Sunday, October 11, 2009

Where the Kindle really falls down

I wish somebody would give me a Kindle or an Ereader or whatever they're called. I'd love to have a go. That's not to say that I believe they're going to take over like iPods have done. I can see why companies would want to see them adopted. I can see why some early adopters might want them. But I can't get my head round their one major shortcoming. Most books and magazines are read in public. In the act of reading something in public with the cover facing outwards we are advertising ourselves and our attitudes. We do it so much we don't even think of it anymore. It's the most complex and powerful sign language we know. It explains why I wouldn't wish to be seen reading a book that was repackaged to reflect the TV adaptation of some classic. It explains why there is nothing on earth more powerful than an attractive woman on the tube with her nose in a serious book, or at least a book that isn't obvious. It explains why that middle-aged lady sitting across from me is reading a dog-eared leather-bound edition of the Psalms or that young black man is wielding a copy of a book about being a young black man. A couple of years ago I read Ian Fleming's "Casino Royale" in a handsome retro edition. I felt like dangling a sign on its spine saying "Of course I read James Bond long before most of you were born and I'm catching up with this because I've never read it and I'm told it is the essence of the original character. Do I look like the sort of person who's reading it because I've seen the film?"

Reading a book in public is an advertisement for ourselves or the millions of other selves we would like to adopt. How can a brushed metal blank or a piece of nice smooth plastic begin to compete with that?


  1. It can also be a good way of striking up a conversation on long train journeys, whether you're the reader or the observer. I've done that over books as different as Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Philip Pullman (don't remember which one), Bill Bryson's science book and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. A simple, fairly banal comment like 'Good book, isn't it?' has triggered off long talks with some very interesting people. Can't do that if you can't see what they're reading.

  2. Agree with you totally - I've struck up many a conversation on trains and in bookshops themselves over a shared novel, but in our house, we've identifed a use for a Kindle.

    We now have limited shelf space - having already filled 7 massive Billy bookcases, we don't wish to get any more.

    So, in an effort to cut back, we would buy the books that we consider slightly more disposable via Kindle - this would mean that they would no longer clog up charity shops once finished.

    This obviously doesn't deprive authors of any money and, let's face it, there are enough dog-eared, unloved copies of Dan Brown/Lisa Jewell floating around the world of second-hand bookshops already.

  3. I had a Sony ebook reader for a while.

    I had similar thoughts about the lack of cover and wondered if later versions might stick this digital paper stuff on the outside of the device too.

    This would also have the handy benefit of being able to pretend you're reading something worthy whilst slurping down the latest Dan Brown.

  4. DH: can't see why they can't have a screen in the back like some phones have, so you can show of your erudition and taste to the world. You could choose which cover you have, do I want the 1984 1984 penguin or the 1964...?

    Oh and Huw spare me from people on train wanting to talk to me about my book. Surely the fact I'm reading shows I don't want to be distrubed, read your own book or look out the window.

  5. Andrew Harrison12:15 pm

    There will be a six-month window in which actually having the Kindle at all will be a reason to show it off on the train, like when iPods first came out. As for starting conversations, "Oh, you've got a Kindle then" will probably wear thin pretty quickly.

  6. BLTP: The comment just creates the opportunity to talk. If I/they don't want to chat a polite rebuff can usually be managed without offence being caused.

  7. "It explains why there is nothing on earth more powerful than an attractive woman on the tube with her nose in a serious book, or at least a book that isn't obvious."

    Nail/head interface there, Mr. Hepworth. I've tried to explain to many people that it's the most alluring thing in the world, but with little success. Clearly, bonus points are awarded if they're wearing a Summer dress.

    Though, I'm not sure how I feel about people judging you by your choice of literature. I'm currently reading James Palumbo's Tomas, which has the tagline on the back, "There's nothing except money and sex". What a well-rounded individual I must seem to be.

  8. Richard Edgley12:35 pm

    Technology has in many cases changed the way we interact with media - the iPod & Spotify to music, the Internet to almost everything, DVDs, iPlayers, laptops... the list goes on. Now I could be very wrong, but I think that books in their current format will be around for a lot longer.

    I completely agree with you about reading a book in public and what it says about us or what we want people to think about us. But I think there are other reasons too. There are numerous practical reasons - try reading the screen in bright sun, on a sandy beach or near a pool. Cost is also a big factor. The paperback book seems to me to be the last true innovation in publishing, and that had a hugely democratic effect. More people could afford to buy them and have access to literature.

    I also think that there is a big emotional connection to books. I love the smell, the feeling of the paper, the intimate connection as you read. I love building a collection and seeing them in the bookcase... they are not only memories of a good read, but also of a holiday, how you were feeling when you read it. I used to think the same way about records and CDs (I kind of still do), but the benefit of having my music on demand whenever I want is obvious. The same cannot be said for books.

    Don't get me wrong, I think the Kindle and their like have a purpose and I would like to have a play. But as you say, they will not replace books.

  9. Richard Edgely you fundamently misunderstand how communication tecnologies intereact. When a new one comes along if it offers something new all that happens is the others in the field move along to make space. Books won't disappear the same way live music wasn't killed off by the phonograph. Every form of communication ever invented is still with us in some form, the text message is just the modern form of the telegram. Kindle and their like will find their space and yes will take sales from books but books will stay.
    Oh and I'm getting worried about all these people sniffing and rubbing up next to books! And as Victoria Coren says today in the paper books are bit ruined if you drop them in the pool!

  10. NomadUK1:22 pm

    It explains why there is nothing on earth more powerful than an attractive woman on the tube with her nose in a serious book

    God, yes.

