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Parsing the Kindle

October 14, 2008 | 12:41 pm

Kindle_1014

Some of the discussion about the Kindle reader centers on its bookishness: How does it compare to a book? Is it better or worse? As readers, do we like it? And then there are the questions of cost, whether it's aesthetically pleasing, and how it compares to other e-book readers. But there's more to the Kindle, one academic thinks.

Ted Striphas, who teaches at Indiana University in Bloomington, is working on a paper that's connected to his book "The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture From Consumerism to Control," due out next year on Columbia University Press. He's posted a draft of his paper in advance of an upcoming presentation. In "Kindle: The New Book Mobile or the Labor of Reading in an Age of Ubiquitous Bookselling," he describes what he calls "the paradox of the e-book."

(i) By this I mean that Kindle and other e-reading devices are at once less and more capable of duplicating the form and function -- call it the experience -- of printed books.

(ii) And as I’ll demonstrate in a moment, a great deal of public conversation about Kindle, and about the moral and intellectual worth of ebooks in general, operates within the rather narrow discursive horizons set forth by this paradox.

In other words, the traditional debate about the Kindle -- whether it's fun to read, whether it's more or less fun than reading a paper book -- could go further.

In this paper, therefore, I want to argue that a fixation on Kindle’s paradoxically imitative qualities deflects attention from the ways in which Amazon aspires to transform the act of reading itself into an economically lucrative, value-generating activity.

With the Kindle, users can write notes on the text and make electronic bookmarks. Striphas points out that the Kindle has a two-way connection with Amazon; while new reading material can be downloaded, details of Kindle-users reading histories can be uploaded, too. Kindle users serve as "a massively distributed, on-the-go focus group," he writes. For the first time, Striphas points out, the nitty-gritty details of how and what we read is being recorded.

Striphas is concerned about this data being used for commercial purposes, presuming that Amazon is collecting it with hopes of selling products or monetizing it some other way. But he acknowledges that the data itself would be interesting. What if it were shared? "Imagine what public librarians might discover about people’s book reading habits," he writes, "were they given access to such unprecedented information."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: robertnelson via Flickr

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