Dispatch March 2009

In Defense of the Kindle

A rare books librarian contends that the Amazon Kindle will promote the culture of letters, not undermine it

The second incarnation of the Kindle book reader, introduced last week by Amazon, has attracted significant attention, with most reviewers describing it as sleek and user-friendly, and a few hailing it as the device that may finally make digital readers mainstream. But Sven Birkerts, in an article on TheAtlantic.com, suggests that it augurs the end of the culture of letters. In its play to "supplant the bound book," he warns darkly, the Kindle may displace not only the pages-and-boards codex, but the very structures and systems that, in Birkerts' words, evolved to "map our collective endeavor to understand and express our world."

Yet the culture of letters has always been subject to disruption and transformation. Indeed, since the advent of print, technologies of the book have changed dramatically, and with them the book’s place in society. The world of letters not only transcends these technological changes—it thrives because of them. Were that not the case, the cultural continuity that Birkerts holds so dear would have been lost long ago.

In the Middle Ages, the role of the book in Western culture was more a matter of symbol than of substance. The Bible ruled supreme, holding sway over the public imagination and regulating the holy calendar. In slowly growing numbers, other books—the Decameron, the Canterbury Tales, Petrarch's Sonnets—began to lay the groundwork for Humanism as well. But in daily life, books mattered little to the great mass of people. A typical book’s ornate illuminated pages and rich leather binding signaled its status as an accoutrement of the aristocracy—and indeed, books were every bit as rare as cardinals or courtiers.

Then, as movable type began to take hold in the age of Copernicus, Erasmus, and Luther, some worried that the printing press would devalue the book. But in fact, it represented a disruption only to the channels of authority that had hitherto controlled the creation and distribution of word and image. Likewise today, the Kindle and other information technologies are less likely to destroy the authority of books than to disrupt the authority of those who control the place of books in our society.

Birkerts worries that the Kindle will reduce the lives and works of our poets and authors to interchangeable packets of information buzzing through the network. When someone at a party he attends responds to a question about Wallace Stevens by calling a Stevens poem up on his BlackBerry, he frets that we may be "gradually letting go of Wallace Stevens as the flesh-and-blood entity he was, and accepting in his place a Wallace Stevens that is merely the sum total of his facts." Yet instant access to Stevens doesn't rob him of his place in a context; only forgetting him altogether could accomplish that. And forgetting is a corollary of the disciplining of access and the hierarchical imposition of taste. Given that Stevens is considered by some a "difficult" poet, his work could end up hard to come by in a world where tastemaking gatekeepers determine what gets published and distributed. But if my fourteen-year-old son can easily "call him up" on his BlackBerry, then I am a happy father. Such liberation of access can only enrich and deepen the historical imagination—extending its nourishment to new audiences.

In place of this digitized ease of access, Birkerts offers the middlebrow comforts of Bartlett's Quotations as somehow more contextualizing and enriching. But Bartlett's (which began its career as an act of piracy by Harvard's printer in the nineteenth century) is a famously troubled, context-negating device, a universal Cliff Notes, the last hope of the intellectually lame. Contrast its thin fare with YouTube, where you can listen to the poet himself read "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"—where you'll also find an animated photograph of Stevens performing "No Ideas But In Things" in the poet's own voice; John Ashbery discussing Stevens' impact on his work; or any number of unknown readers reciting Stevens' works in front of their computers. Wikipedia, meanwhile, tells me that a portrait of Stevens' wife Elsie served as the basis of the profile of Mercury's head on the Liberty dime. I can view Stevens' house on Wikipedia, and follow links from his entry there to information about the lives and works of his contemporaries, critics, and poetic legatees. There is a context here far richer than anything the glue-and-boards Bartlett's can offer. But here's the rub: we have to make sense of this cornucopia of information ourselves. Wikipedia is not a one-stop shopping source for tidbits of misinformation; it is a living discourse, inviting dialogue and participation.

Technologies shift—and with those shifts come changes in our consciousness. We read differently now than did the contemporaries of Johannes Gutenberg or Jane Austen. By the nineteenth century, books were no longer individually crafted works of art, but products of industry – no longer richly bound and ornately hand-decorated, but serviceably assembled using interchangeable parts. Yet despite these far-reaching shifts, the sequences of words themselves have been handed down more or less intact from age to age. Changes in their outward form—from scribal artifact to assembly-line product to networked device – have historically been the means by which books, and the knowledge and culture they transmit, become more widely and equitably distributed, enriching human society.  Vellum has yielded to linen and wood-pulp, which in turn are yielding to pixels; and hand-lettering has yielded to the printing press, which in turn is yielding to code. Human civilization is a thing of innovation and metamorphosis, not stasis. Now as ever, we get the books our times demand.

Matthew Battles, formerly a rare books librarian at Harvard's Houghton Library, is the author of Library: An Unquiet History (2003).
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