  11. David - you've just identified a potentially lucrative market for "Kindle-Socks" - designer plastic dust jackets for Kindles. You could slip on a "Kierkegaard Sock" on the Central Line for example but secretly be reading Dan Brown's latest.

    I may be able to cut you in on a percentage of the royalties.

  12. "that young black man is wielding a copy of a book about being a young black man."

    Did his blackness give away something? Could he not have been interested in this book without being a young black man.

    When I spot a middle aged white man reading a book about being a or for middle aged white man; Nick Hornby, Tony Parson etc do I think that explains why that middle aged white man is reading that book for middle aged white men. No I don't. I see him as a man reading a book. White folk with insights into motives and soul of black folk- not your terra firma

  13. I was referring to what I'd call "lifestyle reading". Young white women in their twenties reading books about young white women in their twenties etc. There are lots of examples of this.
    Oddly enough I never see a middle aged white man reading a book by Tony Parsons or Nick Hornby. Usually women. But that's another story altogether.

  14. No one's invaded Poland as they say.
    Still does his blackness inform his choice of book or is his blackness a lifestyle choice ?
    I found you via Old batsman who blog rolls me as

  15. Anonymous2:57 pm

    Just wat until the Kindle's battery expires just as you're about to reach the denouement!

  16. I agree - it will be a sad day when you look around a tube carriage and see only an array of anonymous grey devices.

    I think we've lost some of that with music in the same way... it seemed easier and more natural to rifle through someone's record collection and get a feel for who they were than to squat down and peer at the spines of jewel cases. And now that so much music is downloaded direct to device, even those signifiers are denied us.

    It connects to why I also feel uncomfortable about Spotify and similar streaming concepts. I feel I want to *own* music, not just to listen to it, but at least in part because I want to show other people what it is that I consider valuable enough to buy and keep - not to promote my extraordinary taste but because it's another channel by which we (used to) make connections.

    Commentary on the latest Nick Hornby by this middle-aged white man currently on my blog, if you're interested. (I wouldn't be seen dead reading Tony Parsons, by the way).

  17. paul K4:48 pm

    Isn't this just what we used to do with LPs back in the days? 12" LPs were so big you had no choice but to carry them and announce to the world the music you were listening to. The album you carried spoke, if you will forgive the pun, volumes about you. This role of the LP sleeve as taste statement waned with the CD, and has vanished with the iPod.

    (But people are still listening to the music...)

  18. Surely there is nothing like a hardback ( thanks amazon). I do love a ribbon bookmark

  19. I remember reading all of George Orwell's other novels and essays before I finally got around to '1984' because I didn't want to seem obvious.

  20. Anonymous9:04 am

    "Most books and magazines are read in public."

    Magazines, perhaps, maybe, possibly, but books? Dunno what research you're basing that on, David. A study that discounts anything that happens inside the bedroom, I imagine.

    Anyway, anyone seriously choosing what to read on the Tube based on what its cover says about them has to be a twit of the shallowest order. It brings to mind the 'adult' and 'child' editions of Potter, and simultaneously a tide of bile to my throat.

    The revolutions of the hand cart's wheels continue to accelerate.


  21. Get ready for them: eBook readers will allow the magazine and newspaper publishing industries to charge a subscription for their wares and the technology may be the only possible saviour for the entire business. I suspect the next few years will see a sustained campaign in print to get these devices to take off, the likes of which has never been seen before. Where iPods and Twitter have given journalists something to write about, to the point of tedium, eBook Readers will give them nothing less than continued careers. If you're not interested in hype about why you should buy one, I warn you not to open a magazine or newspaper for the next few years.

  22. Anonymous11:16 am

    Want space on the Tube? Try reading The Koran.

  23. Interesting.

    I remember feeling the same when MP3 players emerged; that I would never want to forego the experience of browsing in records shops, buying CDs aand unwrapping and playing them when I got home.

    Of course, I now have an iPod and thousands of MP3s.

    In the case of books, on the other hand, there are two things I won't give up, the smell of a new book and, yes, the proven pulling power of the subtly but strategically positioned book cover in a public place.

  24. For me, it's the weight, feel and smell of the cardboard and paper that I love. However, even two year's ago I couldn't see me getting all my music from downloads, but it's happened. Perhaps Kindle release 5.0 will have a colour front cover so that others can see what we've downloaded?

  25. I want a splatter-proof one for my kitchen. Recipe books and cocktail books (ludicrously over-specced - hardbound, endless glossy full colour) cry out to be delivered in electronic form. You could search based on more than one ingredient, include how to' videos etc etc...

  26. Wasn't it Douglas Adams who said sharks have survived so long because nothing is as good at being a shark as a shark (or words to that effect). It's the same with paperback books - nothing does the job as well. And apologies to the interviewee in a long past edition of Word Magazine who first made this point and whose name I have completely forgotten.

  27. Sorry, I'm a bit late to this one but think there are quite a few issues going on here.

    1. Books aren't going anywhere fast but they will decline in popularity.

    2. The proportion of erotic fiction titles available on the kindle is disproportionate to amazon's general catalogue which would suggest people sometimes like to hide what they're reading (I know I do, mostly with books with innapropriate titles/shit covers).

    3. Amazon can easily add a LED screen with scrolling text indicating what's being read. It won't be long before it'll scroll across our t-shirts if we want it to (no thanks).

    4. When it comes to digital media not allowing us to display our 'brand'/what we're into, I'd argue that the growth in blogging is a direct result. As we lose physical clues we create virtual means of self-expression.

    Make sense?