I'm back – at least I'm back in Boca, which doesn't seem appreciably warmer than DC, where we spent the last week of our vacation. The girls are in camp this week & the next, which makes the fact that J. is in Prague (Prague!) for a Shakespeare conference a bit less galling. I am weary, & depressed looking at the stack of mail – bills, notices, letters from lawyers & life insurance companies – on the dining room table. But happy to be unpacking the various crates of books we mailed back from points north; coming home from a long vacation is always a bit like Christmas.
The Kindle canon, the people at Amazon would have you believe, is more or less coextensive with whatever's out there to be read. Right. That doesn't seem a point worth debunking; what I'm interested in is the implicit canon the device itself presents to its owner, in the form of the "sleep-mode" screensavers that pop up whenever you shut it off.
So far as I can tell, the Kindle is something of a hybrid between an active storage/search system and a passive display screen. It's never really "on," except when you have the wireless engaged and are downloading content. Instead, it just rearranges the electronic "ink" of its display (like an Etch-a-Sketch, as innumerable commenters explain). When you've finished reading & put the thing to sleep, the page you're reading disappears & is replaced with a "sleep" screen, a graphic that the people at Amazon have designed to give the device an air of "culture" – to give you, or the person peering over your shoulder in the subway, the sense that you're actually reading a book, rather than mouth-breathing your way thru Glenn Beck's latest or Sarah Palin's autobiography.
There are 23 of these screens, & the Kindle cycles thru them so far as I can tell in the same order every time. The first is the Kindle/Amazon "logo," as it were, a figure reading under a tree; the last pictures some archaic bit of printing equipment & gives an email address & website for comments on the device. Of the remaining 21 screens, 10 are what I think of as "cultural wallpaper" – antique architectural & zoological drawings, a page of the Book of Kells, portraits of St. Jerome (Dürer) and Erasmus (Holbein – see above). And the final 11 are pictures of writers, so signaled by their names captioned in chunky Kindle font. These writers are what I designate the "Kindle Canon."
In alphabetical order, they are:
Jane Austen(Since the Kindle doesn't caption Erasmus or St. Jerome, I'm betting they're assuming we won't be using the device to actually read those worthies.) A pretty anodyne list, you're thinking. Here's some breakdowns:
Alexandre Dumas (père)
Harriet Beecher Stowe
female writers: 6 | male writers: 5Alas poor Emily Dickinson! Not merely is she the only poet in the lot, but (despite what the Amazon website says) neither the Franklin nor the Johnson editions of her poems are actually available on the Kindle, leaving only the problematic earlier versions, and to top it all off she's presented in the goofily-retouched version of her sole portrait photograph, with ares of white ruffles and an incongruous Farah Fawcett-like sweeping hairdo.
American: 5 | English: 4 | French: 2
20th-century writers: 4 | 19th-century writers: 7
novelists: 10 | poet: 1
So – keeping in mind that Amazon is doing this on the cheap – the images seem to all be public domain, while portraits of Stieg Larsson or Billy Collins are probably copyrighted – what does this selection say about what Kindle readers read? Or perhaps more accurately, what Amazon thinks Kindle readers want to think of themselves reading?
1) Kindlers read novels, rather than poetry, short stories, or nonfiction. They like big, extended narratives full of fascinating characters (Austen, Woolf) or in which lots of exciting stuff happens (Verne, Dumas, Christie); sometimes both (Ellison).
2) Kindlers are as likely (or a bit more likely) to be women as men.
3) Kindlers spend a lot of time with what they read in High School, or at least their reading tastes haven't noticeably progressed much beyond there (Steinbeck, Twain, Dickinson, Verne).
Now, I'm not one to talk. I've been using my Kindle over the past 2 1/2 weeks mostly to read Jules Verne, HG Wells, and (my highbrow moment) George Eliot. But as a Kindle reader (if not yet a confirmed Kindle reader), this list leaves me feeling more or less insulted. Golly, folks – can't you even show the imagination of Barnes & Noble, who've gotten tons of mileage out of those engraving-style caricatures of a rather more interesting gang of literati? Sure, all of the above suspects, but they throw in Joyce, George Eliot, Wilde, James Baldwin, Dante, etc. It's the same principle of assumed cultural capital, but at least it's not a continual middlebrow assault. When I turn the damned thing off and get that dreamy picture of John Steinbeck, I never want to turn it on again.