The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future
By Robert Darnton
(Public Affairs, 218 pp., $23.95)
On the Commerce of Thinking: Of Books & Bookstores
By Jean-Luc Nancy
Translated by David Wills
(Fordham University Press, 59 pp., $16)
The airplane rises from the runway. Bent, folded, and spindled into the last seat in coach class--the one that doesn’t really recline--I pull my Kindle out of the seat pocket in front of me, slide the little switch, and lose myself in Matthew Crawford’s story of his passage from policy wonk to motorcycle mechanic. The gritty world of his workshop takes shape as I read. The airplane noise fades away, the pain in my cramped knees almost disappears, my eyes cease to blink. I am Kindled. It is by no means the first time. These days, in fact, I spend a lot of my time that way.
For the last few months, my Kindle has come with me pretty much everywhere: on research trips to Cambridge, London, Munich; to weekend conferences; even to lectures and movies, for the moments before they start. (So many books, so little time.) The one in my possession is the second-generation Kindle, not the big new DX that my hip colleagues have begun to pull out at meetings, their PDFs neatly readable on its 9.7” screen. But it is a neat little device--light, slender, as easy to hold for a long time as a small paperback--and it works very well. The battery charges quickly, which is more than I can sometimes say about myself, and then works for an astonishingly long time. Amazon’s Kindle Shop, made accessible by Sprint, is only a click or two away, and downloading books and periodicals from it is quick and simple. And everything you need to do to move forwards and backwards through the texts, mark them up and store them, immediately becomes apparent. The device seems to arrive borne on clouds of ease and simplicity. When I took it to Britain, a single search on Google turned up a converter that enabled me to recharge it as easily in my dorm room at Trinity College Cambridge as at home.
The Kindle liberates you. Once you have it, you don’t have to ransack the Fiction and Literature sections at airport bookshops, pulse fluttering and breath becoming shorter, as you face the prospect of an eight-hour flight with nothing but a laptop full of work to do (we addicts have a hard time with withdrawal). You don’t have to break your back schlepping six books in case you run out of reading matter during a sleepless night in your hotel. You can even get the Homeland Security people to crack a smile and engage in conversation--at least if you carry your Kindle, as I do, inside a special book hollowed out for the purpose, and produce it when you undergo your screening. Any road warrior with a taste for reading will find the Kindle indispensable.
And it is not just a convenience. Via Kindle you can subscribe to newspapers and magazines, to websites and more. For almost two decades I have been addicted to the cultural pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Although it is a daily newspaper, it reviews an astonishing number of scholarly books. I don’t know if German managers really care about the humanities, but they evidently like their newspaper to have a section that regularly offers thoughtful, elegant reviews of articles from scholarly journals--not something easily imaginable in an English-language newspaper or magazine aimed at a large public. The writing on art and architecture, science and music that appears every day is often outstanding. Reading the FAZ on its somewhat user-unfriendly website is a pain. Paper copies reach libraries late and out of order. But on my Kindle I receive the whole FAZ, on the day of publication, for less than fifty cents a copy, and keep up with a different intellectual and literary world. Francophiles can do the same with Le Monde.
Unfortunately, the Kindle is not this cosmopolitan in every respect. The Sprint network used by Kindle 2 does not work overseas, so during my stay in Britain I had to load up while I was on quick business trips home. But Amazon has announced a new version, which will use AT&T rather than Sprint for its downloading service. The new Kindle will be able to download books in a hundred countries--though from a smaller list than what is currently available to Kindle 2 users, and one shaped (how?) for each country’s users. My backpack is about to become even lighter.
