Light and Shadow: What will happen to books and reading in the Age of Kindle?
I had the opportunity to make use of a friend’s Kindle a fortnight ago.
Dear Reader, you may be shocked at my tardiness in coming to the most fashionable gadget in recent years. Indeed, in 2010, I fought off several offers of Kindle Christmas presents from the many friends and family who know very well my addiction to reading books.
I was aware of the vast library of free books and that was a temptation: having them in my pocket, rather than stuck on the hard drive, or only available with internet access. What struck me was the sleek design of the Kindle, its comfortable lightness and ease of use; but most impressive its screen technology, unglaring and flicker-free.
As my large Victorian terrace house will not accommodate more purchases of books it makes sense to switch at least some of my purchases to electronic copies for certain kinds of work. But I still have reservation and feel that the potential for ebooks is still in its infancy. But I do see astonishing positive opportunities, and fewer but nonetheless noteworthy negatives.
As I gaze into the future I am the first to admit that I have never been very good at prediction. I could not see why anyone would want to queue outside a bank, in the rain, just to gain access to your cash, when you could wait inside, speak to a cashier, and have your money handed to you in person. But self-service is now king in the World of Selves.
Let me say now that I don’t feel that Kindles and other ebooks will kill of traditional paper and hardbacks. There will still be a market for well-crafted books where the quality of the form matches the brilliance of the content. I would also admit here that many of my recent ‘hardback’ purchases have been poor examples of contemporary publishing: sloppy editing and layout, loose pages, poor paper, lack of illustrations, footnotes, an index, a bibliography …
Considering that production and delivery costs are negligible I see no reason why supporting material and resources, including colour illustration, cannot become an expected component of non-fiction ebooks. Here then is an opportunity for improved quality of content, and more of it.
A fair trade deal for writers
Epublishing and self-publishing also provide opportunities to reduce the role of parasitic intermediaries such as the publisher and shop. It has long been a topic of lamentation amongst writers of worthy but unpopular books that the author is paid a pittance for years of conscientious research, reflection and composition. In contrast to the shop prices, many writers are no better off than the coffee bean grower, paid a few cents from your $4 cappuccino. Surely it’s now time for a fair trade deal for authors too.
Nonetheless, I don’t predict that instantly available, cheaper and more dynamic ebooks will replace their traditional ancestors. There is uniqueness about the book as commodity and artefact which the Kindle clone world cannot utterly displace or diminish. There will also be nostalgia for the traditional product. And an appreciation of the art and craft element in book as object. Similarly Tape and CD looks cramped and uniform compared to the opulent canvas of Vinyl Records. And there will be purists who prefer the ‘warmth’ and glitchy individuality of the analogue to the bland reproducibility digital product.
But ebooks present a range of further opportunities for reading and writing that the traditional forms could not and will not offer.
First, we will see the development of enhanced reading, in which the text is not merely supplemented by, but integrated with other multi-media. If I am reading an ebook on the History of Rap, one click will allow me to place the examples featured in the book. Similarly colour illustration and video clips also become an affordable option for content, citation, and diversity of approach.
Second, improved opportunities for annotation are attractive for the many non-fiction readers who are studying or researching. Again the transition is toward a more active reading process. Of course I can still underline and comment in the margins of my paper copy, but the ease of use for multi-coloured highlighting, commenting, searching certainly facilitates the usability of the text. Add to that the possibility of communal annotation and we have further avenues for creative collaboration which would be a crime against the crisp clarity of the shared library book.
My third observation is that we will see publishers offering discounts to groups of readers who have formed into clubs because they enjoy the shared experience of reading, comment and criticizing texts. For those with minority interest, this affords opportunities for informed discussion across vast distances, and on a global scale. Note how the empowering effects of the technology present opportunities for a shift in human consciousness.
A further development of the third observation would be the book that can evolve through individual or collective participation. We are familiar with books having different editions, but these have become uneconomic for all but the most popular or scientific non-fiction. The ebook becomes a living organism rather than a stable and fixed cultural artefact.
A fifth observation, more radical, and perhaps a little disturbing, takes the openness a stage further and provides books with different openings, middles, or endings. Or characters and locations that readers can alter and transform. The book perhaps comprises flexible and shifting modules, components, and floating memes, susceptible to addition, deletion, or transformation. Books that reform and deform. Texts become deconstructing games, and the balance of creative effort shifts from ‘writer’ to ‘reader.’ What’s disturbing in this case is the demise of our long cherished notions of property, authorship and ownership, guaranteed by the commodity form of the book as a fixed and stable created object. What’s more disturbing, perhaps, is the need to recognize that the period of romantic authorship, which we may be on the verge of abandoning, persisted for less than three centuries in the history of human writing and thinking systems.
A sixth observation proposed an experience even further away from the notion of reader, writer and book as a one-to-one experience. As texts become a form of enriched and enhanced reality, a transition is made to animation and game technologies; to infinitely increased levels of interactivity and engagement. Perhaps the student textbook will prevent access to the next level, until questions have been answered correctly. Books that police our journeys through them and a corporate dream of remote learning beyond physical institutions.
And lurking behind the collective participation is the machine tracking our preferences and choices. Reading interrupted by pop-up ads designed to capitalize and monetize our tastes and preferences. Othello becomes a weekend trip to Venice, The Odyssey a Greek holiday opportunity. In this scenario ebooks and maybe even the readers are offered to us for ‘free’ but are colonized by tracking, tagging and selling; a minor sacrifice and self-willed infringement of the safe and private experience of reading that is now no more than a shadowy nostalgia for a lost time, a lost place.