your digital library may satisfy a basic curiosity about it, or some socially-mediated sense of obligation about making the attempt to find and acquire a recommended work - but read it? No. Whatever reminder features your e-book may have with which to goad you about unread purchases, they're never going to be remotely as potent as that stack of neglected books on the desk or the bedside table confronting you several times each day with your delinquency. And if it's really that much worth reading, you're going to prefer to read it in the form of a proper book - a book with presence and weight and texture and smell, and the capacity to add to the memorableness of the reading experience, to increase your ability to vividly recall that experience years hence.

I haven't done a Website of the Month pick for quite a while; but I feel the E-book Skeptic is an especially worthy pretext for reviving the series.


JES said...

Oh dear.

Without commenting in particular -- and I think you know I do love my Kindle -- I'll just say generally that probably every technological advancement in history has caused people to surrender some benefits of "the old way." The reason they take hold -- the reason they come to be regarded as advancements -- is that they also offer signal advantages over what came before.

Somewhere recently I read of a thought experiment, the premise of which was to assume that e-readers had somehow been developed first, and books came later. The things that we regard as superior in the latter would, in such a world, still be considered steps forward. But we'd be squawking because every new book required another thing to transport, or whatever.

My own experience caught me by surprise, and I think this is why I've become an e-reading advocate (while continuing, occasionally, to buy a real book): I've realized that what's important about a book (to ME) has nothing to do with a material object. In almost every way which really, really counts, only the contents matter. When I'm reading a real book, I have no conscious sense of all those tactile/olfactory/auditory niceties. Likewise when I'm e-reading. No difference: it's just me and the content, and the operations of the given medium are automatic and not thought about, at all.

As they say, Your Mileage May Vary. That's what's true for me, though.

The Weeble said...

I bought a Kindle last December, and have since proselytized far and wide. It doesn't match the experience of reading a real book, and quite a lot of the stuff I want to read is still available only in dead-tree form, and given my druthers I'll go with paper every time...but for those of us living without access to English-language libraries or bookstores, it's a godsend. For those of us with 45-minute subway commutes, it's magic. For anyone going on a long flight, or a train trip across China, or any other project that would normally involve a backpack full of reading matter, the Kindle is an absolute life-saver, or at least a back-saver.

There are downsides -- the big, potentially deal-killing one being that you can't lend books unless the publishers say so -- but having regular access to books again has done wonders for my sanity in expatria.

JES said...

P.S. I wasn't looking for it, but I just saw a relevant piece by James Gleick, from a few weeks ago in the NY Times.

Hopfrog said...

I'm in agreement with my fellow commenters on this one, and for me it comes down to function being weighted more than form on the grading scale.

Hands down, I find reading ink printed on tree pulp a much more enjoyable experience. It feels better ergonomically and is easier on the eyes. Flipping around, highlighting, pagemarking, all are easier.

But wow, I love having my library weigh about 2 lbs, be it 1 book or 1000 stored on the iPad. Being able to bring reference material anywhere is also nice. Purchasing books is also a breeze.

Mixed feelings on it, but I think we are all kind of saying the same thing here, the functionality of the eReader is really what trumps good old fashioned page turning.

Froog said...

Convenience is not the only virtue, gentlemen.

New technologies tend to be embraced because of commercial pressures and the human fascination with novelty - not because of absolute advantage over the previous state of affairs. This is becoming more and more of a problem for us, as the pace of technological change increases and we are being deluged with new gadgets all the time. And so we witness unfortunate phenomena like the short-lived ubiquity of digital watches, VHS killing the superior Betamax by virtue of better marketing (but then soon becoming obsolete itself), CDs displacing vinyl records (which were vastly superior in sound reproduction, though, admittedly, having some disadvantages in terms of 'convenience') and allowing no room in the market for the adoption of DAT (also vastly superior in sound quality).

This is a 'political' issue. Where a new technology threatens an entire industry and - more importantly - a fundamental component of our culture, I think there is a duty to oppose, resist, reject it. Books will, of course, become a marginalised means of data storage in centuries to come; but they need not disappear altogether; and they need not be wrenched out of our popular culture in the space of a single decade - which the faddish adoption of e-readers is threatening to bring about.

Froog said...

I am particularly perturbed by The Weeble's point about the loss of the sharing culture. When you live in an expat community, book swaps and small lending libraries are a vital part of one's life. When I backpacked around the world (an aeon and a half ago), I didn't need to take a rucksack full of books; I took ONE, gave it away, picked up a new one from another traveller. It will be very, very sad if the Kindle kills that as well.

Froog said...

I've never been able to read very well on public transport anyway, Weebs.

And I don't think that you should. There are times to read, and times to not read. If books are unavailable, or the environment is insufficiently congenial, I am quite content to forego reading - for months at a time, if necessary. On the subway, I prefer to people-watch. Or meditate. Or just watch out anxiously for my stop so that I don't miss it.

Froog said...

JES, I am sceptical as to whether you are as indifferent to the physical properties of a book as you suppose. Admittedly you 'lose yourself' in the world of the book as soon as you begin reading, but.... subconsciously, you are still aware of the feel of the book in your hands and so on; and that sensation is far more detailed and intense than the awareness of having to press a button (or whatever you do) to 'turn a page' on the Kindle.

