Kindle defended by Matthew Battles, former rare-books librarian
March 14, 2009 | 7:36 am
Sven Birkerts, a book critic and tech skeptic who wrote The Gutenberg Elegies, took some swipes at the Kindle recently, and now Matthew Battles, a former rare-books librarian at Harvard, has replied. Just how important is it that you appreciate p-books in a paper context?
That’s among the issues under debate here. As a writer, I myself am less interested in optimal presentation than in seeing my work stays alive and in distribution as long as possible. E can help. For The Solomon Scandals, I wrote somewhat shorter paragraphs so the book would display a little better on narrow iPhone screens. But if anything, that made Scandals more readable in its trade paperback version. Besides, my newspaperman narrator would probably tend to write in short paragraphs.
Meanwhile kudos to Battles for his thoughts below:
Birkerts worries that the Kindle will reduce the lives and works of our poets and authors to interchangeable packets of information buzzing through the network. When someone at a party he attends responds to a question about Wallace Stevens by calling a Stevens poem up on his BlackBerry, he frets that we may be "gradually letting go of Wallace Stevens as the flesh-and-blood entity he was, and accepting in his place a Wallace Stevens that is merely the sum total of his facts." Yet instant access to Stevens doesn’t rob him of his place in a context; only forgetting him altogether could accomplish that. And forgetting is a corollary of the disciplining of access and the hierarchical imposition of taste. Given that Stevens is considered by some a "difficult" poet, his work could end up hard to come by in a world where tastemaking gatekeepers determine what gets published and distributed. But if my fourteen-year-old son can easily "call him up" on his BlackBerry, then I am a happy father. Such liberation of access can only enrich and deepen the historical imagination—extending its nourishment to new audiences.
Where both men are wrong: Neither essayist delves into issues such as e-book standards and DRM. Such matters are not abstractions, given the ultimate havoc that eBabel and "protection" may wreak on culture and on the availability of specific works in the distant future.
Birkerts almost gets into that territory when he writes: "My fear is that as Wikipedia is to information, so will the Kindle become to literature and the humanities: a one-stop outlet, a speedy and irresistibly efficient leveler of context." But he fails to consider the gateway angle in the context of proprietary vs. nonproprietary. DRM and eBabel mean that words will count less; technology and commercial agreements, more. I’m all in favor of copyright and of writers and publishers prospering. But let’s do this by making books widely available rather than penning them up. Do we really want one company, Amazon, to enjoy such influence over our culture? Right now Amazon is not censoring, for example, but how about the future? Look at the Walmart-style mindset of the ayatollahs running Apple’s App Store for the iPhone and iPod Touch. I fear that the city room language in Scandals may keep it from being an App Store book despite a critic’s favorable assessment.
Meanwhile thanks to Court Merrigan for spotting the Battle piece. Stay tuned later today for Court’s review of Junk Sick, Norman Savage’s memoir. Were it not for E, we probably would not be able to read the memoir. Talk about an example of the usefulness of the new technology! Oh, and by the way, I doubt that the Apple ayatollahs would approve of Junk Sick, either.