The digital age of literature is being hurled at us with momentous force. Within two weeks, Washington Post’s Book World book review went online-only and a new, significantly improved, Amazon Kindle was unveiled yesterday. According to Business Week , Kindle 2.0 is aimed at students. Seeing as it is 25% thinner than the iPhone and far sleeker than the previous model, I imagine the temptation of slipping one of these into your backpack in place of the seriously sizable “Anthology of Literary Theory” which currently sits, unopened, beside the kid next to me at this café.
Literary purists will be outraged and tech savants will wait in line for days (or on waiting lists for months). Personally, I love holding books and I love buying books and looking at full shelves of them, my own or someone else’s. (I know, I’m a hypocrite , but how!) And there is a reason the phrase “curl up with a good book” exists. Practically, an open book fits quite perfectly in your lap, and your head quite perfectly within its covers. To me, Kindle 2.0 looks like something from which to read the digitalized morning paper. But to read Melville? Surely not.
What I don’t like is the way big-time businesses–Google and Amazon and Apple–dream of revolutionizing the way we read without considering, or at least acknowledging, why we read in the first place. This is my romantic book-lover clawing out, though. In a more frightening sense, the qwerty keyboard, planted on the front of device, speaks to this writer and recent university graduate as a symbol of productivity. Or perhaps more accurately, it is a symbol of the obligation for productivity. Reading is an idle activity, even when it’s done out of necessity. When people are having heart attacks from too much blogging, adding a keyboard to our reading source seems to me unbearably torturous. And if, as the Kindle Vision testifies, any book in any language can really be downloaded in 60 seconds, with our current schizophrenic inclinations, will anyone ever actually finish a book or will we just keep skipping from one to the next?
Although I’ve yet to see one in all its real-life glory, I have no doubt the Kindle or something similar (Apple may at any time roll in for a coup) is already burrowing its way into mainstream culture, just like the iPod. Digital books are the next step in the evolution of knowledge and ideas. And even though the idea of rereading Bartleby from a computer screen is at the moment a puzzling one, I’m really quite sure it will happen. And I’m going to try not to whine about it too much. Because in the end, the development of ideas is what must be preserved; the medium with which we receive them should take a back seat. And in my fifties I’ll laughingly tell my kids “When I was your age, words were printed on paper.” And they’ll roll their eyes and respond “We don’t care about the stone age.”