Birkerts on the Kindle

A recent article by Birkerts about his resistance to Amazon’s kindle and his concerns for the shift from page to screen. Should sound familiar.

Critic and essayist Sven Birkerts comments on what we lose in the page-to-screen transfer

by Sven Birkerts

Resisting the Kindle

The Amazon Kindle—a “new and improved” version of which has just been released—comes on like a technology for our times: crisp, affordable, hugely capacious, capable of connecting to the Internet, and green. How could one argue with any of that? Or with the idea, which I’ve heard voiced over and over, that it will make the reading of texts once again seductive, using the same technology that has drawn people away from the page back to it.

Why, then, am I so uneasy about the page-to-screen transfer—a skeptic if not a downright resister? Perhaps it is because I see in the turning of literal pages—pages bound in literal books—a compelling larger value, and perceive in the move away from the book a move away from a certain kind of cultural understanding, one that I’m not confident that we are replacing, never mind improving upon. I’m not blind to the unwieldiness of the book, or to the cumbersome systems we must maintain to accommodate it—the vast libraries and complicated filing systems. But these structures evolved over centuries in ways that map our collective endeavor to understand and express our world. The book is part of a system. And that system stands for the labor and taxonomy of human understanding, and to touch a book is to touch that system, however lightly.

The electronic book, on the other hand, represents—and furthers—a circuitry of instant access, which giveth (information) as it taketh away (the great clarifying context, the order). This will not be an instant revolution. Paradigm shifts take time. Right now the Kindle still lives within the context of print. But what would happen if, through growing market share and broad generational adoption, the Kindle were to supplant the bound book? For me the significance of this is not whether people end up reading more or less, or even a matter of what they read. At issue is the deep-structure of the activity. My fear is that as Wikipedia is to information, so will the Kindle become to literature and the humanities: a one-stop outlet, a speedy and irresistibly efficient leveler of context.

Literature—our great archive of human expression—is deeply contextual and historicized. We all know this—we learned it in school. This essential view of literature and the humanities has been—and continues to be—reinforced by our libraries and bookstores, by the obvious physical adjacency of certain texts, the fact of which telegraphs the cumulative time-bound nature of the enterprise.  We get this reflexively.

But reflexes are modified by use and need. As Marshall McLuhan argued decades ago, technology changes reflexes, replacing them with new ones. Our rapidly evolving digital interface is affecting us on many levels, not least those relating to text and information. We read and absorb as the age demands, and our devices set the pace. I was in a crowd at a poetry reading recently, eavesdropping on the conversation behind me. Somebody referenced a poem by Wallace Stevens but couldn’t think of the line. Her neighbor said “Wait—” and proceeded to Blackberry (yes, a verb) the needed words. It took only seconds. Everyone bobbed and nodded—it was the best of all worlds.

My response was less sanguine. I imagined an info-culture of the near future composed entirely of free-floating items of information and expression, all awaiting their access call. I pictured us gradually letting go of Wallace Stevens (and every other artist and producer of work) as the historical flesh-and-blood entity he was, and accepting in his place a Wallace Stevens that is the merely the sum total of his facts—a writer no longer cohering in historical imagination but fragmented into retrievable bits of information. Turning up a quote by tapping a keyboard is not the same as, say, going to Bartlett’s—it short-circuits all contact with the contextual order that books represent. As I see it, the Kindle ethos—offering print by subscription, arriving from a vast, undifferentiated cyber-emporium out there—abets the decimation of context.

I concede, this view is apocalyptic. The Kindle is just a device and the Kindle experience is still mainly about text and reader (and convenience and cost-savings)—I know that. But we should not forget that the sum of reader-text encounters creates our cultural landscape. So if it happens that in a few decades—maybe less—we move wholesale into a world where information and texts are called onto the screen by the touch of a button, and libraries survive as information centers rather than as repositories of printed books, we will not simply have replaced one delivery system with another. We will also have modified our imagination of history, our understanding of the causal and associative relationships of ideas and their creators. We may gain an extraordinary dots-per-square-inch level of access to detail, but in the process we will lose much of our sense of the woven narrative consistency of the story. That is the trade-off. Access versus context. As for Pride and Prejudice—Austen’s words will reach the reader’s eye in the same sequence they always have. What will change is the receiving sensibility, the background understanding of what this text was – how it emerged and took its place in the context of other texts—and how it moved through the culture.

The Kindle is not the Devil’s calling card—it makes all kinds of sense as a technology. And it won’t by itself undo centuries-old ways of doing things, or precipitate anything that isn’t already poised to happen. But we misjudge it if we construe it as just another useful new tool.


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