I was given a Kindle for Xmas (thank you to my sister Julia!) and I read my first Kindle book – Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey – over a week while on holiday in Tasmania.
McLuhan says that when a new medium (e.g. the Kindle) takes older media (i.e. books) as its content, the new form changes the form of the older media, just as TV changed the film medium when film became the content of TV. Yet – reading the Kindle was so much like reading a ‘real book’ that it left me wondering just how exactly (or if!) the Kindle changes the book and the act of reading.
Probably its most dramatic function is as a storage device for digitized content (just as the iPod is for music) – content which is available at free or very low cost, a great thing for avid readers like myself!
Turning pages is also easier, being accomplished with the click of a button, and it’s very light in the hand – so much better for reading long books (three of the first books I downloaded, which I’ve been meaning to read for years – Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov – I am sure I would never be motivated to read otherwise) – or for reading with only one hand free (such as if you are on an aeroplane with a baby asleep in your other arm!).
Yet in all other respects the Kindle is eerily like reading a book. I guess I hadn’t expected this; ‘kindling’, after all, is what one uses to start a fire, the inference being that we can now ‘burn the books’. I now understand that this is not meant metaphorically (reading a Kindle is just like reading a book, so the Kindle does not burn, i.e. destroy, the book medium at all) but literally (we can now burn all the paper books because we have digitized the text).
Interestingly, the Kindle, like the book, is light on, not (like TV/computer) light through. It uses what is called ‘electronic paper‘ which apparently is not “backlit” like TV/computer but “reflect[s] light like ordinary paper” and “can hold static text and images indefinitely without using electricity…”
Could this be why the Kindle feels very industrial-age, rather than electronic-age? As with other ‘hot‘ (high definition) media such as book and film, ‘the user is the camera, not the screen’ (as McLuhan would say)… Actually I would argue that the Kindle reduces the tactile experience of reading, that is of holding a real, paper book in your hands, so as to intensify the visual experience, making it even ‘hotter‘ than the book.
I wonder if our media-environment today has become so cooled (with Internet and associated technologies) that we now choose for our escapist entertainments a hotter, rather than cooler, environment – our fantasies presented to us in super high definition???