For all its wonders, the Kindle also gives the user plenty to complain about. The screen, unlike that of a netbook or a laptop, is not backlit. Instead it uses a display technology called electronic paper. Like normal paper, the electronic version reflects light. Even more astonishingly, once letters or images appear on the screen, electronic paper can retain them without using current. The Kindle screen remains readable, as computer screens aren’t, in bright light (though not in the dark!). But the contrast between the letters and the background is not as sharp as that in a well-printed book. Kindling puts you in a grayscale world--and not the artistically appealing one of Hollywood movies of the 1930s. It has only one book font, Caecilia--though you can have it display your text in any of six sizes, whichever you find most comfortable. When the Kindle is off, the screen shows sharp and elegant portraits of writers, in a system of rotation by which Erasmus may follow Emily Dickinson. It’s kitschy, but it’s fun. When the device is on, however, its versions of line art and photos in books often seem grainy and unattractive. Large images and complex graphs and other graphics baffle it.
Open an old-fashioned book--a book published by Zone this year, or, even better, by Alfred A. Knopf thirty or forty years ago, or, better still, one printed by Aldo Manuzio a few hundred years before that--and you enter a Gesamtkunstwerk. Traditionally, the typography and layout and illustrations of properly printed books were chosen by intelligent people to complement the text. A number of publishers still treat design as an integral part of a book. Kindle does not.
In Double Fold, Nicholson Baker pointed out that by microfilming newspapers, the great American libraries transformed the experience of reading them: they reduced the original pages, full of life and color, into dull black and white projections on a screen. Reading a Kindle is nowhere near as miserable as reading microfilm, but it is the same kind of sensory experience in a user-friendlier version: reading free of visual delight. You don’t have to cite extreme examples--such as John Margolies’s history of miniature golf, which came bound in artificial turf--to see that Kindle cannot replicate, for example, the physical pleasure inspired by the feel of Knopf’s beloved deckle edges and the look of his preferred Granjon type.
Eventually, if the book is good, you find yourself, as you always did, transported into a different world. But you give up a lot of the incidental joys that used to accompany the trip. The idea that a book’s design should add to the experience of reading it is not some novel creation of nineteenth-century aesthetes and bookmen. Back in the early seventeenth century, the great Protestant scholar Isaac Casaubon, who spent the happiest hours of his life reading in his study, reflected again and again in his diary on the voluptas, the pleasure, that he felt when he read everything from the Bible to contemporary travel accounts. Part of the fun, as he acknowledged, came from the physical forms of his books. When he read Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah, a compendium of Jewish law, he was most interested in the structure and the content of the text; but he also showed a connoisseur’s expert appreciation for the characteristically Jewish aesthetic of the architectural frontispiece at the start of the Venice edition that he used. Nobody would want to be George Eliot’s Mr. Casaubon, but a lot of us would still like to emulate the real Casaubon and enjoy our texts in multiple ways. Alas, Kindle does not permit that. Future iterations will no doubt afford a wider choice of fonts and provide better graphics. But so far, e-book reading--like online shopping--requires a trade-off. The customer must give up tactile and visual pleasures in return for convenience. Not everyone will find this a good deal.
Still, the Kindle is clearly a success. According to Jeff Bezos, Amazon already “sells 48 Kindle copies for every 100 physical copies of books that it offers in both formats. Five months ago it was selling 35 Kindle copies per 100 physical versions.” As new versions continue to appear and their prices continue to go down, Bezos expects electronic versions of books to outsell their dead-tree counterparts, and soon. Now that Kindle and Sony, Plastic Logic and Barnes & Noble are competing to offer better, cheaper readers--and downloadable Kindle readers in iPhones, and netbooks, and other devices that can be used for reading are proliferating--electronic reading will move from being one of the ways we access and consume texts to the dominant mode.
What does the move from codex to Kindle mean? Will electronic reading kill the long, demanding novel and the deep, complex work of scholarship? Or--an even scarier thought--will it foster the vogue for vooks? (Vooks are hybrid works that combine text with video. They are to real books what PowerPoint presentations are to real lectures.) In search of help in thinking about the future that readers confront I turned, first, to a recent essay by the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. An expert on Hegel, Schelling, and Heidegger, an interlocutor of Bataille, Lacoue-Labarthe, and Derrida, Nancy is not the horror-inspiring hater of the humanities that those names will evoke in all too many readers. He loves books in the good old way, in all their gritty materiality: “the engraved and impressed characters now repeated in numerous copies on mobile supports, like those that preceded them, traced with a stylus and copied numerous times on skin, bark, or silk.” But in the end, Nancy argues, books cannot be reduced to stable, material things. Born thanks to an author’s feverish creative energy, texts shift endlessly in form and meaning as publishers and booksellers, critics and readers, respond to them.
