Janet Cameron: On the Kindle Crossroads

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By Janet Cameron

So here we are at a historical crossroads that will affect the way we relate to the printed word forever, and it’s largely been brought about because people are so lazy about choosing gifts for Christmas. ‘Hmm. So-and-so likes reading. I’ll get her an electronic gizmo to read books on. Everyone else is doing it.’ And so it goes. I’m sure there were thousands of Kindles under trees all over Ireland and across the globe this year. I got one for my birthday in August. ‘Feeling guilty?’ I asked my husband the same day, as we greeted the woman who runs our local independent book store.

Of course Kindles do have good points. They’ve changed publishing, with thousands of authors able to bypass the gatekeepers and make their books directly and easily available to readers. Also, let’s face it: books are awkward and frequently heavy, and if you’re like me, they tend to multiply and take over the house. How many bookcases from Argos have I assembled over the past couple of years, thinking each would be the last? And I remember starting Wolf Hall (651 pages) last year and looking forward to reading it on the plane to Canada – until I considered the misery of dragging this brick of a thing through three airports and two continents. With a Kindle, this wouldn’t have been an issue. I can load it up with twelve doorstop books and still be skipping around with something the weight and size of an envelope in my bag. Mothers with small children also tell me that they’re handy for when your arms are full of baby but your brain would still like something to do. If you have to, you can turn those pages with your nose.

Kindles are also fun. What do I feel like reading today? I go clicking through the Amazon ‘shop’ and those dopey reassurance hormones start to hit –the same ones that flood my brain whenever I’m wasting time on the internet. Then I find something I’m mildly curious about, touch the screen, and…it’s mine. You don’t even have to go through the multiple stages of confirming and entering passwords that pop up when buying a physical book online. I can use Kindle to hunt down novels that aren’t easily found in local bookstores, or a Kindle purchase might be a compromise: I want to read something but don’t want to be responsible for owning and housing it as a physical object.

But, wait a minute. Aren’t there places where you can read all the books you want for free and not have to worry about owning them? That’s right. They’re called libraries. And the other advantages I mentioned have their downsides too. So, you have two hundred books on your Kindle. Hooray. Then you end up leaving it on the DART or dropping it into a bathtub. Goodbye, two hundred books. And what happens when the machine upgrades itself – like we’ve seen happen with music and movies – and you can’t access your old files anymore? Plus there’s the fact that you’re dependent on Amazon and the titles they decide to make available. This can be limited, and if you’re an Irish customer, it’s limited to whatever’s been published in America, seeing as Irish Kindles are linked to Amazon.com rather than dot anything else.

Books as objects have been around for a thousand years and more. They have weight, significance, emotional heft. Imagine your favourite childhood storybooks lined up on your shelf looking back at you. Now think of your own kids staring at…a row of titles on a screen? Doesn’t work for me. There’s a reason you throw the book across the room if you’re frustrated with the ending, or that you might pick one up with real affection, smiling at this inanimate thing. I’ve even found myself patting them. It’s irrational, but difficult to control: this collection of paper is where the story lives.

But beyond sentiment, there is something more sinister going on here. I recently finished the Kindle edition of Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan’s latest. Early on in the book, I came across this description of Camden Market in the early 70s:

‘Ranks of ‘psychedelic’ shirts and Sergeant Pepper-ish tasselled military suits hung on long racks on the pavement. Available for like-minded hordes desperate to assert their individuality.’

On my Kindle screen, the second sentence had been underlined and there was a note in small type in the margin – a message from Amazon telling me that this phrase had been highlighted by 38 other readers. I felt self-conscious, spied on, as if an Amazon executive were standing behind my chair.  And I found I couldn’t remember anything about the scene I’d just been reading.

You can turn this feature off easily enough…for now. But I’m imagining a time where I’ll be reading about two characters sharing a carton of Ben and Jerry’s and I might find a link to the company’s website embedded in my book. Or maybe I’ll wake up to an email from Amazon: ‘Janet Cameron, you viewed the sex scenes in your latest purchase, Pity’s Cabbage, 30% more frequently than other segments. Might we interest you in a range of high quality vibrators?’ This is all about turning reading into consuming.

Which it already is, of course.  Except for the times you’ve bought something second-hand, or used a library, or kept the same book for thirty years without ‘upgrading’, or borrowed a book from a friend. You can’t lend someone a book on your Kindle in the same way – it’s as personal as your phone. We’ve all gone to parties and scanned through the offerings in the bookcase. Imagine picking up someone’s Kindle and having a gawp at the titles. It would be like rifling through their underwear drawer. At the same time there’s this weirdly intimate level of involvement with total strangers and their busy highlighters. I can see books devolving into one of these entertainment and social systems that isolate us even as they promote company-approved ‘sharing’.

Still, Kindles are pretty neat, and to tell the truth, I’d miss mine if it suddenly vanished. Wouldn’t it be great if you could have ebooks and physical books existing side by side in peace? After all, as some internet commentators have pointed out, lifts are a handy way of getting you from one floor to another, and they haven’t brought about the end of stairs.

True enough, but picture this: You’re looking at beautiful, sweeping staircase with a carved banister. Beside it is an ugly, cramped metal elevator. Now, answer honestly. You’re tired and those lovely stairs are fairly steep. Which option are you going to choose? Which will you scramble to catch as it leaves, which will you cram yourself into, to be isolated with random strangers and stale farts as a machine does all the heavy lifting for you? In my experience, people will go for convenience over quality, every time. I can only hope I’ll be proved wrong.

(c) Janet Cameron

A Canadian writer and teacher, Janet E. Cameron has been living in Ireland since 2005, where she teaches ESL at Dublin Business School. She has also lived, worked, and taught in Halifax, Toronto, Montreal, and Tokyo. Last year she graduated from Trinity with an MPhil in Creative Writing, and her first novel, Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World, will be published by Hachette in March of 2013. Cinnamon Toast was also one of the winners of the Irish Writers’ Centre’s inaugural Novel Fair contest. For more information or to contact, go to www.asimplejan.com

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