an online notebook
so i read today that kindles have now dropped in price to $139 and i was, for a moment, tempted. certainly as a would-be writer/artist type, certainly as a serious enthusiast of literature with a very strong belief in the transformative power of literature, anything that makes people read more is a good thing. i have friends who have reported reading more because of their kindles, taking risks on books they wouldn’t have thought of reading otherwise; kindles and their ilk made it easy to read, easy to branch out, experiment. they’re like literary gameboys or ipod, always to hand, ready to pass a stretch of time. these are all good things.
the thing is, though … it’s the but. and it’s a pretty big but. the but is:
but books were pretty advanced technology to begin with.
here’s my train of thought: here we have this form, honed over centuries, that makes its content accessible to anyone. produced under the right conditions, said content can last for centuries more without loss of information. the environmental impact is relatively less (i’ve read about all the **** that goes into an ipad, okay?), but more importantly, this content is preserved and accessible to anyone within reach of this object.
when you tie literature, or any content, to a device, you’re making it secondary to the device. now you’re caught in a cycle of upgrading and copying, moving your data from place to place, and completely at the mercy of this market. i can pick up a book from high school and read it, but i can’t operate my old apple 2 anymore, not in any meaningful way. what’s the lifespan of a kindle? at what point won’t i be able to find replacement parts, at what point will amazon stop supporting my model and tell me to buy a new one?
and sure, you can make similar arguments from the other side. paperbacks are not printed well. content is subject to bestseller lists and backlists and you could probably fill a kindle just with titles of books that have disappeared for myriad reasons and not just in terms of quality.
but it was all getting there. the library, the cheap paperback, the push-and-pull between publishing and the market—it was inching (and sometimes backing away from, but then inching once more) towards a really nice democratic model of disseminating knowledge.
what i resent about the kindle is that it takes away that push-and-pull. i need to revisit my marx, but what i remember from reading his work in college: that capitalism is a system that always has to be growing. it can’t level off. there always has to be new goods to sell, new horizons to expand to. once people’s needs are met, it has to create more “needs” so as to justify this expansion. what do you buy today that’s actually built to last? there is a growing expectation that you will constantly be “upgrading” your possessions; nothing is built to last; no one wants anything to last, we are being trained to constantly anticipate our next purchase, the next new operating system, the sequel, the remake, the future. that literature, which was as much about tethering us to our collective past as it is about looking ahead, should be sucked into the maw of this machinery is incredibly disheartening. let’s hope that kindles and their ilk can someday transcend their own limitations; the alternatives all spin into dark alleys where content is limited and fleeting, never revisited, never built upon.
names to follow up on
from the solitudes:
Lynn Thorndike’s History of Magic and Experimental Science
journal of the warburg and courtauld institutes