The New Yorker | Kindle and the future of reading

It can be kind of fun to revisit old articles written about the “future of reading.” Nicholson Baker’s New Yorker article on the Kindle comes to mind, written back in the simpler times of August 2009. I suppose a lot of the sense of novelty that characterizes this piece has worn off (novelty can only last so long, and especially with an estimated 8 million Kindles sold).

Baker’s somewhat cheeky — but not entirely inaccurate — description of how the Kindle could influence said Kindle buyer’s reading behavior:

“Well, well! I began to have the mildly euphoric feeling that you get ten minutes into an infomercial. Sure, the Kindle is expensive, but the expense is a way of buying into the total commitment. This could forever change the way I read. I’ve never been a fast reader. I’m fickle; I don’t finish books I start; I put a book aside for five, ten years and then take it up again. Maybe, I thought, if I ordered this wireless Kindle 2 I would be pulled into a world of compulsive, demonic book consumption, like Pippin staring at the stone of Orthanc. Maybe I would gorge myself on Rebecca West, or Jack Vance, or Dawn Powell. Maybe the Kindle was the Bowflex of bookishness: something expensive that, when you commit to it, forces you to do more of whatever it is you think you should be doing more of.”

The Freakonomics guys would probably have a thing or two to say about the Kindle as the “Bowflex of bookishness” — but maybe some consumers are suffering from the causality/correlation paradox: do they spend the $200 on a Kindle because they read a lot, or do they think spending the $200 will make them read a lot? Personally, I’ve found having a reading device handy creates more reading time in the day. Kind of handy when you’re stuck on the exercise bike at the gym (yeah, it looks dorky, but I don’t even care), waiting around for a meeting, or even brushing your teeth (three minutes of Kindle reading is still better than none).

Also worth noting was Jeff Bezos’s description of the experience of reading, and how the Kindle was expected to facilitate that experience:

“‘Nobody’s been buying e-books,’ Jeff Bezos told Charlie Rose in November, 2007, at the time of the Kindle 1 launch. The shift to digital page turning hadn’t happened. Why was that? ‘It’s because books are so good,’ according to Bezos. And they’re good, he explained, because they disappear when you read them: ‘You go into this flow state.” Bezos wanted to design a machine that helped a reader achieve that same flow.’”
A metaphysics of the eBook? Check out Baker’s interesting, novelistic sort of way to describe the Kindle:

“A Kindle book arrives wirelessly: it’s untouchable; it exists on a higher, purer plane.” Moreover, one of the main differentiating characteristics from Amazon’s Kindle and other e-Reader devices, is of course its display: E Ink. Gotta love the almost Borgesian way in which Baker describes E Ink as the brainchild of MIT scientist Joseph Jacobson: “He wanted the book he held to be infinitely rewriteable — to be, in fact, the very last book he would ever have to own. He called it ‘The Last Book.’ To make the Last Book, he would have to invent a new kind of paper.”

I actually found the most interesting part of this to be the back-story of the Kindle’s E Ink display:

“Here’s what you buy when you buy a Kindle book. You buy the right to display a grouping of words in front of your eyes for your private use with the aid of an electronic display device approved by Amazon …

At M.I.T., Jacobson and a group of undergraduates made lists of requirements, methods, and materials. One of their tenets was: RadioPaper must reflect, like real paper. It must not emit. It couldn’t be based on some improved type of liquid-crystal screen, no matter how high its resolution, no matter how perfectly jewel-like its colors, no matter how imperceptibly quick its flicker, because liquid crystals are backlit, and backlighting, they believed, is intrinsically bad because it’s hard on the eyes. RadioPaper also had to be flexible, they thought, and it had to persist until recycled in situ. It should hold its image even when it drew no current, just as paper could. How to do that? One student came up with the idea of a quilt of tiny white balls in colored dye. To make the letter “A,” say, microsquirts of electricity would grab some of the microballs and pull them down in their capsule, drowning them in the dye and making that capsule and neighboring capsules go dark and stay dark until some more electricity flowed through in a second or a day or a week. This was the magic of electrophoresis.

Made me want to learn more about how E Ink works.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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