Melt Your Kindle

The Kindle is not a book and three arguments why this matters.

The internals of a Kindle. (source)

The trouble with abstract thought is that the concepts we play with in our minds often become preferred to the real upon which these concepts were originally based. As soon as we draw a picture, or take a photograph, of a bird we often no longer care whether the bird continues to exist. The picture is, in our visual society, superior to the chirping bird. This trait of our world-view leads to a despairing and paradoxical situation where our cultural storehouse of symbols, imagery, art and concepts increases in direct proportion to the death of our planet, living beings, other world views, beautiful landscapes, etc. It is for this reason that we should reject the Kindle and hope for its failure: the Kindle ultimately tends toward making books superfluous and replacing them with the mere appearance of books. The Kindle is not a book. It is instead a machine mimicking the external traits of a book while destroying the essence of the book: the trace of the author, the community of readers and the call to deep, meditative reflection.

There are many different levels on which to attack the Kindle. One tactic, which is always bound to failure, is to say that the Kindle is not good enough. This argument generally accepts the premise of the Kindle but argues that for whatever technical reason, the Kindle is a bad product. This is the worst kind of argument to make because it clears the way for Kindle to go through several new iterations, each step taking it closer to "technical perfection" and making these arguments absurd. Instead, we must reject the Kindle even if it manages to overcome all the technical objections to its use.

Instead, I propose three arguments that try to strike the essence of the Kindle. The underlying principle of each position is that the Kindle is not a book, that it is instead a computer that displays text in a (ostensibly) readable manner. It may seem absurd to point this out, but let's define our terms once again: the Kindle is a text-displaying computer that uses electricity; a book is a series of physical pages bound together and covered in permanent ink which requires no energy to display. Now we may proceed to the three arguments against Kindle.

Argument one: The Kindle destroys the trace of the author. After the death of the individual author, books continue to live. They carry the trace of the authors life and thoughts on the page and show this trace through the physical existence of the book. If you hunt for books in bookstores instead of libraries, you may not realize that every age has bound its books differently, used different papers and inks and decorated the page in various ways. The materiality of the book gives us a taste of the author and the time when the book was made. Each book is different and an avid reader can often remember the color of their favorite book or the feel of its pages. The Kindle destroys this because it divorces the text from the book. It displays every book the same. While the text on the screen may changes the physical object in one's hands stays the same. This has some troubling consequences for our relationship to the author's words because what the Kindle really displays is one long book -- simply a long stream of endless, digitized words.

Argument two: the Kindle destroys the community of readers which books engender. The Kindle has been devised by a society that wants to make profit each time a text is read rather than each time a book is purchased. In the old system, once I bought a book I owned it as an object. I could read it as many times as I liked and give it to friends who may give it to their friends. That is the basis behind public libraries, we all share books because we understand that there are more books we'd like to read than we'd ever be able to afford to read. This creates a community of readers who circulate books amongst themselves for the benefit of all. The Kindle is the end of that, no more sharing books, no more public libraries, no more sitting in a bookstore and reading a book without buying it. The Kindle is a prison for words.

Argument three: the Kindle denies the call to deep, meditative reflection. Books have a magic power in that they can draw us into the world of the author and make time pass quickly while we are immersed in the text. The book is the ideal format for presenting complicated, philosophical arguments that require the reader to pause between paragraphs and reflect. The Kindle is the opposite -- it is merely a television for reading text, a computer that will distract us. Furthermore, the adoption of the Kindle will destroy the culture of reading that sets aside sacred places for study: libraries. The Kindle makes these special places unnecessary because it argues that the library will be carried in our pocket. But with the loss of quiet study places for the public will come the loss of the public's capacity for quiet study. This is why some commentators have already reflected that the Kindle is best for trashy novels. But if the Kindle becomes widespread, all we will have is trashy novels.

I present these three arguments in honor of Digital Detox Week. I will post no more blogs this week but instead hope that you have a great seven days offline.

Micah White is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters magazine and an independent activist. He is writing a book on the future of activism. or micah (at)