Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Kindle canon

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
Charlotte Brontë
Agatha Christie
Emily Dickinson
Alexandre Dumas (père)
Ralph Ellison
John Steinbeck
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Mark Twain
Jules Verne
Virginia Woolf
(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:
female writers: 6 | male writers: 5
American: 5 | English: 4 | French: 2
20th-century writers: 4 | 19th-century writers: 7
novelists: 10 | poet: 1
Alas 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.

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.


Ed Baker said...

I wouldn't buy one of these things
even if it was free!

am now on the way to the D.C. Main Library
where in the basement they sell VERY CHEAPLY
books they've "removed"

am looking for Ovid's Amores and am on the trail of
last I heard she was hanging out with Socrates
& her son, Eros

Mark Scroggins said...

I still remain an inveterate haunter of the Library sale shelves -- but there comes a time when my own shelves are reaching their limits, and it's kinda nice not to have to worry about where to put all those Jules Verne & HG Wells novels.

Ed Baker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Archambeau said...

I love the Kindle, but for specific things. It's how I read magazines (The New Yorker, The Nation, The Book, Philosophy Now, The Wilson Quarterly, and, when I can stand it, The New Republic).

It's also great for reading on my commute, in coffee joints, in waiting rooms, on park benches. I mean, you've always got a ton of material with you.

I don't use it when I'm really working on a book I'll be teaching or writing about, though: for those, I need to mark the thing up, write in the margins, etc., and the little highlighter/take a note function on the Kindle doesn't cut it.

I imagine the Kindle in its present form is going to be replaced by gizmos that can read as easily as it does, but that do all the stuff iPads do. I'm also looking forward to a screen I can write on with a stylus. Then we'd really be getting somewhere.

Don't get me wrong: I've been a book-lover since before I could read. But I'm tired of lugging a half-dozen volumes with me in my courier bag.

Jennifer Low said...

What about writing on your own body? The guy next to me at our "Shakespeare and the Visual Arts" seminar had the tattoo most likely to be reproduced by geeks like me. In tall block letters, around both wrists, it said, "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven." I like it so much I'm thinking of using PL as my email tag--but I'm worried that university administrators might consider my candor ill-judged.

Ed Baker said...

what did John Lennon write/sing ...

"no heaven no hell no religion" "

if those university administers consider your candor

take your money and run for the nearest exit.... poste-haste ...
30 years from now you'll look back on all of this

BDR said...

See if you can find Pynchon or Gaddis or Barth on kindle.