Sunday, August 2, 2009

What Nicholson Baker Didn't Say

Nicholson Baker, author of The Mezzanine, Vox, Checkpoint, many other novels, and works of nonfiction, too -- Double Fold, U and I, and the mind-blowing Human Smoke, among them -- writes about the failures of the Kindle in this week's New Yorker.

Though JR has met the guy I have not; I have admired him from afar for many, many years, and sent him money when he started The American Newspaper Repository; at that point, he became my total hero! Some of the most pleasant moments of my life have been spent in library stacks, reading old magazines and newspapers, and I think it's necessary to preserve the actual paper and ink of these old publications -- even if it's only one copy in a warehouse somewhere.

So... forgive me for expecting something a little more, I dunno, LUDDITE when I picked up The New Yorker! The faults Baker finds with the Kindle are technical: not white enough, bright enough, slow page turning. Yeah, whatever. How about this: Hey, Kindle, YOU SUCK BIG TIME!

Yeah, that's right. You, your very essence, sucks. You know what you are? You are strawberry Qwik: a gross adulteration of a perfectly good beverage. Or maybe you're a wine cooler. Americans have all bought laptops, iPods, Cuisinarts, cars with GPS, chocolate fountains, shoes with WiFI, so now what? Sheesh, how about an ebook reader? Oprah has one; better get on the wagon!

Books are perfect; like wine, any "improvement" is actually a step backwards. They look good, they smell good, they feel good in your hands, they are part of the physical world. The Kindle apparently uses the same font for every book, and there are no page numbers. Dumb!

Oh, but they're so convenient. I can just sit on the beach now and wish I had a copy of, hm, Wuthering Heights, and there it is, magically spirited to my Kindle! How cool is that? Not anywhere near as cool as getting on my bike, riding down to the local Book Exchange and Ice Cream Parlor, getting waylaid by the books in the local section, finding a pile of books about shipwrecks and hauntings, and reading them while eating a black cherry cone.

Sometimes I feel like people are afraid to criticize technology, as if the robots will track us down and kill us if we do. Or maybe we'll suddenly become impossibly old and uncool, like those freaky people in their cat-filled apartments clinging to their vinyl records. But just because it's technology, just because it's the future, doesn't mean it's good.

Books are good.

31 comments:

jrlennon said...

Yeah, like, did you write that post on, like, vellum? With, you know, a turkey feather and shit?

Honestly, I really dug Baker's piece--like him, I really LIKE new technologies that fill a need, and do it elegantly, while offering certain aesthetic pleasures. the e-book reader doesn't seem to be there yet, and Amazon's proprietary content and post-purchase control over it are complete deal-breakers for me.

My mind would like a better Kindle, but my heart doesn't really give a crap. I'm with Rhian, at the ice cream bookstore, with the shipwreck book.

rmellis said...

Computers are ideal for blogs. You know, I tried writing a blog in a little leather notebook, but I didn't get a SINGLE comment!

5 Red Pandas said...

I too was surprised at Baker's essay, thought he'd come down harder on the Kindle. He just made me want to get the iPod Touch, though. Still, I'll be a book reader yet. As a librarian I'm on the side of books AND technology. They can still get along, and both serve a purpose. When you know what you need, electronic research is great. When you're not sure what you want, browsing books is easier and more enjoyable. I don't think anyone needs to decisively come down on either side.

Gary said...

The problem for me is the survival of culture. A book will survive an apocalypse, but a Kindle will not. If we only have e-readers and we get so used to them that all texts appear exclusively electronically, our culture will be lost to history when the Big Crash happens. Are we happy to let all our novelists and poets wink out of existence when the bomb drops?

jrlennon said...

Rhian LOVES the iPod Touch...I actually started telling her the other day, wouldn't it be cool if Apple made a reader that's basically a paperback-sized Touch?

Anyway, i had just written to Baker about the article and he got back to me saying things might get interesting when the "Apple tablet" came out--which is a thing I didn't know existed, or was going to exist. Can the tech nerds confirm this?

Gary, I share your paranoia, which is one of the reasons I still like to shoot film photos...if my computer and two backup drives all die at once, murdering my scans, I'll still have the negatives.

rmellis said...

I *like* my iPod, it's true. And I liked Baker's idea that it can be slipped under a pillow and be used for night reading by us insomniacs. But a whole book on an iPod? I'd rather not.

And while I don't have to come down on one side or another, and in most cases (as with music), I don't, I really, really love books and think they need some whole-hearted advocates these days.

Pete said...

Hmmm...I have cats AND vinyl records, so I guess the only thing keeping me from being impossibly old and uncool is the fortunate presence of my wife's Kindle. :-)

5 Red Pandas said...

I'm always in favor of hard copies. Librarians in general are in favor of keeping archival copies, but it's hard to do this with limited space, money, etc. People in general need to think that our culture is worth preserving. Not sure that the general public does think it's worth preserving. Maybe in theory, but not necessarily in practice.

