Last year I had students in one of my classes test an Amazon Kindle provided by the Information Technology Department. It provided a good opportunity to consider the differences between books and e-readers generally. We tend to forget that the printed book was, at first, a leap forward in technology. Its physical medium—relatively hard to come by during many periods of history—was an assemblage of paper and ink arranged in various manifold rectangular formats, and it operated via a binary system of black letters over a white background to convey coded information. Books deployed textual material more efficiently than did hand-written manuscripts, because books reached more people. And like any technology that exploits reproduction and repetition, books evolved. Since there were more readers, it became possible to use books for many new purposes, from printing the Bible in the vernacular (for which William Tyndale was strangled and then burnt at the stake in 1536), to writing Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (for which some punishment should have been devised but wasn’t). Most significantly, printed books constituted the first reliable technology for selling information, a process that has continued uninterrupted to the present day.
It is tempting to think that books and texts are two distinct entities, but this is an unjustified distinction. While the medium is perhaps not the whole message, a synergy certainly obtains between the apparatus of the text and the technology that frames and supports it. In the case of academic writing, 21st-century books usually contain bibliographies, relatively clear citations, explanatory notes, and a reasonably functional index. However, books published as recently as the early part of the 20th century lack some or all of these amenities, making reading them more difficult. Exceptions might be adduced, but the basic tendency has been toward making the life of the reader less challenging. A broadened readership demands ease of access to the information in a text as well as verifiability of its claims; both features add to the text’s monetary exchange value. In short, the physical machine that is a book (paper, ink, etc.) is simply the three-dimensional manifestation of the underlying abstract or social assemblage of textuality itself. The prevalence of printed books made literacy a necessary skill, even as increased literacy amplified the market for information sales. Everyone was a winner, except those who were too poor to become literate, or too illiterate to escape being poor.
Any good engineer will tell you that there is no worthwhile machine that consists merely in the sum of its physical parts. So it is not just a case of e-readers like the Amazon Kindle, which comprises valuable materials in sophisticated applications (semiconductors, precious metals, polymers), being a mere object that we can call a machine for transmitting texts. Just as the printed book was a symptom of the early industrial exploitation of mechanical reproduction, the Kindle is the effect of late-stage globalized information and marketing culture. In an educational setting, the Kindle supports certain trends: quick access to information, portability, and hypertext applications. All are becoming more and more necessary at every stage of an undergraduate or graduate career. Students who used the Kindle in my classes liked these aspects of it and, if anything, would like to have seen them intensified and broadened. Thus, while the Kindle provides quick access to texts, it does so only for certain texts chosen by the manufacturers. While it is portable, it could be smaller and more portable (I was testing an older model—the new Kindle 3G is indeed more compact). And while the Kindle uses hypertext, the coverage is spotty and a bit slow: it takes a few seconds to access a word definition or a linked note. Quite possibly the newer kindles are faster when it comes to this feature as well. The definitions and notes are written by human beings and are thus sometimes authoritative, sometimes not.
But it is the way in which the Kindle interacts with the abstract cultural or social assemblage of textuality that is of prime interest to the educator and student. The Kindle’s main drawback is that it allows one company to set limits on information and textual connection and exchange. This means that when Amazon makes the claim that the Kindle is revolutionary, in fact its effect is somewhat reactionary. For example, in my course on Literary Theory, some student usually volunteers to do a report on Judith Butler, a major current thinker. Searching Amazon, I found that while The Judith Butler Reader is available for the Kindle, a full text of her seminal work, Bodies that Matter, is lacking. Secondary works on scores of major theorists and thinkers from Freud to Foucault are also conspicuous by their absence. That these texts are available at the library is irrelevant if a student is using Kindle as the primary reading platform.
The disciplinary and control mechanisms extended by Amazon and embodied in the Kindle serve to divide information up into chunks that can then be retailed to the reading public. I do not mean to fault Amazon for behaving like an international corporation, but it would be folly to see in the Kindle a solution to the problem of literacy or a hope of significantly broadening the life of the mind. In fact, one might aver that because the physical machine itself costs more than what would be a month’s pay in most post-western countries, the Kindle could be said to present yet another obstacle to intellectual progress. The European and North American upper middle class will use the Kindle’s conveniences to increase the literacy gap in their own country as well as globally. This does not mean, again, that one should nourish grudges against the developers of the Kindle; they are the not the cause of a society of global marketing and information control. Rather it remains essential to keep aware of the relationships among textuality, knowledge, information, literacy, and the economic condition of the world’s population. E-readers are here to stay; the question is really what form(s) they may take. It seems to me that there will be development, expansion, and trickle-down. First textbooks will go fully online, and eventually devices like the Kindle will be assimilated into phones, PC’s, and MP3 players. Alas, none of this will significantly change human nature, although finding leisure time to curl up with a cup of tea and an old-fashioned—possibly antique—book may become the ultimate luxury, a moment of nostalgia available only to those who can afford to escape the electronic web.