It’s clear that Amazon’s Kindle is at the forefront of something big. Maybe this particular device is not going to catch on with everybody, but it’s certainly an important foot in the door to rethinking how we interact with books. The combination of a fairly reasonable form factor, the use of electronic Ink (very easy on the eyes, even in bright sunlight, and not at all a battery hog), and – most important – the backing of the might Amazon, means that this device is getting quite a few people to sit up and take notice, in a way that didn’t happen two years ago with SONY’s ebook reader (when was the last time you bought a book from SONY?).
That said, I’m transfixed by the name. It seems almost an oxymoron for a company called “Amazon” to make a device called “Kindle”. Amazon’s name always gave me the warm fuzzies. Books are substantial, solid, old-fashioned, like the rainforest. Something we want to preserve so that the world can be a good place to live. The Amazon rainforest is a source of endless biodiversity, healthy atmosphere, medicinal treasures and ethnic traditions. I’ve always felt protective toward its bountiful presence, in somewhat the same way I’ve come to feel protective toward books, with their rich history, textured beauty and rugged physicality, in this transient age of the internet.
But to kindle means to start a fire, to burn – not a concept you want to throw around lightly when you’re talking about books. To me book burning is the very bane of civilization, bringing to mind Nazi rallies, as well as movements in our own country to ban “The Catcher in the Rye”.
Is Amazon suggesting that these electronic readers will eventually lead to the disappearance of the physical book? Certainly that would be convenient for a company like Amazon. They are, after all, in the business of licensing intellectual property. Ultimately it is not so much a physical book that they are selling to each buyer, but rather a license to possess a single instance of an copyrighted work. If they can streamline that point of sale, reducing overhead and moving each transaction toward an ideal of pure profit, perhaps that would serve their larger interests.
So in a sense, perhaps we are witnessing the start of the biggest book burning in history. One day such phrases as “between the covers” and “a real page turner” may be as euphemistic as “telephone dialing” or “rewind” – alluding nostalgically back to a Victorian reality that is long gone.
Some day soon, alas, as we all pick up our electronic readers, we may once and for all close the book on books. As our children, and their children after them, run their fingers over magic screens to summon up “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”, “Jane Eyre” and “Ivanhoe”, they may catch the sadly bemused looks on the faces of their elders. Perhaps they will even ask us what’s wrong. But I suspect that we will never, try as we might, be able to convey to them just what has been lost.