Why not, then, welcome their electronic metamorphosis, which may make them even more mobile and provocative? Nancy’s enthusiasm is infectious: he imagines the writer’s fingers moving “like a piano a harpsichord an organ a harmonium or even xylophone or vibraphone in fact electronic music, yes, text becoming more musical more strident more sharp more penetrating more rapidly fleeing dissipating into the air....” But more detailed predictions prove elusive. In the great tradition to which he belongs, Nancy soars above technical distinctions and cases in point. At times his marvelously strident verbal music seems at risk of disappearing into the air: “Indeed, the professorial, professional, or professing spoken word is divided in two, by means of a dehiscence that lies deep within and barely visible.” Nothing was ever clarified by reference to a dehiscence.
Happily, a second Virgil has materialized on cue--one as passionate about books and as eloquent as Nancy, but a very different--and much less elusive--writer. Robert Darnton, master historian of the French Enlightenment, has spent his career as an observer of media and all their forms. For decades he mined one vast historical territory, the history of books in Enlightenment Europe, above all in France. No one knows more about how publishing worked or what it meant at a time when powerful writers and avid readers--think of Adams, Franklin, Jefferson--created the modern world. Moreover, Darnton is anything but a narrow specialist. Before he became a professor, he worked as a newspaperman, and he always treated the world of books as part of a larger communication system that included everything from pamphlets and broadsheets to songs and gossip--not to mention the public meetings that he witnessed in 1989, as East Germany collapsed, and on which he reported for this magazine. As a member of the boards of the Princeton and Oxford University Presses, he became an expert observer of contemporary scholarly publishing. And as president of the American Historical Association, he drew on the support of the Mellon Foundation to create a bold--if not wholly successful--experiment in publishing revised history dissertations as eBooks. By 2007, when Harvard invited Darnton to serve as University Librarian, in charge of the nation’s (and the world’s) greatest collection of strictly scholarly libraries, he had gained a unique and commanding view of texts of all kinds, and the transformations they are now undergoing as our information landscape dematerializes.
Several of the essays in Darnton’s new book look to the past. As electronic storage and distribution of information moved from Vannevar Bush’s imagined Memex to everyday reality, Minerva’s owl took wing. Historians and literary scholars, bibliographers and librarians around the world realized more clearly than ever before that books have a rich history of their own. Darnton led this movement. He has done pioneering work on everything from the way books were printed and distributed in the eighteenth century--a subject he made his own thirty years ago with a classic book, The Business of Enlightenment, and has continued to explore--to the ways in which booksellers and readers dealt with the final products. He has also kept abreast of the work of specialists in half a dozen connected fields, from the bibliographers who have taught us how printers actually worked, to specialists on paper and how it was made, to the historians of reading who grub through endless commonplace books and marginalia in the hope of catching X reading Y and saying what it felt like to do so--and thus capturing the texture, feel, and meaning of one reader’s evanescent, passionate contact with a text at a particular time and place.
The historical and historiographical essays collected here survey these fields briefly and lucidly, and are spiced with a few of Darnton’s own discoveries. He has always had a detective’s luck, as well as a detective’s skill, in libraries and archives. Some of the most talented European historians now at work found their vocations when they read the startling passage in which Darnton, back in 1979, identified the particular eighteenthcentury pressman, a certain Bonnemain, who left an inky thumb-mark on page 635 of volume fifteen of a copy of the quarto edition of Diderot’s Encyclopedia. Here he tells a wonderful story about a sarcastic note of Melville’s, in a copy of Emerson, which he discovered as a Harvard undergraduate in the Houghton Library. Emerson explained suffering away as transient, as something that blows over--like the storms which, he imagined, do not bother sailors. The young Darnton--who “thought the world in general was pretty rough”--relished the “caustic note” in which Melville exposed the sage as a Pollyanna, at least in part. And when he returned to it as a professor, he found that it was even snarkier than he had remembered: “To one who has weathered Cape Horn as a common sailor, what stuff all this is.”
