I was delighted to learn about the announcement of Amazon’s Kindle in the past month or so. This wireless reading device uses electronic paper supposedly as easy on the eye as traditional paper. But with it comes the ability to connect to Amazon wirelessly to purchase your next book. You also get the ability to earmark pages, search for keywords, and most of what you would expect from digital text. I first got the news from Slashdot and clicked my way over to Amazon to learn more about it. If it were not for the $400.00 price tag, I would have ordered one that day. Why not sell it to me for $50, knowing that you have a captive audience who will be buying books for years to come? Either Amazon expected many people like me or there are plenty who think that $400.00 is reasonable, because the product is currently out of stock, selling out within six hours of the release.
Whatever the case, it is an impressive development, not simply because of the technology (there are similar products on the market) but because of the connectivity and access to 90,000 books that come with it. The idea isn’t new either. I remember earlier versions of digital book readers back in 1999- almost ten years ago people were already prophesying the demise of the book. Earlier readers were equally expensive, harder on the eyes, and much more bulky than the Kindle. And even with those versions there were schools considering purchasing sets for students, pondering implications for the future of education.
I fully expect that electronic paper will transform the way that we deal with the written word, but I figured that I would use the development of the Kindle to muse about reading in general. Neil Postman’s Technopoly had a section that recounted The Egyptian myth, The Judgment of Thamus. In it, the God Theuth presented a present to the wise King Thamus, the gift of writing. Rather than accepting the gift openly he expressed several reservations:
““Theuth, my paragon of inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. So it is in this; you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your off-spring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.”
I add that quote to my blog as I think about the thousands of books on my shelves, in boxes in my garage and basement, and the dozens that I check out from the library monthly. I consider the truth of Thamus’s predictions in my own development and I think about how often I am compelled to finish a book, even more than to understand it, learn from it, grow in knowledge or wisdom from it. I love books. I love the smell and feel of old books. I love the sensation of turning the pages, the joy of highlighting them and the satisfaction of quiet debates that I have with the authors in the margins, sometimes with the thought of a great grandchild coming across it and learning a bit about his deceased relative. In fact, I love books so much that, when I was reading a book about hobbies, I found myself drawn to a web site called http://www.bookcrossing.com/ ,where people leave books at places around the world and post a note on the site for others to find them. I quickly subscribed and, while I’ve yet to pick up or drop off a book, it is on my “to do” list.
Despite my love of the traditional book, the majority of my reading today is done online: emails, blogs, online journals, wikis, research reports and web sites. And I fully embrace the world of digital text, seeing many benefits to it, especially when reading for information, networking, collaborating and in an educational setting. The ability to search, cut, paste, reorganize, share, hyperlink, and mashup affords opportunities impossible with a traditional book. Despite all of those features, there is a flatness to digital text. The 1000 year old book looks just like the 10 day old book in the digital world. Besides that, there is no smell to digital books and spilt coffee risks doing more than leaving a stain or being a nostalgic footprint of your conquest.
I could go on about the differences between digital and paper books, but what I am ultimately describing is a cultural phenomenon. I have the perspective that I describe because of how I grew up, in a world of paper books (although I really didn’t start reading them until college). Books and their creators inspired me to love learning more than any class or school. But the world changed; with many people reading fewer and fewer paper sources, and more digital sources. There are plenty who are inclined to print out articles before reading them, but many more who have adapted to reading on the screen, despite what the research does or doesn’t tell us about the average attention span for reading on a screen. So, if I am right, Amazon is on to something. Despite the warnings of wise King Thamus, writing is here to stay, but the book may be less than a century away from the museums.
Since it is slightly on topic, I’ll finish this post with one of my favorite Youtube videos.