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Kindles, monitors, books, bookmarks, and other disappearing objects.

By JAMES MUSSELL [] – My recent book, The Nineteenth-Century Press in the Digital Age (Palgrave, 2012), opens with a discussion of the way Amazon market their Kindle….Throughout [Amazon’s product description], the Kindle is described in relation to the book. It is a ‘convenient portable reading device’ that offers ‘an exceptional reading experience’. Its ‘electronic paper’ makes screen-reading ‘as sharp and natural as reading ink on paper’. It can be located in usual sites of reading: over breakfast, during the commute, on a journey, for the book club. Yet there is an interesting ambiguity here. Kindle might offer a ‘reading experience’, but it is the device that is called the reader, not the user. Open the box, for instance, and there is a user guide, not a reader guide: the implication is that users already know how to read, but might not know how to use. This is a point of anxiety, as it reminds potential customers of the strangeness of technology. If Kindle is like a book, but better, Amazon don’t want to remind readers that what makes it better is also what makes it strange…

Kindle is marketed on the basis that reading makes books disappear. It has been so well-designed that, like the book, users will not know they are using, only reading. This is obviously important for Amazon, as it still appears on the publicity material for the current Kindle, launched last autumn. Reading provides access to the ‘author’s world and ideas’, magically transforming the constitutive role of both text and technology into passive and dispensable intermediaries. The consistent emphasis on reading over use naturalizes the technical, but in doing so downplays what reading actually involves. Reading (and, as Walter Ong makes clear, writing) is not natural but must be learned through considerable effort. Amazon’s users can already read – they already know how to make a book disappear – so, it is implied, they simply need to transfer their existing literacy to the new ‘reading device’ so that it too can go away.

But what happens to objects when they disappear? When we stop reading, the book returns (‘Purple ribbon in every wollume’, says Mr Boffin, ‘to keep the place where you leave off’.) Yet the book’s insistent materiality is there all the time, offering up marks to be recognized as words, pages to be turned, the weight of the volume to be accommodated by our bodies. The act of reading is predicated on the form of crafted material objects and the application of learned behaviour; the resulting text effects a further transformation, changing the relationships between reader, text, object and environment. These components are reconfigured in the moment of reading, but only for the duration of the act. Not only is the transformation temporary (when we start to read, we establish a time when the book will inevitably return), but it is also incomplete. The book is suspended, but, in the meantime, it asserts itself in other ways…

Continued at | More Chronicle & Notices.

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