But the real subject of The Case for Books is less the distant past than the present and the future. Darnton continues to extract gold from his historical mines: he is about to publish a massive book on slander in old-regime France, and an even more massive e-book on eighteenth-century publishing. But in the first seven chapters of this book, he draws on his practical experience to tell us where we are, and where we are going. For the most part, he likes what he sees. In the eighteenth century, Darnton recalls, writers in many countries and traditions professed allegiance to a single imaginary body, which they named the Republic of Letters: “a realm with no police, no boundaries, and no inequalities other than those determined by talent,” whose citizens were committed to making information flow freely. They loved to circumvent censorship so that “philosophical books” could reach print, cross borders, and thrill readers (often as much for their erotic qualities as for their arguments).
The real lives of eighteenth-century writers--as Darnton himself has shown--often fell short of these ideals. Established philosophes rarely, if ever, treated the impoverished hacks of Europe’s Grub Streets as their equals. But the surge of electronic media that we are now witnessing, Darnton argues, may finally bring their ideal Republic into real being. For the last generation and more, the traditional realms of information have experienced new and frightening pressures. Great libraries--those of American research universities, for example--have amassed mountains of printed material. But these collections have been accessible only to the small group lucky enough to have the keys to the kingdom: students, faculty, and others who can afford to pay for the privileges.
And even in their protected seclusion, the mountains of print began to suffer earthquakes and landslides. For-profit publishers jacked up the prices of scientific journals--some of them now cost $20,000 and more per year!--to the point where they ate up library budgets. Books continued to appear, of course, and usually each year saw more new titles than the year before; but libraries had less to spend on them. Even standard editions of the classics attracted few buyers outside the richest institutions. “Volume 1 of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin,” Darnton tells us, “published in 1959, sold 8,047 copies. Volume 33, published in 1997, sold 753 copies.” Younger scholars and writers could hardly find publishers, much less an audience. Meanwhile the mass of print contained within the great stone and brick walls of the libraries represented a less and less complete approximation of the sum of human knowledge. Book knowledge began to seem like the whooping crane: a beautiful, threatened species that could survive only in a few secluded places.
Now a new media landscape has begun to take shape. Books are appearing in multiple forms: a printed one for traditional readers, an electronic version for users of the Kindle and the Sony Reader (which has its own good qualities, and gives its owner access to hundreds of thousands of books digitized by Google). Scholarly journals and trade magazines still exist, for the most part, on paper. More and more, though, readers read new articles when they first come out on screen, and find older articles not by leafing through volumes in the stacks but by searching on Google. Vast collections of older books, magazines, and documents have been digitized, and publishers are making it possible to have out-of-print titles from their backlists printed on demand in a few minutes on the Espresso Book Machine, which can print, bind, and trim a three-hundred-page book in less than five minutes, while the buyer waits. Meanwhile Google Books plans to obtain, digitize, and make available all of the world’s books, in and out of print. It has already opened access to millions of them, in whole or in part, on every computer screen connected to the Internet.
These shifts in the tectonic plates that sustain the world of books have sent tremors everywhere. Lovers of the old ways cannot help feeling just a little melancholy to see that library reading rooms, which hummed and bustled in the 1960s and 1970s, are becoming bare ruined choirs, or to learn that university presses, the longtime homes of serious editors, careful refereeing, and craftsmanlike book production, often find it hard to sell even a few copies of a monograph that wins multiple prizes, and impossible to publish many valuable works of scholarship. Darnton notes that some of them have resorted to concentrating on mid-list trade books and works of local interest. Such offerings may keep the presses alive, but they hardly deserve the help afforded by a tax exemption.
