A new chapter for readers and writers

Although a believer in books, Tara Brabazon welcomes Amazon’s wireless reading device and its potential to transform reading and researching

March 13, 2008

I came from a house with few books. Old Encyclopaedia Britannicas and a large white dictionary were well-worn tools of my school years. But public libraries were crucial to my education. The university library was a citadel, cathedral and lolly shop. Some of the most precious moments in my late teens and early twenties were spent wandering around the stacks, taking out books and thinking about how knowledge is structured through numbers, spaces and shelves. It was quiet. It was solitary. It was transforming.

Reading was not a pleasure, but a necessity. It was the way to become a person that I was not, to live a vicarious life of possibility and excitement. My first professor, the historian Richard Bosworth, proclaimed in my first university lecture: “From this point forward, you will read six books a week, every week, for the rest of your life.” Stunned silence in the hall. But there were only two options: comply or leave.

Education was not pleasure. But it was important. There was never any doubt that we were privileged to be reading books, ideas and theories that had changed the world. In sharing this history, we had a chance to move forward in our own lives and as a community of scholars.

Our universities – and our students – have changed. This transformation offers opportunities for renewal, but it also creates a gulf of expectation between academics and the scholars in our care. I once reported Bosworth’s comments to my first-year students more than a decade later. They were stunned. One young man said that he had not read six books in his entire life. A young woman asked if reading the same book – a Harry Potter book (it had to be, didn’t it?) – six times counted in that total.

Changes in reading, thinking and teaching are not the problem: how we manage this movement is the key. I am a believer in books and committed to ideas on paper. Most of our students are not. That lack of shared passion does not mean that academics should stop conveying the passion of ideas, the gift of great words and the debt we owe to other writers. It does mean that we must establish effective curriculums that move students into an environment where they are safe and secure, but also challenged, questioned and probed about their lives, ideas and attitudes to the word and the world.

Reading from a page is different from scrolling on a screen. As long as we are conscious of these differences, high-quality scholarship can be produced. But the publishing industry has also ridden this rupture between page and screen, print and text, turning and clicking. Publishing has been waiting for its “iPod moment” – a crack in an industry that destroys past protocols and platforms and transforms the relationship between product and consumer. E-books had promise but stalled. The Sony Reader failed.

The reason for these disappointments is that books are analogue. They have been a stable and functional platform – and therefore the “failure” of the digital age – for a reason. The book is matched well to its project: it is intimate, mobile, durable and effective. Our eyes glide over the page. The paper, spine, cover and binding disappear.

Music and video have worked well on mobile digitised platforms. The difficulty in digitising books is how to display words. With the improvements in electronic paper and electronic ink, comfortable reading is possible on a high-resolution screen with no backlighting. Once the design, navigation and display issues were resolved, Amazon’s Kindle could be released. The e-commerce firm that understood the relationship between analogue and digital, books and convergence, may also change reading.

The advantages of the Kindle wireless reading device are clear. It is self-standing, not requiring a computer as a dock for updating, as is the case with the iPod. Actually, it resembles a telephone more than a computer. It uses EVDO, a high-speed data network, to create a Whispernet and is not reliant on wireless hotspots. A dictionary is resident on the platform. As with e-books, the interior text can be searched and bookmarked. For specific communities of readers, font size and type can be changed, and audio books are supported. It is mobile: long trips by train or aeroplane can be accompanied with books, just as the iPod provides a soundtrack. For publishers, the Kindle has enough features to make it financially viable: books are never out of print or stock and initial print runs never have to be approximated. Also, new authors can be discovered. First chapters of books are available to download for free, ensuring that digitised sampling can replicate a bookshop browse.

For consumers – rather than readers – of books, there are great advantages in wireless delivery. We can watch a programme, listen to a podcast or read a review and buy the book immediately, with delivery in 60 seconds. Also, the Kindle weighs less than 300g. For those of us with semi-permanent lower back strain from years of carrying books, our ligaments may have a chance to recover.

