Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Baker on the Kindle

I’ve always loved Nicholson Baker’s feel for the object-ness of reading. He has a hunter’s sensitivity for detritus and marginalia, as though he were advancing through a cluestrewn landscape towards some primal scene in which the object becomes sense. Thus, his essays on the library index card, or the holocaust of old newspapers (which are being microfilmed and torn up) appeal in the way Freud’s case studies appeal, with the sideglance, the thing hardly said at all, the dream, followed up by an exacting, exacerbated consciousness towards the moment of recovery. In Baker’s case, it is the recovery of the whole sensual range of the first, magical reading experience – which, in the life of a reader, has the same status as the first sexual experience. Baker fastens this curious gaze upon the other minutia of the world as well – upon bobby pins and the sprockets of filmstrips, for instance. He seems to be aiming at making visible that vertiginous shift between the visible and the readable, making literature out of the impossible capture of the world by literature.

Plus, he is a curious kind of Luddite. He is not a Luddite who wants to abolish technology. He is a Luddite who is overwhelmed by the beauty – the gigantic waste of beauty – wrought by past technology. The total product of the everyday created by media – which surrounds us as the shell surrounds an oyster, our unconscious product in which we move and filter – fascinates him.

Given the writer he is, he had to be fascinated by Kindle. The resulting New Yorker article is the only Kindle article I’ve read all the way through.

Since I read a great deal on the Internet, I have failed to understand the hullabaloo over an ersatz book. For instance: I’m reading, at the moment, Foucault’s essay, Ceci n’est pas un pipe. I’m reading it in the Dits et écrits I, which I downloaded from Scribd, where it exists in a limbo of legality. In many ways I prefer to read it on the screen – I can change size of the type, for instance. As I don’t have any reading glasses – I lost my prescription reading glasses in December – I like to read with bigger type. Admittedly, the light of the screen is a smallscale, constant shock to my retina; on the other hand, I can read through my regular glasses if I make the print big enough.

But more than that – I can cut and paste. I can take a passage in French, paste it to another screen, and translate it. And in so doing I get into the very entrails of the prose, as if I were not simply a reader, but a sibyl.

And that is of course not all. I can take a word, phrase, or theme and search Google Books for it. And if, as often happens, someone wrote about it before 1922, I can download whole texts. And if, as often happens, someone wrote about it after 1979, I can often read excerpts of texts. Or I can go to and see if this evokes any echo in that rather bizarre collection of digitalized media. And the finds in archive org, that convocation of American and Canadian libraries spiced up by the million book project and other oddball enthusiasms, has allowed me to find many things that I’d have to go to a university library to find. By diligently searching for it, I was able to find Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen in And again, I am able to cut and paste, although from a reader document, which is a different kind of experience.

In Baker’s essay, he quotes many approving comments about Kindle. Some of them are from my companeros, the public library crowd. All library patrons have to deal with the fact that books are eaten over, sneezed on, left out in the rain, subject to a baby’s tearing hands, or the vandal’s scissors. Books tend to come off the glue that holds them to the spine. I just finished, for instance, The Grotesque, Patrick McGrath’s novel, and I inflicted on it a few bent page corners, which I smoothed out – but they leave their mark. I go through this book and it is not pure wilderness – others have visibly gone through before me. Nobody has spilled anything on it, but it has a loose feel, as though it is reaching its limit of openability. And then of course there is the library look of the book. It has a transparent plastic jacket over the book cover, and a ribbon runs across the bottom saying Austin Public Library. It is not a book I have bought. Reading it in a public place means that anybody can see I have not done the American thing and bought the book, nor am I a student. There is a light stigma on the library book user – it is as if we bear a slight family resemblance to the trash diver.

One thing Baker misses in his article, here, when talking of Kindle’s great success among romance readers:

“E-romances don’t fully explain the Kindle’s success—and the kind of devotion that it inspires. To find out more, I went to Freeport, Maine, to talk to Eileen Messina, the manager of the British-imports store just across from L. L. Bean. Messina, a thoughtful, intelligent woman in her thirties, has all kinds of things on her Kindle, including “Anna Karenina,” Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore,” books by Dan Simmons and Abraham Verghese, and the comic novel “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” She is so happy with it that she has volunteered, along with about a hundred others, to show it off to prospective purchasers, as part of Amazon’s “See a Kindle in Your City” promotion. Her Kindle was in her purse; she’d crocheted a cover for it out of green yarn. In the past, she said, she’d taken books out of the library, but some of them smelled of smoke—a Kindle book is a smoke-free environment.”

Messina is being discrete. Those of us who have worked at used book stores know the distinct, awful smell of romance paperbacks, a heavy, depressing mixture of perfumes and cigarette smoke. More than any other genre, romance novels are bought and traded en masse. They receive an amazing amount of circulation – more than is given to, say, that old two volume set of Husserl’s Logische Untersuchungen that has been in a corner in the Philosophy and Esoterica section forever. This volatility greatly increases the chance that the Harlequin will, like a dust speck in the sky, gradually accumulate around itself a miasmatic cloud of extraneous materials. The life cycle of the Harlequin would have made an excellent plot line for one of those Enlightenment philosopher-pornographers, who would trace the experience of a flea, or a sofa. Except of course that the seductions might be much more downbeat – especially in comparison to the seductions contained in the books themselves.

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