On Kindle’s recent ten-year anniversary, my thoughts strayed to a Kindle India advertisement I had seen when I was squarely in the rough and tumble of new motherhood. The vision of a mother reading on her Kindle with one hand on her sleeping infant had stayed with me. I was enamoured that I could read almost in the dark without waking up my child. There was a catch, though.
I would have to forsake something so elemental to reading – holding a book, feeling its physical and metaphorical weight that enabled immersion with every turn of the page. Could I betray my lifelong love for physical books for the sake of convenience? The question had ominous overtones because somewhere I knew I would be making a much larger choice, with deep ramifications.
The noun “book” is larger than life because it isn’t just an object but an industry. A book is the product of an elaborate process that begins with an idea which then becomes the written word; the dance with literary agents, publishers, copy editors, layout and book cover design, production, marketing, and dissemination.
A physical book is an economy, generating desire and creating its own mobilities. Books travel. From printing presses to stores and into homes, into second-hand bookstores, carrying the imprint of time and memory. Inside them, you sometimes find dedications that stand poised as secrets, opening you up to life stories so different from yours. A physical book holds the promise of other worlds, creating spaces for its reception – in bookstores, libraries, mobile vans, railway stations, waiting rooms, footpaths, airports.
The Kindle e-book reader symbolizes the corporatization of desire, of global capitalism and connectivity, a cloud of information, representing efficiency, access and convenience – all buzzwords of the 21st century. It symbolises the smart traveller, the multitasking housewife, the retired couple, the young child. You can store hundreds of books in your Kindle, snuggled safely in your satchel. It prevents messy encounters of the food variety, it is compact and even friendly. The Kindle allows you to make notes on margins, share passages and even enables shared communities of readers to connect on book review websites or social media platforms.
Interactive e-books can captivate the imagination and bring alive seemingly boring themes and subjects. E-books are seen as the way forward, perfectly in tune with our rapidly changing times. The possibilities seem to be immense and somewhat endless.
The foregrounding of technology replaces spontaneous processes of decision-making. Tinder is great for 21st-century romance precisely because of sound algorithmic abilities that eliminate the inconvenience of searching for someone. No need to get your hands dirty. The almost weightless, non-intrusive Kindle confounds educators with that dirty 21st-century coinage, “screen time”.
With children growing up in the age of technology, there is the fear that gazing into screens dulls and inhibits your curiosity about the outside world. The loss of children’s tactile relationship with objects reduces empathy. The convenience of technology not only edges towards eliminating the human presence but also erases the impact of spontaneous human interaction.
A book should intrude upon your life, demand your attention. It should say “Stop! Make space for me.” Imagine reading Manto on a Kindle. Flat, lifeless. Scathing satire dimmed by this neutral, backlit device. He would never want to be read like this. He would want his books to be picked up from footpaths, passed around in railway compartments, be nestled among tea drinking, cigarette smoking, foul-mouthed people.
He would want to be read by the housewife who secretly nurtured her reading habit by borrowing books from friends and finding escape within their pages, a page inadvertently marked with haldi stains. Such writing brings to mind dog-eared books worn with use, book covers stained with coffee rings, books as rites of passage, signs of life. The cool sterility and impersonality of a Kindle eschews that intimate, visceral engagement with lived reality.
Just yesterday I bought a book for my son that was thin and huge, bigger than him. The owner of my local independent bookstore said it could also be used by children as a mat to sit on as they read, providing the ultimate immersive experience. Such things recall the legendary exchange between Maurice Sendak and a little boy whose fan card Sendak responded to with a drawing of a wild thing.
He later received a letter from the boy’s mother stating that her boy liked Sendak’s drawing so much that he ate it. That is the power of the tactile, understood through direct sensory experience. There is author and artist Douglas Coupland who chewed his own book Generation X as he watched television, with the chewed bits now proudly displayed as installation art – a satire on the emptying of mind after the transformation from print to digital media, a lament on the passage of something fundamental and human.
There’s the belief held by Kindle proponents that one should not think about the medium but the message. Marshall McLuhan argues otherwise, that the medium influences the message and has the power to change its audience’s entire world view. His prophecies have prescience for the information age.
Even as our gazes seem to turn ever outward and encompass larger portions of the world, we are increasingly shrinking into ourselves as technology becomes an extension of us. The moral consequences of this transformation remain to be seen, but technology plays a significant role in how we perceive the world.
So, can a book’s soul remain the same if its body has irredeemably changed? The physical book still promises that original unmediated encounter. An e-book does not give you the magic of the encounter, the process of exploring, lingering, browsing, finding something unexpected, perfect.
We cannot ignore the future for the future is here, and the logic of commerce and convenience is loud and clear. But as we interpret the world in the 21st century, must we forget how we got here? Can the e-book and the physical book not be bedfellows (albeit a bit strange), non-interfering neighbours? Going by the popularity of the Bookstagram hashtag, we know that people still love to stack up books, take photos, fetishise covers.
The experience of reading a physical book may be transformed as the traditional book publishing industry gets hit. The availability of physical copies in the market will dwindle as sales will fall. Maybe the book will become a fetishised commodity, maybe reading a book will become a specialised activity. But if there are people invested in it, books are here to stay.