The Gutenberg Galaxy Goes Digital

How is the Kindle, along with other e-book devices, changing how we read books? Charlie Martin and Sarah Hoyt have recently discussed how it’s shaking things up for writers and publishers here at the Lifestyle blog, but what about the actual reader? Journalist Kate O’Hare, at her Accidental Futurist blog a few months ago, gave one indication:


Last year, I spent some time on Twitter musing about whether or not I should buy a Kindle to accompany me on a cross-country plane trip. In the end, I decided that it was just too pricey (this was before the smaller, lower-priced ones came out) and opted for audio-books downloads instead.

That worked fine, but when I came back, a kind pal gave me a Kindle DX — that’s the big one — as a gift.

I now read books. Old books. New books. Lots of books.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t read books before. I have always been a voracious reader and, in my time, have plopped down untold amounts of cash in bookstores and on

But the way I read books is different now.

I tried getting books from the library. One was on a list, but when I finally got it, it proved to be a dense tome and had to be read slowly. I couldn’t finish it in time, and since it was on a list, the library wouldn’t let me renew it.

That’s the last time I went to the library. I put this book on my Kindle for a very low price (it wasn’t a new release), so nobody can tell me how fast I have to read it.

Facing a long train ride but not wanting to spend a whole pile of money, I took advantage of the many free books available for Kindle download. I went the American-history route and got “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” “The Federalist Papers (Optimized for Kindle),” Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America, Volume 1 & Volume 2.”

Then, for fun, I threw on “Pride & Prejudice” and the complete works of William Shakespeare.

For very nominal fees, I’ve added a couple of Bibles, a pile of Oscar Wilde and “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.”

And that’s only a fraction of the classic works available for Kindle (and, one assumes, for Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the iPad and other devices) at low or no cost.


While I’ve never been that crazy about how the text of a book appears on the actual physical Kindle (one exception: the Kindle is readable in bright, direct sunlight, unlike many other devices), I love the freedom of mobility provided by the Kindle, and platforms with its software installed. It feels akin to those heady days when CDs began to replace LPs — I’ve made jokes with my wife recently about “analog” and “digital” books. Brian Eno once said that the record made music portable, taking it out of the realm of the concert hall and putting it everywhere — from your living room to (for better or worse) your earbuds.

Similarly, being able to read a book anywhere, and carry the digital equivalent of a massive stack of them onto an airplane via my Kindle, laptop or Android Tablet is a godsend. (Especially since I never know how bleary I’ll be once I get on a plane, I can raise or lower the brainpower my reading material requires accordingly without stuffing my carrying-on bag full of “analog books.”) Not to mention the opportunity to read while I’m on the treadmill at the gym, without worrying about wrecking the underlying book. Then there’s the ability, at least on my PC or laptop, to cut and paste text from a book into a blogpost rather than have to physically put a book into a scanner and OCR the whole thing, as I’ve done for a few blog posts. And pray that a word doesn’t become gobbledygook somewhere in the translation process.


The Kindle has also allowed me to free up space on my overflowing bookshelves. The London Independent takes that prospect to its natural conclusion, and wonders if the home library will become a casualty to the Kindle, which is one of their less preposterous predictions.

On the downside, as we rush into the world of electronic books, what happens if, say, Amazon’s server farm gets nuked (literally or figuratively). One group in Northern California is building the dead tree equivalent of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, in a case of real-life imitates the ending of Fahrenheit 451.

And what will happen to book covers? When LPs replaced CDs, the album cover went from being a work of art in itself to being a much smaller form. While record companies still invested in gorgeous cover designs well into the 1990s, in many cases, the point was lost if you couldn’t really make out the images. Since at least early in the 20th century, book publishers designed book jackets to help entice sales. You can see some of the more lurid — and fun — examples in the wonderfully titled ‘Breathless Homicidal Slime Mutants’ — the Art of the Paperback, a healthy slab of pulpy novel covers from the 1940s through the mid-1960s or so, all originally designed to pop off book store and newsstand shelves.

But today, if you’re a publisher who knows his company’s work is going to be mostly discovered via an online review or a search engine, does that create an incentive to dial back the expense of book cover design to the point of being almost an afterthought? And is relying on software such as Photoshop and Illustrator to design covers for e-books a throwback to the late ’60s and early 1970s, when every book cover seemed to look almost the same? (Those days certainly made life easy for a designer: set type in Helvetica, add abstract graphic image, move on to next project. Rinse and repeat.) Of course for that reason, perhaps “analog” books are about to become luxury items, given at birthdays and at Christmas, the equivalent of giving someone an expensive necktie or sweater. Or these days, a compact disc, for that matter.


As should be obvious by now, I think the plusses provided by e-books outweigh the negatives. But for a more Luddite point of view, naturally enough we can turn to the L.A. Times, for an article whose arguments are quite similar to those made when physical newspapers began to lose out to the Internet. Which dovetails into an observation that James Lileks made in a Ricochet podcast last year at the conclusion of the gang’s interview with Bill McGowan. McGowan is the author of Gray Lady Down, his postmortem for the New York Times, and Lileks noted that everybody longs for that nostalgic Annie Hall-like feeling of having the Sunday New York Times spread out alongside the bagels and orange juice on the kitchen table. Or as Marshall McLuhan, the source of this post’s headline, quipped decades ago, “People don’t actually read newspapers. They step into them every morning like a hot bath.”

Similarly, I think everybody has that memory of buying a book, or taking it out of the library, bringing it home, and taking it outside on a sunny weekend day to become utterly absorbed in it. Perhaps that tactile feeling is lost or greatly diminished with the Kindle, but the flexibility it provides offsets it in many ways.

At least I think so. But how has the Kindle, the Kindle software, or another brand of e-reader changed your reading experience? If you’ve made the leap, are you rushing off to replace your back catalog of “analog” books?


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