There is also a difference between a library and an archive. A library is a living, functional space that meets the current needs of patrons, while an archive is a preservation space that meets future needs rather than current needs.

JRL- yes, the Apple tablet is coming, which is going to be competition for e-readers since it will be a big iPod touch. All the touch capabilities but larger and easier on the eyes (me thinks). Sounds promising, especially for a subway commuter like myself.

sjwoo said...

I had the Kindle 2 (given to me as a gift) for about two weeks. It's a nice enough product, but I just never really saw the use, at least for me. I usually buy used books or get them new from the Strand (50% off, usually), and I never read more than a book at a time, and it takes me a month to go through a book nowadays (if I'm lucky). The one nice feature of the Kindle was that you got wireless Internet access for nothing -- no monthly fee of any kind. It uses the Sprint network, so coverage was spotty, and the browser is very basic.

One thing I think the Kindle (or any e-reader) would be great for is travel guides (Fodors, Rick Steves, etc.) -- it's a pain to carry all those books when you're traveling, and to have it be searchable would be lovely. As long as the battery lasts, of course.

Ink and paper has been the superior technology for many years, and I believe it'll continue to be. With music, it makes sense to shrink them down to size since everyone loves a jukebox they can carry around. Also applies to TV shows, since there's a convenience factor if you are watching an entire season of a program. With movies it becomes a little bit tougher sell; ergo, the DVD market is still doing quite well. And with books, with something that people take a month or two to get through, it's hard to justify the electronic conversion. Unless somebody figures out a way to read faster, paper will never go away.

The e-reader of the future will be a very thin netbook approximately the size of a trade paperback with full Internet connectivity. Basically, it'll be a computer. If that's what the Apple tablet is, then the future will be here momentarily.

jrlennon said...

"The e-reader of the future will be a very thin netbook approximately the size of a trade paperback with full Internet connectivity. Basically, it'll be a computer. If that's what the Apple tablet is, then the future will be here momentarily."

Sung, this has the ring of prophecy to me.

dylan hicks said...

I’m a romantic about books-as-objects and accordingly share the anti-Kindle stances outlined above. I’m also something of a fetishist or irrational consumer about the book-as-object—I like seeing books displayed on my shelf, like buying new books when I have hundreds of unread ones at home, and so forth—so I’ve thought (fleetingly) that an electronic reader might (in theory) bring me closer to the words themselves, words loosed from the various aesthetic and consumerist pleasure I get from traditional bound books. I’ve no interest in testing the theory, and I think it’s pretty dubious, but it occurred to me.

Of course it’s also true that the book itself is a technology, and that many classics (and not just ancient ones) are only books because they’ve been sold and experienced that way for such a long time.

I thought Baker’s piece struck the right tone for the assignment, though I started skimming a bit when it got technical.

jrlennon said...

I think the book is a nearly flawless technology--we're not all just nostalgic, I think we specifically respect it AS a technology, even if we don't immediately think of it that way. It's like the pencil, or the paper clip, or the hammer--there is no reasonable argument against it.

dylan hicks said...

Well, I’ll go along with that, certain allergenic books I’ve known notwithstanding. But I suppose some would argue that works designed to be recited, heard, seen, and experienced in groups live a somewhat diminished existence in books. I don’t really go along with that, and it would only make the Kindle a diminishment of a diminishment, but …

I never understood the point of those upscale, spiral paperclips.

Matt said...

There is an interesting thread in this - that the Kindle, while impressive in some ways, is not *necessary*. I do agree with what I infer to be the sense that Kindle and its ilk are perhaps being forced down our throats, and prematurely at that. The paranoid libertarian inside of me questions whether this is just an early chess move toward media/information control.

I agree that books will always trump ebooks from a practical (and, hell yes, technological) standpoint. That said, switching hats to the corporate/industrialist, the market truly will decide just how successful ebooks are. We did (and do) have audiobooks. They work, and they are good, but they have not eclipsed people's need for tangible publications.

More Romantically, I put toward you this gem: if we're all using ebooks, then how do you know what the cute guy/girl across from you on the subway is reading? I guess we'll have to lean forward and ask, eh?

jon said...

I just emailed a manuscript to an editor who will probably download it to her e-reader and bring it with her to the Hamptons. That was 480 pages I didn't have to print out and mail and that she didn't have to drag around with her. So i think e-readers serve a good purpose just as things stand. there are a lot of books I would probably read but would never buy, if i had an e-reader. They are books I don't care much about but want the information they contain. On the other hand, I'm with the fetishists. I love books, work in a library, am surrounded by books etc etc. Book covers, uncut pages, old mouldy books, lurid 1950's paperbacks, letterpress printing, xeroxed zines, what have you. Perhaps then I'm a utilitarian about all this and not a romantic. Also, as for libraries, it seems e-readers could solve a lot of the very expensive space problems libraries have.

AC said...