But these appearances, Darnton argues, deceive: it is not yet twilight in the realms of letters. Students and faculty and others are reading more than ever. They’re just doing it at home and in cafés, online and in individual printouts, with Kindles and iPhones. Digital publication will enable young scholars and writers to put their works together in exactly the forms they prefer--and, in some cases, to see their creations go viral and reach far more readers than a conventional book would have done. Some further structural changes, most of which Darnton favors, could extend to the public as a whole the vast privilege of access that university members and those who work in great research libraries now enjoy, and vastly expand the impact of these changes.
Libraries and other research organizations, Darnton believes, have a duty to ensure that as wide a public as possible can enter and explore the new landscape. (Serving the public, after all, is the justification for the tax exemptions that they, too, enjoy.) Libraries can and should continue to buy books. But they should not see themselves as passive storehouses--statues that wait for Pygmalion-like readers to kiss them into life. Instead they should recognize that they are information centers, dedicated to giving their readers access to everything they may need, in electronic or print form as each case demands. And they should concentrate on communications, digitizing their own unique collections of books and documents--and, perhaps, the works of scholarship that presses can no longer afford to publish. (In fact, professional librarians have envisioned their task in these terms for a generation and more--sometimes all too literally, as libraries are swept clean of dirty old books to make room for flat screens and the kind of espresso machine that produces coffee.)
Harvard itself, as Darnton explains, is now engaged in a massive and imaginative effort to collect and make available vast segments of its immense holdings of photographs and pamphlets, blogs and Web pages. It has also enacted, with Darnton’s ardent support, an Open Access initiative. All Harvard faculty must post their writings on a Web page, which will be accessible to readers around the world. (So it seems, at least. Puzzlingly, Darnton describes the program as mandatory but then explains that individual professors can opt out.) Thus readers who do not have access to a research library will still be able to read the scholarly and scientific work of a great faculty. In many ways, this is only fair, given the tax-free endowments and government grants that subsidize the professors’ work. As other universities and research institutes follow suit, Harvard’s new Office of Scholarly Communication “could point the way toward a digital commonwealth, in which ideas would flow freely in all directions.”
Darnton hasn’t drunk as much Kool-Aid as many other digital enthusiasts. He notes that Google’s Book program, though he greatly admires it, will not in fact gobble up all the books in the world--and he proves the point with nicely chosen examples, mentioning unique books, from a libertine novel he turned up in the Library of Congress in Washington to a bunch of unknown pamphlets recently found in a desk drawer in Dublin, to which Google will not have access or give access in the foreseeable future. And he shows, from his own experience, that electronic publishing still has many pitfalls.
As president of the American Historical Association, Darnton won support from the Mellon Foundation for a program of prizes of $20,000 for dissertations, which would enable them to be published, in revised form, as e-books. The idea was to give young scholars more opportunities and, at the same time, to help find solutions for the space and budget problems afflicting libraries and the low sales of university presses. The dissertations chosen were excellent, and some of those that reached completion in the new form made deft and attractive use of its potential, including original documents and images and taking imaginative advantage of the electronic medium. But others remained largely conventional, and in many cases technical difficulties and problems in obtaining rights to reproduce documents and images prevented the projects from reaching completion. And sales, though sufficient to clear costs, were hardly brisk. Though the thirty-five completed Gutenberg-e projects are still available, the project as a whole clearly tried to do too much with too little--a circumstance that will certainly recur.
