We live in a time where digital conversion is the future, and with the publishing industry wobbling on the fence half the time there are a great number of eyes on Amazon's kindle. Kindle, now on in it's second iteration, is an electronic reader that's best described as an Ipod for books. On Friday, the New York Times posted an interesting bit on the kindle 2, and the quiet kind of effects, as opposed to earth-shaking ones, that kindle might have.
Primarily, the article (amusingly and appropriately in the fashion and style section) reflects on what they call "literary snobbism", that is judging people based on what it is they're reading. As a shameless pursuer of this activity, it's something of interest to me. Generally speaking, people rarely surprise you. If you see someone in the book store, the section they're in and the book they're holding generally says a lot about them. The same can be said when you see someone reading in public; Perhaps if they were reading a favorite author or book you've been meaning to get to you might approach them to strike up a conversation but otherwise you likely wouldn't bother. To see someone reading in public is to know something about them without ever having to talk with them. It's as if their favorite movie or TV show was branded on their face. Kindle, with it's uniform white tableture appearance, threatens to make quick literary snob judgments obsolete. Would you approach someone if you didn't know if they were reading Nora Roberts or Clive Barker, or Charles Dickens? It's doubtful. It would be similar to walking up and asking someone what was on their Ipod. Sure, you can do it, but like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get.
When I happen to see someone reading in public, I'm immediately happy, but also I'm not two seconds away from trying to find out exactly what they're reading and judging them accordingly. I don't necessarily feel that these judgements are important, except perhaps as the article notes, if you plan on using them as a conversation in with someone you find intellectually attractive but I do feel that they play a necessary part in how we build our relationships with others on a more subconscious level. For instance, you might come to know someone well enough that you talk occasionally, or even regularly-- If they go around wearing a shirt promoting the new Michael Bay movie while you've been a connoisseur of European art films for the last twelve years, you're probably going to avoid discussing movies unless proof of a more common interest arises. This is how people end up knowing each other for years without guessing they both have a passionate love for something: If all indications say there isn't a common interest there, the topic won't come up. If I see someone reading Nora Roberts, I'm not likely to mention what I'm reading because it almost certainly isn't their cup of tea which means that the conversation isn't likely to extend much farther beyond an exchange of "Oh, Is it good?"
The bookshelf is another subject the article manages to touch on. I feel comfortable saying that my pitiful bookshelf, something I only started getting interested in developing about a year ago, is a source of pride for me. I may only have thirty novels on my "read" shelf-- not even quite enough to fill it-- but each one of those books is a badge of honor. They're each a small accomplishment, that when assembled together make up something more. What can Kindle do to match that? To my knowledge, not much.
My landlord has been showing the apartment off to prospective new tenants in the past few weeks, and every so often when I'm gearing up to leave so that I won't be in their way, I wonder if any of them have walked up to my bookshelf and perused my choice of literature. It's an act that's not at all dissimilar to checking to see what a person is reading in public. Kindle has the power to take that away too. How does one look at an electronic library? After all, Kindle has the capacity to hold up to 1, 500 books. That's as if you read a book and a half each month for the duration of your adolescent and adult life, about seventy years. Even some of the very most avid readers would have difficulty filling that up in less then five years. You would never need a bookshelf again with that kind of space.
Frankly, I liked being judged on what's on my bookshelf and what I read-- and I like being able to hold everyone else to that too. Books say so much more about a person then a movie or a TV does because a book requires that much more time and effort to get through. There is a kinship in finding someone who has read and enjoyed the same authors as you that isn't necessarily there with movies and TV because they're so much shorter, and easier to experience more of.
The article concludes with writers talking about if they like the idea of their work being read on Kindle-- and those asked seemed fine with it. Why should they be anything but fine with it? All that's really important to a writer is if they're being read (and hopefully well-received). It wouldn't bother me if I was being read on a kindle, I'd be happy about that, but it doesn't mean I'm happy about all the other stuff that might come of them. I love books-- not just fiction-- but books. I love the physicalness of books, and the work it takes to build a collection of read books. I love hardcovers, and dust jackets and first editions, and paper backs so long that it isn't an awkward mass market.
Some people ridicule those on myspace or facebook for identifying themselves by things that other people have created-- but the fact is, that's what we do as people. It's important that we know what each other are interested in because that's how we build our relationships. Judging people by what they read isn't just a literary snobs way of finding out about the person reading at the nearby table-- because sure as hell if that person is a Nora Roberts fan, and the person reading is too, a blossoming conversation is likely inevitable so long as said party isn't too shy. And why should Kindle want to mess with a beautiful thing like that?
How do you feel about Kindle? Are you worried about the more serious effects it might have, such as turning printed fiction into a collectors market? Do you like the idea of people not knowing what you're reading unless they ask? Does digital conversation bother you at all?