Dispatch March 2009

Resisting the Kindle

Critic and essayist Sven Birkerts comments on what we lose in the page-to-screen transfer

The Amazon Kindle—a “new and improved” version of which has just been released—comes on like a technology for our times: crisp, affordable, hugely capacious, capable of connecting to the Internet, and green. How could one argue with any of that? Or with the idea, which I’ve heard voiced over and over, that it will make the reading of texts once again seductive, using the same technology that has drawn people away from the page back to it.

Why, then, am I so uneasy about the page-to-screen transfer—a skeptic if not a downright resister? Perhaps it is because I see in the turning of literal pages—pages bound in literal books—a compelling larger value, and perceive in the move away from the book a move away from a certain kind of cultural understanding, one that I’m not confident that we are replacing, never mind improving upon. I’m not blind to the unwieldiness of the book, or to the cumbersome systems we must maintain to accommodate it—the vast libraries and complicated filing systems. But these structures evolved over centuries in ways that map our collective endeavor to understand and express our world. The book is part of a system. And that system stands for the labor and taxonomy of human understanding, and to touch a book is to touch that system, however lightly.

The electronic book, on the other hand, represents—and furthers—a circuitry of instant access, which giveth (information) as it taketh away (the great clarifying context, the order). This will not be an instant revolution. Paradigm shifts take time. Right now the Kindle still lives within the context of print. But what would happen if, through growing market share and broad generational adoption, the Kindle were to supplant the bound book? For me the significance of this is not whether people end up reading more or less, or even a matter of what they read. At issue is the deep-structure of the activity. My fear is that as Wikipedia is to information, so will the Kindle become to literature and the humanities: a one-stop outlet, a speedy and irresistibly efficient leveler of context.

Literature—our great archive of human expression—is deeply contextual and historicized. We all know this—we learned it in school. This essential view of literature and the humanities has been—and continues to be—reinforced by our libraries and bookstores, by the obvious physical adjacency of certain texts, the fact of which telegraphs the cumulative time-bound nature of the enterprise.  We get this reflexively.

But reflexes are modified by use and need. As Marshall McLuhan argued decades ago, technology changes reflexes, replacing them with new ones. Our rapidly evolving digital interface is affecting us on many levels, not least those relating to text and information. We read and absorb as the age demands, and our devices set the pace. I was in a crowd at a poetry reading recently, eavesdropping on the conversation behind me. Somebody referenced a poem by Wallace Stevens but couldn’t think of the line. Her neighbor said “Wait—” and proceeded to Blackberry (yes, a verb) the needed words. It took only seconds. Everyone bobbed and nodded—it was the best of all worlds.

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