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Michael Hiltzik: The Kindle as context

November 27, 2010 |  2:00 pm

Technological revolutions always get some people thinking about what we are losing by discarding the old technology, rather than what we gain with the new. As my Sunday column observes, this process is already taking place with the advent of the Kindle and its sister eReaders.

Some of the early commentary has the air of a sort of hyperactive omphaloskepsis, if that's not an oxymoron. (You can look it up in the dictionary packed into every Kindle.) Consider Sven Birkerts, the cultural critic and author of "The Gutenberg Elegies," in the Atlantic: "The Kindle ethos -- offering print by subscription, arriving from a vast, undifferentiated cyber-emporium out there — abets the decimation of context."

Birkerts doesn't go quite to the extent of putting the transition from paper to eReading on the same level as the cultural transition from oral to written storytelling, but that's what's on his mind. He's afraid that given the ability to instantly summon words, phrases and citations from the ether, "we will lose much of our sense of the woven narrative consistency of the story."

I don't see that happening, not with a device devoted to reading. It's true that the Kindle requires a different contextualization of reading material -- places in a Kindle book are marked by "location" numbers, not page numbers, because the ability to change one's font size or screen orientation makes "pages" irrelevant.

But that's just an artifact of the tool. I once heard the music critic Tim Page (now at USC) talk about how the LP affected his sense of the structure of musical works. He mentioned, specifically, that he could always pinpoint a certain passage in Berlioz's opera Les Troyens by recalling that it came at the beginning of Side Three in a six-LP set.

That wasn't a structure imposed by Berlioz, but by Philips records (assuming he was referring to the superb Colin Davis recording). The LP having become an antique, Page would have to talk about a passage on CD 2 -- and if he'd ripped the recording to his iPod, he'd be back to talking about Act 3. None of this is likely to have changed Page's appreciation of the music, just his mode of reference.

Will eReaders be any different? Not inherently. All I can say is that since I've acquired my Kindle, I'm reading more, and enjoying it no less. Next up: Philip Roth's "Nemesis."

The column begins below.

The last time I was stuck somewhere without a book to read was 1988. The place was Homa Bay, a village on the Kenyan shore of Lake Victoria that I wouldn’t be leaving for five days at the minimum, with lots of downtime in store.

After three days I’d finished both John Le Carre novels I’d brought with me. I was only saved from spending the endless hours watching scorpions skitter across the sand by the Gideons, whose geographic reach really is remarkable. After that experience, I never left home without a Dickens in my knapsack, on the principle that you can’t get stuck anywhere on Earth long enough to get all the way to the end of “Little Dorrit.”

But that wouldn’t be an issue for me today, because now I have my Kindle.

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik

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