almost as good as a book

I’ve now read Virginia Heffernan’s column in today’s New York Times Magazine multiple times, and I am no less confused by it than when I began. Her focus in “Pump Up the Volume” is the Kindle, Amazon’s e-book reader. And her basic point seems to be that it is almost as good as a book. This is why I’ve had to read the column multiple times. That’s her point? It’s almost as good as a book? That’s really what her description keeps coming back to. One of the great things about the Kindle, Heffernan insists, is that it is so un-electronic, so unlinked to the internet:

Unlike the other devices that clatter in my shoulder bag, the Kindle isn’t a big greedy magnet for the world’s signals. It doesn’t pulse with clocks, blaze with video or squall with incoming bulletins and demands. It’s almost dead, actually. Lifeless. Just a lump in my hands or my bag, exiled from the crisscrossing of infinite cybernetworks. It’s almost like a book. 

And I thought, what?

A bit later, she continues this vein:

A sustained encounter with just about any good book on the Kindle is a rich, enormous, demanding, cerebral event. It’s like reading used to be — long ago before anyone had ever seen the brightly backlighted screens of laptops, cellphones and iPods that, when activated, turn everyone’s personal field of vision into layers of garish light and sound, personal Times Squares. 

And again, I thought, hunh? Why don’t you just read a book? But nowhere in the column does she really answer that question. She’s thrilled to be on a plane flight with her new Kindle and is looking forward to being away from the beeping buzzing world of hyperconnectivity. So why doesn’t she read a book on that flight instead of her Kindle? I realize, of course, that the entire premise of Heffernan’s column is digital culture, and that reading a book perhaps wouldn’t be the way to go in that context. But I am still surprised that it’s not even a question that is addressed.

Okay, on one last delve into her column, I see one attempt at an explanation of what makes Kindle preferrable to a book:

As I said, the Kindle feels insular and remote from the wild world of commerce and buzzing data swarms. But the fact that it’s connected to the Web sort of — it has to be, right? Or how else could I download all these books? — makes the Kindle somehow better than a book. Because while I like a few hours on an airplane, I can’t say I want to move into a locked library carrel and never visit the Internet again. 

So I guess that answers my question: the choice is between nearly lifeless electronica and locked into a library carrel.

I’ll leave aside what that says about how we might feel about libraries, and the inability to simply turn off our PDAs. Instead, I’ll use Heffernan’s column as a jumping off point to thinking about books as technology.

There’s a joke that has been circulating for a while about this fabulous new technology for reading–easy to operate, portable, compact. Have you heard about it? It’s the Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge Device! (You can read the full, original joke by Marielle Cartier in the Abbey Newsletter.) I prefer Medieval Helpdesk version from the show “Øystein og jeg” on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) in 2001. It’s been circulating on YouTube for a while now, and still utterly on target, both for its spot-on satire of helpdesk agonies and for the ingenious way the codex did revolutionize the techonology of reading.