Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, December 13, 2008

more kindling

The first thing I should say about Christine Rosen’s critique of the Kindle, which I mentioned in my earlier post on this subject, is that it is but a part of a large and ambitious essay that makes many important points about the present and future of reading that I completely endorse. I hope to have the opportunity to discuss some of those points later on. But on to KIndleblogging:

Rosen writes, “Much has been written about the Kindle’s various features: wireless service that allows for rapid delivery of e-texts; the ability to search the Web; a service called ‘NowNow’ that performs real-time searches (using human beings!) to answer questions; a dedicated ‘Search Wikipedia’ function. These features are remarkable — and remarkably distracting.” Well, I don't think “much” has been written about any of these features except the first one Rosen lists, but more important: those last three features would indeed be distracting if they were easy to get to, but they aren't, and they aren't designed to be. For now, at any rate, the Kindle’s access to the Web is tucked several clicks away from any book you might be reading. Rosen says she kept getting distracted by those options and couldn't focus on her book, but I wonder how she managed that. For me, it’s just too much trouble to get into any of that stuff — it’s much easier to keep reading.

And in general that’s how the Kindle works for me: it keeps me reading. Think how easy it is — and how tempting — when you’re reading a novel to look ahead to the end. Maybe you just want to see how many pages there are in the book, to know how much you have left to read — but of course you just might sneak a peek at the last paragraph. You can do this on the Kindle, but it’s not easy at all. Similarly, when reading many different kinds of book you might want to take a look at the table of contents, to check how how many chapters there are, whether they have titles, what the titles might mean, and so on — and again, you can do that on the Kindle, but only by moving your hands in a different and less natural way that you employ to turn the pages as you follow an argument or narrative.

In short, once you start reading a book on the Kindle the technology generates an inertia that makes it significantly easier to keep reading than to do anything else. The Kindle, unlike many other artifacts of the digital age, promotes linearity — it creates a forward momentum that you can reverse if you wish, but not without some effort. The first book I read on my Kindle was Neal Stephenson’s new novel Anathem, a behemoth of a book, and that experience was delightful because there was no awkward manual management of a large heavy book, and limited temptation to repeatedly investigate the book’s apparatus — Anathem has a wonderful glossary to help readers deal with Stephenson’s many neologisms, but my tendency when offered something like that is to wander around in it and forget to get back to the story. Reading Anathem on the Kindle, I knew that I could get to the Glossary if I needed to, but it didn’t constantly tempt me. Instead, I became utterly absorbed in the story itself.

I have a hardcover copy of Anathem too, and looking through it over the past few months I have become quite aware of what I missed by reading the book on my Kindle. And I’ll say something about that in my next post on this subject.