It’s a dirty confession, some might say an open declaration of war on the very words that shaped our world, maybe even a violation of the verb and vernacular, but, this week, I took delivery of a Kindle.
It’s a strange thing to have done in some ways, as I’ve always thought of the Kindle as a stepping stone in the technology world, a little like the Mini Disc phenomenon (remember those?), just a caesura in the world of words on screens, waiting to be incorporated into tablets and iphone apps, but curiosity got the better of me. And I had a birthday coming up.
So why not just buy a book? Amongst avid readers, there is a strong desire to protect the Old Ways. Some might view this as elitism, but to do so would be a mistake. Book lovers don’t just read books, they surrender to them, both physically and emotionally and they get attached, from cover to conclusion. As a very sweet friend of mine on Twitter explained last night, as we were discussing this very thing, “Nothing beats real books. Especially old ones by the Old Ones. Nothing…. Kindle Bogus. I love the smell of musty books in the morning. Smells like ‘Victory’ by Joseph Conrad”. Inevitably, what the Kindle does, is remove some of that familiarity to the reading process, which in turn makes it seem like an enemy in our midst, an imposter even. I understand that, because I too, am in love with books. And the Kindle presents a threat to my reading experience, an experience shared by my generation and the ones that came before it.
So why on earth get one? Whenever Kindles came up in conversation, my reaction to it was always the same: a mixture of deep curiosity and, I admit, a little disdain. How could something plastic take the place of my breathing books? How could the Kindle really measure up to the feel and flavour of my much-loved paper backs and hard backs? And was this new digital way to read, just one more step towards a cold, callous world, where emotion and appreciation of the human condition become less and less important and in turn, lead us to the ultimate and inevitable destruction of the universe? (This may seem a little dramatic, but I’m in the middle of reading Mountains of Madness and it’s rubbed off on me a little).
Enter the Kindle Touch. As soon as I received it, I wanted to try it, put it through its paces, find all its shortfalls and get to grips with its glory and sure enough there are plenty of shortfalls to write home about. For a start, it’s plastic. Anyone who loves the feel of paper in their hands, the reassuringly solid bend and sway of the book will notice the contrast of this cold, immovable material. But Kindle have thought of that. The range of covers for the Kindle, soften the feel of the gadget and to be fair, hardbacks have a very similar feel anyway. The Kindle is different, but it’s not worlds away from what we know already.
Another issue lies with the technology – it’s just not smooth enough. You ‘turn’ a page and the whole screen squints at you, as if you’ve woken it up from a bad dream. The awkward jolts take getting used to. For all its technology, the old fashioned book is still more sophisticated in this respect. And this is what the avid reader is watching out for. Holding on to books, is not just about holding on to old ways not easily relinquished. It is also about making sure we don’t let go of what is still the most efficient and the most advanced way of doing something and here, the Kindle falls short.
As a piece of software though, it starts to come into its own. The Kindle Touch allows you to look up words with a dictionary they’ve installed for you for free (you can choose from an American or an English dictionary), it allows you to search for words in a book, it will bookmark your page for you without you having to do anything, so that when you turn it back on, there you are, at the place you left off. It will also allow you to highlight text, make notes, read others’ notes if they’re available and even tells you how far through the book you are in percentage terms as you turn the pages. And rather brilliantly, it uses location as well as page numbers to help you find passages. The location tracker is a clever device – given that kindles vary in physical size, finding a page can be confusing, as your page 52 may be another’s page 89. So, location works on a more sophisticated tack – it will ‘locate’ the segment you’re reading, like a universal coordinate, so you can share it with others. You can even ‘loan’ your books to kindle buddies for a few days at a time, although you cannot read that book whilst it is on loan.
Yet even the software has its glitches. Despite buying a Kindle which is up to date with its software (and much like a pc you need to download updates every now and then), my Kindle Touch refuses to let me buy my books straight from the Kindle, as it insists that I need to update (which I don’t, having checked its spec, as per the guide, which is also conveniently loaded onto your Kindle). This means I will have to call up the help line, eventually. For the time being though, I’m enjoying buying books for as little as 70 pence from Amazon and watching it download at lightning speed onto my kindle.
But all the pros and cons got me thinking. Was I right to view the kindle as an intruder? Was it really part of a cycle of destruction in our species’ psyche or was it simply the future? I wondered how quill users must have felt when the pen made its debut. Did they too find fault with the future or did they embrace its offerings? Like my sweet friend, many of us have viewed paper books as ‘real books’ for such a long time, but are they really any more real than the books we read on laptops and gadgets like the kindle? Another kind friend who took part in the Kindle conversation on Twitter said “Nothing compares to the smell of old read pages of a cherished book”, a sentiment I share deeply, but unless we spill wine or perfume on these books, or travel with them, those imprints are emotional acts of worship to the written word. And we can worship that way, whether in print or in plastic.
This is something that must have occurred to Amazon’s CEO and founder, Jeff Bezos and he uses that same thought to market the Kindle. And it’s nothing short of genius. When you first start up your kindle, you receive a message in the form of a letter from Jeff. In this letter, he sets the tone for using the kindle. It’s a deft manoeuvre and one that certainly got us thinking, because in the letter he writes this rather magical sentence, “Our top objective was for Kindle to disappear into your hands – to get out of the way – so you can enjoy your reading. We hope you’ll quickly forget you’re reading on an advanced wireless device and instead be transported into that mental realm readers love, where the outside world dissolves, leaving only the author’s stories, words and ideas”.
Amazon’s Founder not only understood that he was reaching out to a tough audience, one that ultimately rates old-fashioned functionality over flash, but that in order to win them over, he would have to approach them quietly, with understated earnest. There are many ways he does that, including the astutely named whispernet, which is the name given to the kindle download process. But he also understood that he would have to play to their sense of imagination, too. And that is exactly what he does in that sentence, by placing the kindle subserviently into the hands of his consumers, asking them to ignore the product completely (whilst making sure to identify its strengths as a state of the art device) and to focus on what attracted them to the paper book in the first place – the story itself.
And that is where the genius of the Kindle lies. We read not because we want to hold the book, we hold the book, first of all, because we want to read. I am already attached to my kindle and it has only been with me for 24 hours. Having feared that it might ruin the reading experience or wear away at the integrity of the authors whom I’m reading on it, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the way the Kindle has carved a place in my life and in my heart. A little of that fear remains – although I can’t explain what my concerns are at this point, but perhaps I’m slowly letting go of something which may allow me to step into the future, without forgetting those reading roots that planted in me a desire to read and to see the world in words.