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.