Tonight I took a brief break from reading Infinite Jest--and time is pressing on that front, because my copy is due back at the library Sunday and I can't renew it again--to read Nicholson Baker's wonderfully insightful New Yorker piece, "A New Page."
Baker caused a kerfuffle in my professional circles several years ago, when he lamented in Double Fold about how many libraries and archives were abandoning their print newspaper collections in favor of microfiche and microfilm. Part of his argument was that the aesthetic experience of reading on microfilm/fiche is not nearly as enjoyable as reading print papers (this is definitely true); he also didn't think that the micro-solutions were as durable in the long term as librarians and archivists argued. This last point is more debatable, and in 20o1 the Society of American Archivists (for example) vigorously entered the fray.
So I came to Baker's newest piece with some healthy skepticism, figuring that he would bash the Kindle without giving it a fair chance. But that's not the case. He actually is hard on the Kindle, but after giving it a very thorough evaluation and doing lots of research.
Various elements of the critique: the screen doesn't do well with photographs or figures, even in the new-and improved Kindle 2; there are many books you can't yet read on a Kindle; there is no light for reading in the dark; no stand for putting it by your plate while you're eating dinner; that it really is not like reading on paper, and don't believe the hype; and--most importantly--that there are no open standards to make it easy for the Kindle to operate with other ebook readers.
Amazon has built a completely closed box, designed with the exclusive goal of selling to the individual consumer. (Libraries that want to use Kindles for interlibrary loans, which is a brilliant idea, are probably violating the terms of service.) Meanwhile, Sony's much more open Reader (you can read a half million public domain books on it) has a hard time generating any buzz.
And let's not forget: Baker wrote this article before the truly chilling develpment of Amazon's selective removal of books from the Kindle--including the censorship of 1984!--came to light. I guess that's what happens when you rely on a proprietary toy to deliver your books.
But that's what people are doing, so we can't put our heads in the sand and long for the good old days. Baker concludes that he's better off downloading the free Kindle app to his iPod Touch, because he can read it in the dark and it's very easy to scroll through the pages. The capital K Kindle is a disappointing, but little k kindle works. The fact that he values this option shows that he's not a Luddite, lending even more strength to his critique of big K's flaws.
While I can recommend Baker's piece, I do have some reservations about the more generic critiques of electronic readers that are floating about. Particularly in literary circles--I go to a lot of readings, since I know a lot of writers--there is an unseemly fetish for paper.
So allow this this reader proclaim: Good writing is good writing, whatever the mode of delivery.
That said...print culture has evolved in exquisite ways since the invention of the printing press, and it will take a long time for our comparative clunky digital media to catch up. But today it's easy to forget that standards for publishing books took a long time to mature post-Gutenberg. And anyway, I bet the scroll makers were plenty peeved when Gutenberg impetuously unleashed the printing press on Europe.
But we still have scrolls for special occasions. Likewise with the Kindle and whatever comes next--even fully mature ereaders won't end print books. I'll never take a Kindle in the bathtub, but with print it's no problem. And book jackets inspire pleasant conversation with strangers, as my recent experience with Infinite Jest attests. Finally, I'd loan you a book much more readily than I'd loan you a Kindle or Reader.
So while it's bracing to worry about the death of the printed book, I just don't see it happening. The new often learns to coexist with the old. But in the meantime I hope the Kindle evolves into something that is less censorship-prone and more flexible. I'll probably keep on hoping.