Why are some people so resistant to Kindles?
A friend of mine posted this on his facebook page the other day: Decided I hate Kindles…Let’s boycott them for Christmas.
He received a few replies, all of them in support of the Kindle, and two informing him he’s a Luddite. (I was one of those.) But it got me thinking, I do know a surprising number of people who passionately hate the Kindle, (and by extension, ereaders in general, and love to take the time to tell me that Kindles will never replace paper books, and that the ereader is doomed to extinction.
No matter how much logical argument I throw their way, based on the evidence of the digital revolution in music in particular, they always throw the argument back at me with ‘…but books are different!’
So, here’s my take on what I think is going on here, and where these people are coming from.
Correct me if I am wrong, and leaving aside the internet as a purely browsing/information seeking experience, it seems we have had two previous analogue to digital revolutions in our cultural lives, and ebook readers are the third.
First there was the switch from analogue to digital in music. This has had two stages, begun when compact discs replaced vinyl, followed by downloading/streaming music and mp3 players.
There was a similar reluctance to embrace digital when compact discs first came out. A lot of this has to do with the tactile side of setting up a vinyl record to play music. Vinyl records look beautiful in an old fashioned way, are nice to handle, and the cover art often became a sensory experience in itself. The best covers were works of art in themselves, and I now have some hanging in frames on my walls. Placing a record on the turntable and settling the needle into its groove was another part of the physical sensory experience that was enjoyable, and watching the record turn on the turntable, and listening to the music coming from the speakers became almost a steampunk experience, redolent of well oiled machinery performing some unfathomable task.
But at some point during this tactile experience the listener stepped back and just, well, listened. And that’s where the physical differences between analogue and digital disappeared, and digital proved itself a superior listening experience. Oh, I know, we could argue for years about the merits of vinyl quality sound versus digital, but for the majority of people, an entry level CD player outperformed an entry level record player. The tactile experience of setting up the vehicle that carried the music with the system that delivered it became less important. We began to care less about the pleasure of setting up the record on the turntable, and came to prefer the superior digital sound and ease of startup of CDs.
Secondly, there was the switch from analogue to digital on television, which was much smoother. The quality of the movie watching experience on DVD stomped all over video cassettes from the start. There never was a tactile side to inserting a video into a machine and pressing play, and DVDs looked far superior to video cassettes from the word go, never mind that the quality of the image on the screen was ten times better, and ease of navigation between scenes much easier. Watching films on a television was always about using nothing more than our eyes and our ears, and the means of how that content was delivered was inconsequential.
But books are a different matter altogether. It seems to me that the means of the delivery of the content, and with it the tactile side of that delivery, is entirely bound up in the delivery of the content itself. That’s a rather clumsy way of saying, during the process of immersing ourselves in a story world created by the author of the book we are reading, we always hold that book, and we have to physically turn the pages to receive more information. With paper books we can often smell the paper, feel the texture of the paper on our fingertips, and we are aware of the length of the book from the size of it. We can stop reading for a moment to look at the cover, and some of those covers are embossed and so become even more tactile. Or we can turn the book over and reread the blurb on the back cover, or the reviews. And when we take a break from reading we place a physical bookmark in the pages, and that bookmark is often a thing of beauty or art in itself, sometimes homemade by a loved one, or other times a reminder of somewhere special we went on holiday.
Digital books on the other hand, will, as a physical object, always look and feel exactly the same. At least until you buy a new ereader, but then the differences will be minimal. No matter how big or small the book is, no matter how many words it contains, in an ereader it is physically identical to any other book. The turning of pages becomes the simple flick of a switch, or swipe across a touch screen. And in terms of the quality of the sensory reception of the information received, there is no difference. None whatsoever. The words are on the page, and we read them.
In fact, when reading a digital book on a computer, or an iPad, you could say digital performs less well than analogue, as there is screen glare to contend with, and portability issues to distract from the reading experience.
But get the delivery of the content right and reading a novel with a digital delivery system can be just as immersive an experience as reading a paper book. Because, as with music and television, what matters at the end of the day is the content.
Books as art objects can be admired, handled, gazed at lovingly and laid artfully on coffee tables to be casually shown off to visitors. But when we get down to the content, if that content is not good enough to hold our attention, then what use the book? We read fiction to lose ourselves, and as long as the content is up to that task, you can do that using a book as art object, a cheap paperback, or an ereader.
And that’s what people forget when they predict the end of the Kindle.
In my next post I will look at the popularity of Kindles and maybe even make a tentative prediction or two on our reading habits for 2012.
In the meantime…what do you think of Kindles, and ereaders in general? If you don’t own one will you be getting one? And if not, why not? And if you do read digitally, well, what’s wrong with paper?
Thanks for reading.