At times Darnton is a little more optimistic about the present and the future than I am. Thanks to Google, he writes, “it is now possible for anyone, anywhere, to view and download a digital copy of the 1871 edition of Middlemarch that is in the collection of the Bodleian Library at Oxford”; and he pooh-poohs the idea that occasional scanning errors or visible body parts diminish the larger value of what Google has wrought. In fact, as of October 8, 2009, it is possible for anyone who types “Eliot Middlemarch 1871” into Google Books to view and download parts 1 and 2 of the novel, which appeared in 1871; and for anyone who types in “Eliot Middlemarch 1872” to do the same for parts 5 and 6. But parts 3-4 and 7-8 are not to be found--a problem of quality that, as Geoffrey Nunberg has shown in a brilliant survey of Google’s poor scans and scrambled metadata, is anything but isolated. And Darnton himself, as he makes clear, has come to believe that Google’s growing dominance in the realm of digital books does not serve the public interest--not because the company is evil, but because it is acquiring too much power.
Darnton does not touch on--much less discuss at length--recent research that suggests that even students at elite institutions generally spend very short periods with online texts, not so much reading them as engaging in what the experts gingerly call “power skimming.” This prospect worries those of us who now post as much assigned reading as we can in digital form, so as to spare student and family bankbooks and to conform to student habits. (These days most of them seem to do their class preparation after midnight, when the library may be shut, but the university website, like the Sailor’s Arms, is always open.)
On the whole, though, Darnton’s volume is an informed and realistic guide to life in the first age of digital media. It argues convincingly that digitalization will create--is already creating--a new kind of enlightenment, if not a new Enlightenment. One chapter is especially exciting. Darnton loves everything about the eighteenth-century books that he has studied for so long: their paper, their typography, their hand-stitched wrappers and bindings, their smell of elegant decay. He has a wonderful way of gathering dozens of anecdotes about how books were printed, stuffed into barrels, and carried across borders, and fusing them into a vividly human story. All this lively local detail calls up a world in which books (and bookmen) had a smell and a look of their own. This world seems very far from the shiny, uniform banks of computers that have marched into libraries, like the Cybermen in Doctor Who, and usurped so much of readers’ attention--or indeed, from the neat but impersonal off-white Kindles that more and more people produce on planes.
Darnton believes that the new media will enable him to recreate the history of that vivid old world more effectively than he could ever have done in the past. In fact, imaginative collections of historical materials have been spreading on the Web for years, thanks to the work of pioneers such as the late Roy Rosenzweig and the support of some unexpected patrons. (The Library of Congress and the British Library, both of which are vast institutions and often unwieldy and averse to innovation, have been leaders in this field.) But Darnton has something even more ambitious in mind than the best Web exhibits and collections of research materials. For decades, he explains, he has worked his way through fantastically rich collections of documents in Neuchâtel and Paris, extracting thousands of nuggets of information about paper and ink, print and distribution--but every time he has tried to cast part of his results into prose as an article or a chapter, the mounds of information that he has collected have overwhelmed the story, making it unreadably dense and impossible to follow. In the e-book that he is now completing, by contrast, he can reconstruct his lost publishing world in many ways and on many levels. A single e-book can offer a general narrative, raise questions, and lay out documents in digital form or transcription or both to be used in answering them. Readers can move as they wish, up or down or across, tasting or swimming, seeing a song on a broadsheet or hearing it performed--with no loss of the sustained argument and rigor that characterized the codex book (as they characterized many books composed and transmitted in scrolls). In this project, the archive on which scholarship rests and the scholarship itself will be in dialogue, in a way that footnotes, illustrations, and text, the closest past equivalents, never could have been, and users will have freedoms that readers never did.
Darnton here offers a new vision of what humanistic scholarship might be in a digital world. It is ambitious, and some will therefore scoff. And real questions do arise. Constraints--the constraints imposed by a tradition or a medium--stimulate creativity. Writers who have only a limited space to fill learn how to condense. The thought of writers becoming kings of infinite digital space is a little scary. Word processing, zipless and easy, has already produced masses of inflated prose: an acquaintance who helps edit a literary magazine reported that submissions became something like 40 percent longer, but not 40 percent better, when authors moved from typewriters to PCs. Adding reams of poorly scanned and badly transcribed documents, or voice-overs that sound like one of David Wilson’s parodies from the Museum of Jurassic Technology, will not improve sprawling, undisciplined texts.
