The Kindle, Part III: Love Song and After

Hello, readers! For the last two posts, I’ve discussed how I feel about one e-reader, the Kindle: my love and its diminishment. Well, today, I’ve going to discuss a category I hinted at in Part II: the role of book covers in how we feel about what we read. In a way, I feel like I’m betraying the text in doing this—I think of myself as a person to whom content matters, not image. Yet that is part of why I was somewhat surprised by my feeling that books seemed more generic in e-form than enclosed in covers dedicated to them. Analyzing the reasons for my surprise is, hey, part of the meta this blog is dedicated to.

Often, Kindle covers mirror those of the paper book. See for example, the two pictures snapped-from-my-own-Kindle covers of Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn and W.J.T. Mitchell’s Seeing Through Race.   (They are ghostly given Kindle’s limited palette, so I show the printed book cover image as well.)  Covers, of course, often give a nice visual symbol of the inside. Baker’s retelling of the events of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice through the eyes of the servants—a telling of their story, rather than that of Elizabeth and Darcy—is well represented by the stilted, partial view of a serving woman pictured just at the moment of walking into our view.

Longbourn

 

longbourn cover

 

 

 

Mitchell’s idea of race as a medium seen through, and his larger discussion of the role of media and frames in determining what we see, is nicely captured by a photograph that causes viewers to, well, use intervening media to see what might not be seen without it.

WJT kindle

Seeing through Race cover

 

 

 

 

But my re-picking up a Kindle has also led me to realize that an increasing number of e-books are opting for generic covers. See, for example, the cover of Laura Lippman’s mystery novel In Big Trouble, which seems to have been chosen to get across the idea that this is a, well, generic book.

Lippman

A cover like this doesn’t do justice to Lippman’s nicely individuated detective series, which is replete with vivid cultural detail about Baltimore and a feisty heroine who lives in the upper level of a bookstore (how’s that for symbolism!), and sculls on the Patapsco (http://www.lauralippman.com/).

Even so, In Big Trouble’s here-I-am-a-generic-book-cover has nothing on my download of Mary Seacole’s 19th-century autobiography The Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, which is almost horrifyingly generic.

secole

Indeed, I find the obliteration of Mrs. Seacole herself in favor of a mobile phone almost shocking. (Probably because in my dissertation life I work a lot with nineteenth-century slavery in the Caribbean and its related ideas of the circulation of people-as-commodities, as slaves were. When I first saw this cover I nearly fell over at what seemed to be an inadvertent symbolism—the mixed-race Mrs. Seacole as part of the circuits of exchange, just as a telephone would be.) To be fair, this is from the bibliophile and student’s friend, Project Gutenberg, (http://www.gutenberg.org), which allows downloads of many a free e-book. The cover is probably intended to represent the circulation of an e-book, not Mrs. Seacole. Mary_Seacole_Drawing

Still. Wouldn’t the drawing of her been a nice cover?

Where am I now with my Kindle? A fondness, not a love. It is convenient and wonderfully so. But it doesn’t contain the whole reading experience. For that, I still want physical pages, discrete objects, and covers.

I think my love, its cooling, and its partial reinstatement are representative of where we are now with the history of the book and digital humanities. No question that the digital humanities are a wonderful resource for many things: keeping vulnerable treasures intact in virtual form (old books, old scrolls and so forth) and enabling unprecedented access come to mind. But remember, physical books are also a technology for carrying knowledge. One that has worked for a very long time. The power of the physical book is not going away any time soon. Its younger sibling, the e-book, stands with it in a row of empowering technologies for spreading the word.

The Kindle, Part II: Why the Bloom Went Off the Rose

So readers, in Part I of this post, there I was, downloading books to my Kindle and loving it.

And then came a period in which most of my reading wasn’t available on e-books. (Although a lot of stuff is on Kindle, a lot also isn’t. So for a long time, my Kindle languished.)

Recently, I went back to it. To my shock…it no longer seemed like a Big Bright Book of Life. It seemed gray and nondescript. Even unworthy of holding so many multifaceted stories.

Why? I was anguished to think of something that had once given so much pleasure suddenly turning so…unappealing.

Well, several reasons, I think. And all of them very related to how we experience books, text, and book jackets. First, in the intervening period (about a year), I saw enough iPads to see what Genuinely Bright e-readers looked like. The bargain Kindle screen is a kind of grayish brown, rather than white.

