Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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In Defense of the Kindle Culture

Res Publica

August 2012

by James Velasquez

“Kindle.” It is an odd sort of name to give something that many people believe is destined to replace the printed book as our primary means of consuming literature. We cannot help but conjure up this image of books being devoured by fire – for some of the more outspoken critics, it would perhaps be appropriate to include a copy of Fahrenheit 451 with every purchase. In some ways, this is far from unfounded. While it’s true that our streets aren’t littered with stacks of charred books and used matches, substantial changes are taking place. Perhaps the most iconic event came in February of this year with the declared bankruptcy of Borders bookstores – putting an end to 40 years in the business of printed books. As readers, this certainly calls us to consider what the future of literature is going to look like.

So we must ask – why e-books? Some people are able to wax poetic about the beauty of owning a book. They can feel pages turning, smell the ink on paper, hear the cracking as one opens some ancient tome. It is this ability to dog-ear pages, jot in margins, post-it paragraphs; in so many ways, the ability to actually do something like “live in” the book. For these readers, physical ownership actually has something to do with their ability to participate in that which is written. It is not that what is written differs in any serious way from that which is written in an e-book – it doesn’t – but rather that the medium itself has some virtue which cannot be matched in any other way. Before looking at the larger benefits of e-readers, then, this concern must be addressed.

We see immediately that some of these points are not exclusive to the printed book. Dog-ears and highlights, for instance, have been replicated by e-readers in multiple ways; it is simply a matter of selecting a page or section of text. Post-its and note-taking is handled similarly: bring the cursor to the desired point, and start typing. Indeed, some devices have even made use of a stylus pen so readers can write instead of type – a more “authentic” experience. As technology improves, we can only imagine the
process becoming more interactive and user-friendly.

In the area of smell or touch, however, it does seem that we must concede the point. But before doing so, let us first meditate on simple fact: a book is ink and paper. Before that, men etched in slabs and on tablets – before that still, on cave walls or in the ground. Yet, while I am sure that we can never over-estimate the human love for things “as they have always been” done, I do not think many people would stand to reinstate the method of our Paleolithic ancestors. Why, then, should we show some special attachment for the printed book? The simple fact of history is that the medium has evolved to fit the need, and books are no exception. That we continue to muse over the profundity of print is an expression of our vanity – not depth or insight.

With all of that said, what great advancement ought to justify the rise of the e-reader – this “Kindle Culture?” To apply a phrase, we might call it the further “democratization of knowledge.” Abraham Lincoln, in an 1859 speech to Illinois College, told us that “writing – the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye – is the great invention of the world.” A people that does not write loses connection, both internally and externally, with both past and future. Can we even imagine the difference in scope between an oral tradition and that which can be held, analyzed, and translated by and for others? One constant fact we are given to measure the success of a piece of literature is how many languages it has been translated into; put in another way, how many minds it has the opportunity to touch. Each time we read Aristotle, for instance, we owe it entirely to this invention – even Socrates would have been lost to history without his Plato, Xenophon, or Aristophanes.

This, however, fails to do Lincoln justice. He goes on to say that, in “consideration of printing, it is plain that it is but the other half – and in real utility, the better half – of writing.” Why is this? Lincoln tells us that, before printing, “only a small portion of the people… could write, or read writing.” The introduction of print brought on a radical change, however, and “consequently a thousand minds were brought into the field where there was but one before.”

It becomes clearer, now, precisely what Lincoln is getting at. Reading, the process of taking in ideas – having conversations – by function of one’s sight, became steadily more democratic. What once belonged to the few now found its way into the hands of the people as a whole; education followed availability, and today we have a level of literacy unparalleled in the history of the world. Can anyone doubt the correlation between the growing availability of literature since the dawn of print – what Lincoln called the “true termination of that period called ‘the dark ages’” – and mankind’s progress in physical science, politics, and other branches of knowledge?

This protest against the Kindle and other e-readers is connected to some old notion that there exists a “right” way of reading which is known by the relatively few – an artistic, perhaps aristocratic understanding of literature. Those who defend the Kindle seem to understand the purpose of writing differently: it is a means to extend the gift of literature – gifts of art, of invention, philosophy, politics, and so much more – to the people as a whole. We assume that the individual merits an opportunity to expand his knowledge as far as he is willing and capable – that it is the dissemination of literature that is most vital to the progress of human beings.

The average book, newly released, will be on shelves of Barnes & Noble for approximately $19.99. However, earlier this week, I received an e-mail from Amazon.com with the subject heading “Kindle: Now from $79.” This Kindle is able to store approximately 1,400 books in its memory – more than any king for the vast majority of human history. In other words, for two days of minimum wage labor in Ohio, one has access to more knowledge than even Lincoln could have ever thought possible. This is a triumph for ideas, for literature, and, perhaps most of all, for reaching the highest potential in every human being.

James Velasquez is a senior from Foristell, Missouri, majoring in Political Science and
History.

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