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Parsing the Kindle


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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I have lived with my Kindle for several months. One thing I have discovered is that you learn to read differently on the Kindle. I believe in adapting to the design of a product. There has been a lot of carping on the Web about what the Kindle doesn’t do well. But if you adapt to its design, it is an amazing product. This is true of nearly every new bit of technology from in-car navigation systems to smart phones to the iPod to Google Calendar. We learn to do the same old things, but differently, often better, and almost always more efficiently.

I am much more likely to make notes as I read on my Kindle. Ditto for highlighting things. Learning to note place numbers, rather than page numbers, takes time to learn. The built-in dictionary and Web search features add depth to reading, and you never have to get up from your chair or turn on your computer. Shopping for books on the fly is a huge benefit. I ordered “Bad Money” while Bill Moyers was interviewing the Author Kevin Phillips on TV. By the time the interview was over, I had the book on my Kindle, and at less than half the hard-cover price. No waiting, no trip to the bookstore, no gas burned, no crowds at the mall, no heavy book to lug around.

Just as there are many different cell phones on the market, there will eventually be different e-readers with varying features. But why wait for the “perfect” product? We haven’t done that with any other new product or technology, there is no point doing it with e-readers. Does anyone out there still have their first cell phone?

Thanks for alerting us to the Ted Striphas paper. I followed the link to the draft of his paper and found a rich thread of comments, all of which I saved to .pdf file for reading on my Kindle later today. I am fascinated by how my reading has changed in the 10 months I've used the Kindle - not just the way I read a particular text (more slowly, more focused than with a paper book) but how I select what I read - more free classics and the Financial Times. The social network aspects of Kindle reading pose challenges but also big opportunities. I have a few friends whose annotations on what they're reading would be wonderful to see as I'm reading along in the same book. Why not?


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