I got the Kindle for Xmas, and my thinking was: Know Thy Enemy. Or my thinking was: Keep Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer. Or my thinking was: Maybe this will get me to read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allen Poe, which I have always wanted to read.
Why is the Kindle my enemy, you ask? Because I mostly write books, and when the list price of my book is $27.95, I make 15% of list price if it sells more than 15,000 copies. But if my book sells for $9.99, or some such, which is, more or less, a Kindle price, then I make quite a bit less and get a lower royalty rate. Ergo, for someone who is trying to make a living at this stuff, suddenly I am giving my shit away, and getting less for it besides. Secondly, there is the worry that what completely fucked the record business—college students getting music for free and then thinking that’s how it’s supposed to be—will fuck the book business too. I think the Kindle makes everyone’s book a digital file, and once there are digital files, there are, ultimately, people getting used to thinking that a book is just a sequence of ones and zeroes, instead of a physical object, and then they will want to start swapping these files too. Oh, and there’s a third thing, I kinda figured the Kindle would be fucking ugly, and that the text would look fucking ugly on the Kindle. These were my three reasons for hating the Kindle and thinking it was my Enemy, while engaging in the time-honored tradition of Contempt Prior to Investigation. Anyway, my parents happily obliged by getting me a Kindle (so that I didn’t have to pay for it, because I didn’t want to participate in the end of my career to the tune of $250), and on December 26, I decided to give the new Kindle a shot. The wife and the baby were asleep in the next room, and I sat up trying to trip up the Kindle Store. I mean, I tried to prove to myself that the Kindle Store would never have available anything that I would conceivably want to read, because I don’t give a shit about mysteries or thrillers or The Rapture. This part was too easy. No William Gaddis at the Kindle Store, excepting the posthumous ones (which are thin). No Grace Paley! No Stanley Elkin! No Thomas Bernhard! Now admittedly I already have most, if not all, of the work by these writers, but it’s the principle of the thing. If the Kindle Store only has only the literature of Appalling English Prose, I am not going to last too long, you know? I mean, I think Dan Brown’s prose should be dragged out and shot. Anyway, it was too easy to conclude that the Kindle would have nothing that I wanted to read. But then, just when I was about to give up, I found an impressive loophole in all the profit motive and advanced capitalism of the Kindlesphere. The Kindle Store included all the stuff from the Guttenberg Project! You know what that is, right? It’s the project that involved lots of people typing in public domain works on the web. Lots of stuff. I think most of Shakespeare is available. A lot of 19th century English novels. I know that there are textual questions about the Guttenberg project. Which editions are they using, and so on. But still if, like me, you have some readerly gaps in the public domain literature (to my shame, I have never read Richardson, and not all of Fielding, and so on), then with the Guttenberg Project, you can dip into these works. The thing that always put me off was that I didn’t want to read Richardson or Fielding on a screen. Who would? But trying to read them on the Kindle is another thing altogether. I mean, I already have the Kindle, and I have to read something on it, so why not download The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allen Poe. For free! Did I already mention this? All the Guttenberg stuff is free! So you don’t have to feel that you’re enriching people who are trying to eliminate the book, possibly the most civilizing invention ever created by a murderous and self-destructive species of hairless primates. Okay, so I got the Poe, and I started reading it—sometimes I started reading it in places I would not ordinarily read, while waiting in line, or while walking. Now I have to say, there are many ways that the Kindle truly sucks, right off the bat, at least mine sucks, and people who tell you that it doesn’t suck, and that it is somehow better than a book, or as good, these people are the literary equivalent of Scientologists. They have drunk the Kool-Aid. Here are some ways that the Kindle sucks: it has no page numbers. My Kindle indicates the amount of the text that I have reading in a percentage. This makes me feel like I am huffing gas, not reading the book. Another way that the Kindle sucks is that it doesn’t have fixed page layouts. Probably people who are hurtling through a book trying to figure out how the corpse got dead don’t care about this, but speaking as someone who writes the fucking things, I work hard to make the page layout mean something. My stories and novels look a certain way on the page (dense!), with a certain typeface and certain kinds of orthographic effects because that’s how I want them to look. The idea that this has all been taken away from me, so that my text can just be a rolling screen of words in whatever typeface you want, this is depressing to me both as writer and as reader. Also: no running heads. Just The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym at the top. Worst of all, and I can already hear the chorus of Kool-Aid drinkers trying to shout me down here: you just can’t fucking browse through the thing! Yes, you can search for certain words (if you were reading Lolita, you could type in “fire of my loins,” and it would give you page citations), if you have a word or words in mind. Also you can page backwards, one page at a time. But what about that feeling that you want to read the part about penguins in the Poe novel? You know it’s twenty pages back, and the search for that passage leads you somewhere else? Some recto leads to some verso and off you go on that liberated wander that is part of what makes the book so great? That part of reading is done with this Kindle. It’s over. They have tried to approximate this part of reading, but they cannot duplicate it. And the result is that a certain kind of reading will be a thing of the past, and that kind of reading is the non-linear, non-representational, impulsive, completely free kind. An abbreviated way of putting it is: the Kindle selects for books that drive you through in one direction, which means, in my view, books that kind of suck. I hope and trust that people will begin to make books (Shelley Jackson! You’re good at this stuff! You write one!) that play with this enforced linearity and really break it down. I can’t wait. In the meantime, lots of really bad books, mass-market ones, will begin to eat up this portion of the market, the part that favors people with ADHD, and book publishers will tell you that this is the future, the e-book reader is the future, even though it doesn’t have to be the future. It doesn’t have to be! All right. Have I described enough ways that the Kindle sucks? It is ugly, and the buttons are too small, and the “next page” buttons are right where you want to hold the thing, so that you are constantly depressing them when you don’t want to, and it’s not balanced well. It’s harder to hold than it should be. However, and here’s a big however, I am really loving reading the Poe! Why did I put this book off? It’s like Stephen King, a hundred and fifty years ago—kind of trashy, has everything but the kitchen sink in it, cannibalism, arctic exploration, penguins, the implicit love between sailors. And I have, despite everything enjoyed reading it on the Kindle. Does that mean there is some value to the device? I am afraid that despite thinking that the Kindle sucks hard and long, and that we are all being sold a bill of goods here, I am actually reading more (and I already read a lot) because of the Kindle, and that can’t be all bad. (That is, I am reading on the Kindle in addition to reading the old-fashioned kind of book.) I admit that so far I am only reading things that are free (next up: Tristram Shandy), because I don’t want to encourage anyone to let the book, as a form, wither in favor of the e-book files, but the Kindle is not all bad. It is just mostly bad. I suppose I feel the same way about iTunes, actually. I still buy a lot of physical CDs. I like physical CDs. But I think iTunes is a great medium for the 45 r.p.m. single, something I used to adore. In fact, I just bought the Flaming Lips recording of “Money,” by Pink Floyd on there! Sloppy mess! What ever happened to the LP?