I've been on a de-cluttering kick all summer, and I'm starting to feel almost guilty about having so many books in the house. Professional clutter eliminators are big fans of the paperless world. I'm firmly on the side of reading in print over reading online, but any opinions on the value of keeping books of one's own vs. borrowing and returning? I feel that my bookshelves provide a necessary service of memory and recall. Looking at the physical copy of a book that I may have owned for 30 years triggers memories and associations of my life at the time when I first read it, and suggests what to read next. A list of titles, or a daily email advertising new titles wouldn't be the same. But sometimes it feels like an impossible luxury to be housing rooms full of books just for the pleasure of letting my mind range between them. Like keeping a room sized 1960s computer for the fun of watching it calculate my grocery bill.

rmellis said...

I like living in a library. But I don't have any strong feelings about keeping books or borrowing them -- yeah, having beautiful hardcovers of every book you read just for the hell of it does seem like a luxury. But we're not collectors. I keep books for the same reason you do: to remember them, to refer to them, to keep them on hand for lending. And just to be with them.

I don't think I'm any more fetishistic than the technology lovers, really.

Those anti-book anti-clutter people should shut up! A book is not clutter unless it's a bad book. Don't let them guilt you into getting rid of your books.

About libraries and space problems: see the Tompkins County Public library's absurd waste of space in its atrium. I can't believe taxes go to pay to heat and cool all that empty space!! (Talk about inner libertarians.)

jon said...

Atriums! The bane of libraries. And they let the sun shine down on books if they have skylights. Even so, academic library collections grow a lot faster than their building budgets. The largest library at Cornell right now is the Annex, where books are stored in bins stacked 30 feet high and reached by a bizarre, 3-story forklift.

jrlennon said...

I'm often shocked at how often the books I want from Olin at Cornell are now in the Annex. I'd like to go out there and see it sometime...it's on my bike ride home.

I do believe that the corporate-control-of-information aspect of this debate is the most compelling to me. I'm an open source kind of person. Though, as I've said before, I haven't heard a reasonable solution to the problem of how writers will manage to get paid when there aren't tight controls on how e-books are created and distributed. We can't go on the road and make money selling tee shirts and live CD's. I mean, we could do that, but nobody would care.

jon said...

Maybe I can arrange for a tour.
I agree about government control etc. Ebooks etc have revived libraries and archives, which actually hold most of the written content of the world but have no money to digitize it, and also are committed to making information available. So it is an interesting struggle between publsihers, Google and Amazon, and libraries. As for how writers get paid...like Ghandi said about Western Civilization, it would be a nice idea.

Matt said...

Speaking of information control (corporate or not), one need not mention (even though I am) the fiasco with Amazon removing both 1984 and Animal Farm from people's Kindles without any announcement beforehand. Apparently they didn't have the full publishing rights. Whoops.

Zachary Cole said...

Matt: Good point. That fiasco turned me off the Kindle; it's like an online version of the Library Policeman.

Except that it's more like an online version of the Bookseller Policeman, about which there's never been a story written (I think).

Russell said...

To me it still comes down to this: I can walk from my front door to Cornell's apple orchards in about forty-five minutes (uphill); meanwhile, the Diabelli Variations (or "Hot Rocks," if you like) are playing the soundtrack to my walk (in exceptionally good stereo, thanks to in-the-ear plug/buds). This is just plain miraculous. On the other hand, I'd only be able to read a couple dozen pages of Proust on that same walk, and I'd risk getting run over. Portable music is amazing, and being able to switch from Beethoven to the Rolling Stones at will is nothing short of Nirvana. Portable text? The printed book is just fine. I could take a single volume of Proust (in translation--i.e., one-third of it) with me wherever I went, for a month, stopping at benches along the way, and have it with me in bed at night (and the next morning), on the toilet, etc., and never run out of stuff to read. Why do I need wireless access to everything else in the meantime? But seriously: it remains to be seen how much the Kindle really means to BOOKS (as opposed to blogs and newspapers and all those other things so timely and suited to airports and train depots and checking in every ten minutes to see if the world is still there). . . . Finally: reference books make the best electronic candidates. Threading through the online OED (a virtual popcorn trail of lexicographical research) beats hunting through the printed book any day.

Yetsuh Frank said...

I was really surprised Baker wasn't harder on the Kindle- but the piece was brilliantly damning in some very subtle and unforgettable ways. I still guffaw out loud when I remember him quoting Bezos referring to the reading of novels as "long form reading" like some obscure rite he had witnessed the island savages performing. Confirms that Bezos, although he transformed the publishing industry, won't mind if his business destroys the book as long as it improves his business.

I am an avowed gear head and aesthete- so I love the shiny new bauble as much as the next person. I read A LOT of articles and essays on my iPhone (Instapaper changed my life, really) saving a boat load of office paper every week. And it IS extremely cool and fabulous to have the entire works of Shakespeare in my pocket. So current gadgets are fine for what Bezos would call short form reading. But as a proposed replacement for the almighty book the Kindle fails a very simple test: Hold Kindle in right hand and a trade paper novel of your choice in your left. Raise each in front of you to chest height- and drop. Repeat twice and assess functionality of each device.

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