For more ephemeral, leisure-based reading, the Kindle seems ideal. Newspapers and magazines, already transformed through the web, now have a new paid digital delivery option. The New York Times can be fed to the Kindle overnight so it can be read with morning coffee. By working with the great strengths of digitisation – searchability, compression, convergence, wireless connectivity and immediate gratification through downloadable consumerism – opportunities for new modes of reading are created.

There are losses when dropping the physicality of books. There is no desire or strategy to link this individualised reading project to public libraries. The Kindle is a personal reader, ensuring that affluent consumers will increase their reading options, platforms and purchases. The commodification of (public and free) information into individualised downloads increases through the Kindle.

Perhaps surprisingly, heavy readers have shown the most resistance to the project. Amazon boasts that 90,000 books are available for the Kindle, and it bases its future business on ensuring that The New York Times bestseller list is downloadable. When recalling Richard Bosworth’s early interventions in students’ lives, 90,000 books is not an impressive number. My personal library holds 10,000 texts, and it grows at a rate that threatens the foundations of my house. Kindle is based on popularity and mass market publishing, as found in The New York Times bestseller list. I am not interested in The New York Times bestseller list. Kindle includes wireless access to Wikipedia. I do not need wireless access to Wikipedia. I would prefer to stir-fry my own small intestines than to have continual access to a site where the entry for Klingon is longer than the entry for Latin.

The other problem for scholars is that the Kindle holds only 200 titles at one time. In the advertising campaign, this is a huge number, replicating the attitudes of my young students who cannot imagine reading six books in lifetime, never mind a week. But I would use many more titles to write a single article or a book chapter, let alone a more sustained research project. Amazon promotes two solutions to this problem. An optional memory card is available. Also, every downloaded book is saved online in Amazon’s Your Media Library. That is a great initiative. Anyone who has lost an iPod or changed computers knows how finicky it is to move iTunes libraries between platforms. However, the necessity to transfer material off the Kindle and on to Your Media Library – and back – is a weakness of the project. The size of the Kindle hard drive is the most urgent improvement necessary for the project to succeed.

Academics are no corporation’s target market. A customised academic Kindle could use some general features but in a different way. While it does not hold sufficient books for a research project, it is valuable as a holder – and delivery bay – for electronic journal articles. These smaller documents could saturate the Kindle for the duration of a task and then be saved on Amazon’s storage facility.

The other function – which has great academic benefit and is not mentioned in the promotional literature – is the possibility to e-mail Word documents with pictures to the Kindle so they can be viewed while travelling. Therefore, it has a strong editing and proofing function for those of us working on our own projects who are reticent – because of security issues – to lug our laptops around the world.

The Kindle’s obvious audience is readers of fiction, particularly Oprah’s Book Club. But the mobility of a finite number of scholarly documents, when combined with wireless access to the Kindle store, will be the value. It will be a personal travelling database of materials for research.

Although reading may change through the Kindle, so may writing. The surprise of the iPod was that it rejuvenated the dying singles market while destroying the CD-based album in the process. Remarkable creativity emerged from this change. Not only singles, but remixes, live releases, DJ sets, even pre-mixed exercise music, all gained an audience. While the long tail is a cliché, it lives and breathes on iTunes. The Kindle may refire poetry, short stories, investigative journalism, book reviews and serials, delivered wirelessly and like a podcast. It is an ideal way for writers at the margins of profitability – poets, freelance journalists and short-story writers in particular – to gain a wage and an audience. Like the single, the Kindle may be a new platform for consuming shorter prose genres.

Like all digital revolutions, these transformations and opportunities are available to the affluent few and the geographically fortunate. Those who live beyond Kindle’s electronic pages are excluded and invisible. At present, only citizens of the continental US can use this device. The rest of the world can merely look through the virtual shop window at its potential.

The Kindle will not replace books. It will transform particular modes of reading, researching and publishing. Portable media make different demands of readers, writers and listeners. It is not equivalent to analogue reading. It is not better or worse. It is different. Kindle’s name confirms this distinction. Amazon’s Tieresius – Jeff Bezos – reports that his product is meant to start a fire for reading. Once more, we may be disappointed at the gates of electronic books. Perhaps, in this digitised kindling, there is a spark for both change and preservation.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies at the University of Brighton.

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