Second, and more importantly, the text is undifferentiated in one container. Although each book downloads separately, of course, you as a (human) reader pick up just one object to access any number of books. In a new print book, by contrast, there is an anticipatory buzz in picking up a special object, neatly enclosed within covers designed specifically for it, that really doesn’t occur with a Kindle. I had just been in an extended period of reading books where every separate readable object I picked up was a separate narrative enclosed in covers specifically designed for it.

Covers, although secondary to the text, are highly important in giving a sense of the text—another level of anticipation. Covers exist as part of the download of an e-book, of course, but they are pictures on a screen rather than protective, encompassing borders between the book’s contents and the world.

Also, e-books often open to the first lines of text, bypassing the cover entirely. I have to specifically press buttons to go to the cover, rather than seeing it automatically, which makes the book less specifically identified.

And the third reason, the big reason, is related to the second. The all-together, undifferentiated container suddenly made all e-books within the Kindle look generic. I felt like I was engaged in some reading equivalent of buying generic paper towels at the Acme: reduced to an ugly package, a bare bones contract, and ultimately, contents that weren’t…quite…as…good.

And part of that was fed by the nature of the books I’ve been reading in the transition period between graduate school and new position. I have dealt with this period by reading an incredible amount of mystery novels. (I think the sense that there are clues and ultimately a satisfying ending comports well with the search for a job, actually—all tantalizing clues until the final piece of the puzzle—an offer—occurs.)

Mysteries are a kind of generic fiction, of course. A bad deed, investigators dedicated to seeing it punished, and a number of clues and strong plot (and good characterization, if you’re lucky). In that, they are like paper towels; you can buy very good ones or a bare minimum to meet the genre requirements. In book form, mysteries feel solid and have an exciting a new one quality, to me. In a Kindle, less so.

So I had a period of feeling trapped in the land of the generic paper towel, book division.

For more on book covers and their role in the e-book reading experience, see Part III, coming soon!

The Kindle, Part I: Love Song

Although this is an alt-ac blog, my intent is not only to discuss academia but to make public its concerns: to share stuff that I’m interested in and that people might like to read. A piece of this will be paying close attention to scenes of reading and writing and their uses in our life. The field I’m in—English—is highly invested in these scenes, and mediating their uses in the academy and the life beyond is one of the things I really love to do. (Indeed, at one point our department chair told me I should develop a brand—like a marketing brand—for myself, and what came to mind was: I’m The Incredible Reading Woman. This is a parenthetical digression, but since this is an alt-ac blog, alt-acs and postacs who have received similar advice might want to know that I found good info at the grad site maintained at Tufts: https://sites.tufts.edu/gradmatters/2013/01/04/a-graduate-student-guide-to-developing-your-professional-profile-part-3-for-professional-careers-in-industry-nonprofits-and-other-fields/. Ok, end of helpful digression.)

Today’s post is on a particular e-book, the Kindle, and my love for it. Then I’ll move to the next installment, and describe how the bloom came to be off the rose.

Three years ago, I bought a Kindle. The purchase was an experiment, designed to see if I liked reading books electronically. My plan was: download a ton of books, read them, and take copious notes. This would eliminate the need for typing up the notes, I felt, because all would be electronic.

From the first, I simply loved my Kindle as a reading device. Never mind note-taking (which, as it turns out, is as time-consuming as typing notes outright).

I loved my Kindle with a love that was almost embarrassing. See, I’ve always thought of books as a kind of Big Bright Book of Light. Knowledge, companionship, fun, pleasure. A portal to enchanted realms. Well, the Kindle literalized the big-bright-book-of-light-ness.

A lot of the conversations around History of the Book (http://www.sharpweb.org) and digital humanities in our field center around the differences and continuities between old and new media. Much popular media makes these out to be entirely different—as if the Web made Everything New. But the conversation is much more interesting. It can be argued, for example, that the current scene displays a lot of continuities with earlier periods rather than abrupt difference. Think, for example, of how e-mail more resembles letter-writing in the 18th and 19th centuries than voice/telephone methods. We are back to frequently written missives.

Well, here’s another continuity: reading with Kindle reminded me of the kind of immanent spirituality early Protestant England saw in everyone reading their own bible. As I learned it, stained glass was replaced with clear glass, and windows became larger, because incoming light filtered through plain glass facilitated reading.

I saw e-books as combining reading with the same ease of movement one has in one’s mind. Suddenly, books were unencumbered by the need to carry them and pay attention to their relative heaviness. This was a considerable boon to me. First, I checked a helluva lot of books out of the library. And academic books—heck, any books in the aggregate–are often very heavy. Two, when I took vacations I was in the habit of packing and sending books or carrying a very heavy load as I traveled. The Kindle simply took care of that: wealth and ease all in one.

Part II soon!