Rage Against the Machine? The Kindle, the Book, and the Future

I don’t have a Kindle. I have never used a Kindle. But I love the concept.

I do have books — lots of them. I love the concept and the craft of books. But I’m not a librarian for the sake of books.

I say these things because I agree to some extent with both of two opposing viewpoints on the Kindle’s impact on the culture of words and the future of books, both of which were published at theAtlantic.com.

Sven Birkerts’ article of March 2, 2009, “Resisting the Kindle,” laments the potential world created by the Kindle revolution in which “libraries survive as information centers rather than as repositories of printed books.” Professionally, I am actually fine with that. I am a librarian not primarily to preserve information but to make it available in ways that our students find helpful and accessible. Personally, however, his recognition that our literature is deeply contextual and historicized resonates with me. Consider:

Why, then, am I so uneasy about the page-to-screen transfer—a skeptic if not a downright resister? Perhaps it is because I see in the turning of literal pages—pages bound in literal books—a compelling larger value, and perceive in the move away from the book a move away from a certain kind of cultural understanding, one that I’m not confident that we are replacing, never mind improving upon. I’m not blind to the unwieldiness of the book, or to the cumbersome systems we must maintain to accommodate it—the vast libraries and complicated filing systems. But these structures evolved over centuries in ways that map our collective endeavor to understand and express our world. The book is part of a system. And that system stands for the labor and taxonomy of human understanding, and to touch a book is to touch that system, however lightly.

I think, though, that Matthew Battles’ article of March 5, 2009, “In Defense of the Kindle,” along with his 2003 book on the “unquiet history” of libraries, has helped to soothe my personal bibliophilic concerns:

Yet the culture of letters has always been subject to disruption and transformation. Indeed, since the advent of print, technologies of the book have changed dramatically, and with them the book’s place in society. The world of letters not only transcends these technological changes—it thrives because of them. Were that not the case, the cultural continuity that Birkerts holds so dear would have been lost long ago.

In other words, We didn’t start the fire. It was always burnin’ since the world’s been turnin’.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Tim says:

    Lots of thought-provoking articles out there on the future of the book, aren’t there? It’s hard to know what the future will be like for libraries and bookstores. Things are changing so quickly!

  2. Bonnie says:

    As someone who enjoys reading and has stacks piles shelves of books, I am glad for the invention of the Kindle. Nothing will replace the thrill of seeing books neatly lining the shelves, flipping through them, and remembering where I was when I read a particular passage. But, as someone who has and will serve overseas where not many English-language books are available, this technology is welcome.

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