[Heather Bowlby is a NINES Fellow for the 2010-2011 year and a Ph. D. Candidate in English at the University of Virginia.]
Amazon’s description of the Kindle highlights the versatility and intuitive nature of the device, claiming that the Kindle not only replicates the experience of reading a traditional paper book, but improves it. The Kindle is not only “lighter than a paperback,” it permits various manipulations of the text to enhance the ease of reading: font style choices, text enlargement, spacing of lines and margins, screen orientation, and even a text-to-speech function to convert written text into audio. A section of Amazon’s advertisement of the Kindle is even titled “Reading, Revolutionized” to promote the Kindle as providing an entirely new model of reading a text—reading, upgraded and enhanced to fit the demands of the twenty-first century. With its 3,500 book capacity, the Kindle 3 functions both as a repository and as a reading machine.
Amazon, however, avoids emphasizing the machine-like qualities of the Kindle. The Kindle is never called a “machine” on Amazon’s advertisement; instead, it is referred to using terms such as “device,” “product,” and “item.” Despite highlighting the technological properties of the e-reader and its many advantages over physical books, Amazon is unwilling to separate the Kindle from its paper ancestors entirely. The e-ink technology that claims to be the best clone of “real” ink on the market, the ability of the Kindle to be independent from computers, the nostalgic images of classic authors displayed on the device’s screen during sleep mode: all of these qualities illustrate Amazon’s attempt to downplay the computerized technology that enables the Kindle to operate. In this sense, Amazon seems to recognize an undercurrent of anxiety among its customer base surrounding the technological power visibly embodied by e-readers like the Kindle. Does the revolution of reading claimed by the Kindle fundamentally affect the way we relate to written texts? Do the space-age capabilities of the Kindle in fact widen the distance between the reader and the text—thereby destroying the quality of the reading experience in favor of “improvement?”
Amazon seems to occupy an uneasy position between marketing the Kindle as a herald of a new, superior era in textual consumption and assuring consumers that the links to traditional paper texts have not been severed and are, in fact, celebrated by the Kindle. As a graduate student in English and thus a “professional” reader, I was initially skeptical of the Kindle’s ability to assist me productively in my everyday reading activities, mainly because I didn’t see how the device could realistically replace the traditional books I must use. The price tag of the Kindle 2—$269 at the time—seemed an unnecessary extravagance on my limited income for a tool that couldn’t entirely live up to its promise to “revolutionize” my reading. I changed my mindset earlier this year when I read through the Kindle description on Amazon and I realized that although the new-and-improved Kindle 3 still can’t truly replace traditional books for my needs, it can function as a helpful tool in conjunction with these books.
On their website, Amazon claims that the “most elegant feature of a physical book is that it disappears while you’re reading” and states that “[o]ur top design objective is to make the Kindle disappear.” The ideas behind these statements are indeed disturbing to me, but they did not deter me from ordering a Kindle. Ultimately, my aim in purchasing a Kindle was to use it as an instrument, like a laptop, that would assist me in my everyday activities. I hoped that the Kindle would enhance my use of physical books: I was well aware that it couldn’t entirely replace many of them, and while I would purchase some books in electronic format, there are many others that I prefer to own in hardcopy. Thinking of the Kindle as a tool to use alongside traditional books rather than as a replacement helped convince me to invest in one. And, as I have discovered during the two months that I’ve owned a Kindle 3, this expectation has mostly proven to be true.
Coming Soon: Part 3