Still, it is worth remembering that Darnton was one of the small group of historians, along with Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis, who transformed everyone’s idea of what a work of history can be in the 1970s and 1980s, when they devised the microhistory--then a stunning innovation, now an established genre. There were those who scorned it, but microhistory has proved its worth over and over again, as well as its ability to assume many different forms and colors. It seems entirely possible that Darnton will show scholars how we can make the digital world our servant, instead of accepting it as our master, and use it not to undermine but to complement the old powers of narrative and argument.
The digital world, as Darnton interprets it, offers us not a limitless future, but an exciting one. Meanwhile, though, back at the Amazon ranch, Darnton’s brilliant prospectus inspires some doubts about the long-term future of the Kindle. Handy though it is, the Kindle gives access not to an endless world of flexible digital materials, but only to a weird selection of books that happen to be available. The great virtue of Amazon’s main book departments, as everyone knows, is that you can enter an author’s name, a title, or a subject and find exactly what you want, pretty quickly, in a virtual storehouse that embraces millions of titles. But the categories by which Amazon organizes books--the standard ones of the book trade--are far too indiscriminate, and too likely to promote confusion, to be good for browsing. The Kindle store uses the same categories--but they give access only to what seems an astonishingly random stock of titles, a textual swamp in which reprints, often bad ones, flank new books. Many major publishers do not yet sell any of their wares in the Kindle store, since they have not yet made their deals with Amazon. (University press books, which I and other scholars would love to have in electronic form and read on the Kindle, are only now coming on line; and Random House has not yet agreed to make its books available on the new international Kindle.)
The Kindle is terrific for downtime reading. I have enjoyed reading several new books that I would never have bought at full price or put on my material bookshelves, but that were easy to find and whiled away an hour or two. I am even more pleased to know that the complete Sherlock Holmes and several Dickens novels, which cost pennies, are always available (as they are, of course, on laptops and iPhones). The bigger version offers a good way to bring all your papers, once scanned and turned into PDFs, to meetings. But it is not a great way to read demanding or technical books.
An experiment at Princeton and other universities, in which some courses have put all of their readings on Kindle, has yet to arouse much enthusiasm on my campus. “I hate to sound like a Luddite, but this technology is a poor excuse of an academic tool,” said one student who is taking part, as quoted in the Daily Princetonian. “It’s clunky, slow, and a real pain to operate.” He explained that “Much of my learning comes from a physical interaction with the text: bookmarks, highlights, page-tearing, sticky notes, and other marks representing the importance of certain passages--not to mention margin notes, where most of my paper ideas come from and interaction with the material occurs. All these things have been lost, and if not lost they’re too slow to keep up with my thinking, and the ‘features’ have been rendered useless.” There are readers--Adobe has an excellent one--that allow really efficient markup and search, but they are expensive, and they have to be used on a normal laptop or one of the increasingly popular miniature laptops known as netbooks. And by the unchanging laws of human nature, if twenty students in a class have their computers open, ten of them will be looking at the assignment--and the other ten will be checking their mail, messaging, Tweeting, surfing the Web, or playing Minesweeper. The Kindle does not offer these distractions, but for students and teachers working intensively together on a set text, it works far less well, so far, than books.
As a key to the digital realms that Darnton evokes, the Kindle is inferior to the simplest netbook. You cannot use it (as I can use my netbook) to access the millions of digitized books available at Google and elsewhere, or to soar up and down, as Darnton invites you to, in works actually created to take advantage of the digital form. I suspect that the Kindle will prove to be the Betamax to some other company’s VHS (perhaps the legendary Apple tablet, with a Kindle reader built in?). Meantime, though, I am pleased to have it--and happy to think the reassuring thought that, endlessly inventive monkeys as we are, we will find ways to make the new media as rich and strange and complex as the old ones.
Anthony T. Grafton teaches the cultural history of early modern Europe at Princeton University. His books include Defenders of the Text (Harvard University Press) and Joseph Scaliger (Oxford University Press).