Friday, August 13, 2010

Books are Things

The Kindle commercials have a hold on me. The human-stop-motion commercials that marked Kindle's debut last Christmas rivaled a Peter Gabriel music video, and that sweet song chosen by Amazon to tell you all the things Kindle can do (or that you should imagine it can do) was the icing on the holiday fruitcake. And those don't normally even have icing.

One of last year's spots showed what appeared to be a single mom and her daughter. While daughter went away to school on her stop-motion bus, mom wiled the day away with Kindle, presumably the most romantic partner a single mom could hope for. Kindle, her "favorite one man show," made her daily life a dream.

The other spot I remember featured a gorgeous blond girl falling into and rolling out of scenes from the books Kindle shared with her. Unfortunately for blonds and for reading women in general, the young lady seemed to be reading at the second grade level. She did appear in drag as Davey Crocket and a moustached magician, so while unrealistic at least the commercial was not sexist. (Girls like "shiny things," but we also like "faded maps.") Her pouty lips carried any bad art direction anyway. Kindle, in this world, was both a friend and a toy.

Lastly I remember a Kindle commercial that featured a boy and a girl together. The same song played, with its lovey lyrics, and it became confusing whether we were supposed to fall in love with Kindle, with a boy who owns a Kindle, or with the idea that Kindle brings romance all around. "Will you fly me away? Take me away with you my love." Can Kindle really do that?

This summer's Kindle push is no longer artsy. A couple sit on the beach, reminiscent of a Corona commercial, but instead of sharing a couple beers each holds a Kindle. Are they reading the same thing? Or are they living in two different Kindle romances? To quote a completely different song, completely out of context, "When we [read together . . .] who do you think of? Does he look like me?" And the pretty voice still begs to be flown away, taken away.

As much as these commercials hold my attention, frustrate me, "kindle" something inside me whether I like it or not, they do not make me desire a Kindle. Why not? Kindle is not a book. It doesn't even store books. It stores information. Kindle is a thing, a device. Books are things too. But they don't fit inside a Kindle. What has a book got that Kindle hasn't got? A lot.

Books are never plastic. There may be arty exceptions to that, but in general your books will be paper. Plastic is just about the most unromantic, uninteresting substance you can make a thing out of. Paper is organic, it molds to us, it accepts our oils and smells, it becomes almost a part of us. Smell a book you love. Heaven, right? Smell a Kindle. Nothing. Unless you've mucked it up in some unspeakable way, it probably just smells like plastic.

Paper, precious as it is, is also more approachable than a device. We can leave our mark on it, and it is not altered for the worse. Dog-ear it, write on it, highlight it. How do you even do those things on a Kindle? Maybe they've thought of this. Maybe you can bookmark pages, even make notes? Does it store your marginalia? A book does that quite easily, and you don't fret over what you're writing in it.

Book covers are something special. They come in all sorts of glosses and materials, from cloth bound pre-1950s editions, to mid-century patterned cardboard designs, to graphic and bleak '60s paperback novel covers, to today's aqueous coated anthology covers emblazoned with some famous painting to remind you what period you're picking up. These texts have texture. You can run your hand over the stiff woven ones, or curl up the wrinkly thin paperback ones.

Aside from all the obvious physical differences between a paper book and a plastic device, books, for me anyway, have a kind of fetishism associated with them. We display them on shelves, we prop them up with meaningful or interesting bookends, we choose the one with the cover that speaks to us, sometimes even when it's not the best edition for the job. Some readers simply store them in great heaps or double-stack them on sagging shelves, sideways even, but these readers value the books no less than those of us who showcase our tomes. Their book clutter is a testament to their excitement. We share books and trade books, we send along the "heavily marked" copies hoping someone will benefit from or at least enjoy our marginal scribblings, and we grow familiar with our own copies of favorites, so much that another person's copy in another edition seems quite alien -- as if it is not the same book at all.

I just received the above pictured copy of Prose of the Victorian Period, and I attributed mystical qualities to it before I even looked inside. I judged it by its faded, red, mid-century patterned cover. (I was subsequently not disappointed when I looked inside and found that most of the "prose" is in fact some example of Victorian literary criticism. So it's a double treat.) The book -- the thing -- now occupies a place next to Dionysus, a wooden pineapple, some dead flowers and some handmade owls. So we have, coming to life on my dresser, a stone god, dead plants, a fruit, an animal, and yes, a book. It looks much lovelier than it sounds. And Kindle, if I had one and I chose to store it there, would look quite out of place. I think I'll sing that catchy song to my bookshelves instead.


  1. Oh Robyn this was beautiful I was lost in your words. What an enchanting and vivid read. While, on Amazon my interest was “sparked” enough to figure out what this BOOK OF NEXT TUESDAY thing was. I had no commercially persuasive illusions of blissful literary escape to sway me. Like you I was left with the feeling of insipid plastic. There is an ardor to musty yellowing paper, rounded corners or flaky leather that can be quite intoxicating to most of us "stay at home librarians”. I for one can never conceive of a future that includes Kindle fetishists.

  2. I've been wondering about this as well: what the hell makes people buy these things? The iPad seems a little different, as you can start interacting with the books differently (a sort of extreme example, but a good one, is this version of Alice in Wonderland: So while I'm up for a new booky-type-thing, I really have no desire to replace my bookshelf, to get rid of the thingyness of the books I have, which is what you rightly see as the Kindle's sole function. To take the thought a little farther, and a little more into the business of it all: it basically seems a ploy by Amazon to do what iTunes does with music, which means 1) making the text instantly available to you, so it can feed on your impulse-buying irrationality and 2) get rid of any expenses on their end, since all they have to do is pay a minimal fee to the publisher for distribution. But that's just too much of an up-front attack on the publishing industry to work, it seems.

    One interesting thing is that the Kindle basically shows how exploitable/commodifiable the idea of "textuality" is: unlike the iPad, which forces us to turn the idea of text into a function of media in order to account for all the other things the text can do there (a different type of "texture," as you rightly put it), the Kindle reduces everything to textuality. You don't need the books, it says, because there are no books: only texts, which can be wired to you like information (a sort of flat textuality which sadly looks a lot like what critics had in mind in the height of the theory). All this seems to me to point to the inadequacy of the 70's-80's-90's notions of textuality, and the need to push the theory elsewhere (into an area less oblivious to the future of the book).

  3. You read my mind with the "inadequacy of the 70's-80's-90's notions of textuality"! I wanted to stick to talk of things instead of theories here, but I was all the while thinking about how we refer to everything as a text now, even those of us who are most intimate with the books themselves. It's almost a lit student faux pas to call anything a "book" in class. But why? That is how we experience the "text" -- in its book form. And somehow that's vulgar.

    The iPad seems like a good alternative to lugging books when an alternative is actually needed (for travel maybe) but, like you said, the iPad encourages a new kind of interaction rather than just digitizing and flattening what we already had, and it probably even has sharing apps where you could trade notes and such, like those phones you whack together and they magically trade phone numbers.

  4. Books seem to have a life and a history of their own. They seem to breathe. They have soul. There is something seriously lacking in substance in holding an e-reader. Not to mention the deliciousness of passing a favorite novel to a friend and knowing they will pore over the very same pages that delighted you.

  5. As I'm sure you know, I agree with you about the Kindle. I read an article about it a while ago (maybe in the Times) that was written by a man who was dissapointed that he couldn't tell what other people on the train were reading. I agree. I always find it interesting to see what people are reading, and now I just assume anyone with a kindle is reading crap.


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