To Kindle or Not To Kindle

Nicholas Carr has been responsible for more thought provoking  journalism about the evolution and impact of information technology and cloud computing than any other journalist in the last decade.  Carr, a former editor of the Harvard Business Review, has authored “Does IT Matter” (2003), “The Big Switch” (2008), and the Pulitzer nominated “The Shallows” (2010).

His controversial “Is Google making us Stupid” looked the internet’s effect on human cognition and how as a result people were no longer able to fully immerse themselves in a book or other pursuits with pre-internet levels of concentration.   He expanded on his arguments in “The Shallows” and zeroed in on the Kindle and other forms of on-line content readers in particular.

Carr’s main point is the same as that made by Marshall McLuhan in “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” (1964): Changing the medium through which content is delivered changes the content as well as how people interact with it.  The new medium in effect changes us.

Carr is particularly critical of adding hyperlinks and search facilities to the experience of reading a book and feels that it disturbs the self-containment that people crave when they immerse themselves in the world and ideas of a writer.

He uses the example of historian David Bell who describes his experience when he read “The Genesis of Napoleonic Propoganda” in electronic format in a New Republic article:

“A few clicks, and the text duly appears on my screen.  I start reading, but while the book is well written and informative, I find it remarkably hard to concentrate.  I scroll back and forth, search for key words, and interrupt myself even more often than usual to refill my coffee cup, check my email, check the news, rearrange files in my desk drawer.  Eventually I get through the book and am glad to have done so.  But a week later I find it remarkably hard to remember what I have read.”

On his blog  Carr  makes the point that the new X-Ray function, available on the new the Kindle Fire and Touch models, in effect reduces the experience of reading a novel to that of reading an auto-repair manual and “seems designed to ensure that a book’s words never gain too tight a grip over a reader’s consciousness.”  The  function doesn’t just explain the meaning of a word but augments the content with information that Amazon/Kindle, and not the author, thinks is relevant to the reading experience.

In a post called “Whose book is it anyway” Carr ponders on the ethics and legality of using X-Ray to enhance or augment the contents of a novel such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989) .  In a recent interview with the Paris Review, Ray Bradbury, author of the famous Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962)leaves no one in doubt as to whose book it is.

“Those [Kindle] aren’t books. You can’t hold a computer in your hand like you can a book. A computer does not smell. There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it. You put it in your pocket and you walk with it. And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn’t do that for you. I’m sorry.”


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