However, I'd guess that it is the entering and leaving of the reading experience where these other sensory inputs become especially important, helping to fix the circumstances of a particular reading experience in the memory. There's something ritualistic about picking up a book and opening that I don't think e-readers will ever match.

Well, e-readers don't age for one thing. Not as dramatically as books do. When I see a book I read in childhood, the wear-and-tear on it, the dry, curling pages and sun-bleached cover underline the time elapsed between then and now, and evoke the era when I first encountered the book so much more vividly. Of course, this effect is much stronger with books loved from childhood, or first read a long time ago; but I find it still noticeable with books read just a few years ago - the physical object of the book acts as a mnemonic link, often enabling me to recall exactly when and where I read it.

Froog said...

And now I come to think of it, JES, I believe I met The E-book Skeptic in the comments on James Gleick's blog - whither I had been led, of course, by your good self.

Froog said...

I have long been noodling around with an idea for a sci-fi story in which The Great Apocalyptic Event is some kind of massive electromagnetic pulse - which not only wrecks all of Mankind's electronic technology, but also (if we've entirely given up on hard copy information storage) cuts us off at a stroke from almost all the accumulated wisdom of our centuries of civilization. It would be like burning the Library of Alexandria - times a million!

On the more personal scale, an unfortunate magnetic - or more crudely mechanical - accident with your Kindle could delete a massive library. Losing one book on the subway is not an inconsolable trauma, but losing 1,000?

Froog said...

Now that my Net connection has kinda, sorta, almost started working again...

I am not going to be swayed by insinuations about the environmental-unfriendliness of books, Weeble. Books are far more readily recyclable than electronic devices. And it won't be long before we've developed bacteria that can shit paper fibres, or somesuch; and thus the drain on the world's timber resources will be ended.

In fact, I imagine before too long we'll achieve the technology (doubtless using nanobots!) for books that can 'rewrite' themselves on demand: the almost-infinite capacity of the e-reader allied to the more satisfying tactility of a hunk of something-like-paper in the hand. Of course, a book that constantly remakes itself won't have the same memory-resonances of a traditional book - but I think it will still be a whole lot better than the e-reader.

Yep, I predict obsolescence for these new toys of yours well before the end of the century.

Tony said...

The sci-fi story about a Great Apocalyptic Event was written half a century ago by Hal Draper:

Hopfrog said...

Sorry to go Youtube crazy on you, but another gem that suddenly became relevant with this talk about apocalyptic events and losing an entire collection in the blink of an eye.

From 1959, a particularly cruel Twilight Zone twist:

Froog said...

Thank you, Tony; the Draper story is marvellous.

I try not to be too dismayed at the discovery of my unoriginality: No new thing under the sun, and all that. Anyway, my notion was a more conventional post-apocalypse human drama; I just thought an eradication of digital data would be a more interesting starting point than a great plague or a nuclear war.

Hopfrog, you taunt me still. My Net connection is so lousy, I don't think I'm ever going to be able to watch online video again. It's not the one where the librarian breaks his glasses, is it?

One possible ending for my story I'd considered - influenced no doubt by my musings on the Kindle revolution over the past few months - is that my group of survivors finally manage to regain some semblance of their former 'civilization' to their world by restoring the electricity supply; one of the more savvy engineer types among them discovers an ancient hard copy instruction manual for the generator in the basement, but is at first unsure what to make of it because he is completely unused to encountering writing anywhere other than on a computer screen.

Hopfrog said...

And circle takes the square. It is that very episode.

Froog said...

The Twilight Zone ending for my little story idea would have the engineer fail to recognise the value of his find, knowing the words 'Instruction Manual' on the front of the book but being incapable of comprehending how such a thing could be embodied in a hunk of lightweight wood-derivative.... and choosing to start a fire with it instead.

Don Tai said...

I stumbled upon a book from the 1890 while at McGill U. Discarded and destined for the trash, I adopted it. Or it adopted me. It is a lovely book that I cherish. If only that book could talk, what history it would tell me. Talk to me about Kindle in 120 years.

I was adding lights to the crawlspace of my ~1970s house when, in this little dark nook a hidden book peeked out. A little surprise from the 1920s. Are Canadian ancestors sending me subliminal messages. Talk to me about Kindle in 90 years.

At a garage sale a couple of years ago I purchased two small books about Noddy. Printed in Britain between 1950s and '60s, these are now favourites on my son's shelf. Multi-generational exchanges of stories, right before my eyes. Talk to me about Kindle in 60 years.

Like many technologies, they must be proven over time. Some like the telephone and the automobile have shaped mankind. Others, like bound feet and floppy disks, will fade away, quaint but long forgotten. Kindle is the latter.

Froog said...

I'd like to think so, Don. Well put.

Unfortunately, the rapid and enthusiastic uptake of the Kindle in many quarters is threatening to do enormous - perhaps irreparable - harm to the book industry.

I recently heard that one of England's leading private schools is abolishing its physical library and moving the entire collection online. Many other schools and colleges will soon be following suit. I find this unspeakably sad.