Monday, November 21, 2011

The Still Point of the Turning World

The title of this blog comes from T.S. Eliot. He was talking about books and I think he was right. In this busy world books are something very static or at least they used to be. The idea of the book is now changing. What exactly constitutes a book? “Books” now can have many added features such as 3-D clips, embedded digi-vids, and recordable devices so a narrator can tell the story (presumably for parents and children). The format of what constitutes a book is changing.
Last fall I received a Kindle as a present from Aya. I love to read. I read in the bathroom, in planes/trains/automobiles, before bed time, etc. I usually am reading 2-3 books at a time and in an average year I get through about 50 books of varying size. So naturally the idea of the Kindle intrigued me. The main draw for me was that it could hold a lot of media in a relatively small device. I am often traveling and so this would be a great thing to have. Last summer I seriously considered buying one as I was going to be taking graduate classes and traveling at the same time. I certainly didn’t want to lug my textbooks around with me and the Kindle would have been perfect except that those particular titles weren’t in the Kindle selection yet. Therein lies one of the drawbacks. Despite the vast amount of titles available on the Kindle it is merely a drop in the literary bucket. So I didn’t buy it because of that, the price of most books on the unit, and the price of the Kindle itself. At the time it was around 200 dollars to buy a Kindle and some of the titles can only be bought for 9.99 and above via amazon while their paper editions can be found for 1 cent plus shipping.
By the time Aya got me my Kindle things had changed a bit. The price fell to around 175 dollars, many more titles were added to the selections, and they now carried MG3 which is basically the ability to access the internet anywhere. Part of the reason for the evolution of the Kindle has been the rise of other similar things such as the release of the iPad2 in 2011 and now more recently other book tableture devices like the Nook from Barnes and Noble . In many ways the Nook is comparable to the Kindle while the Ipad can function like a Kindle, but then it also has so much more. It has more connection to all the applications that you would normally use on your laptop plus the usual gadgetry of the iTouch.
Now Amazon has responded with the Kindle Fire which can be comparable in many ways with the ipad. However, the speed and dexterity of using the internet on a Kindle is not very good. You would not use your Kindle if a normal desktop was within any reasonable walking distance of where you stood. Nor would you want to type a long winded blog (such as this one) since the key pad is small. I would rather use my cell-phone than Kindle to type something. For using the internet my Kindle has come in handy on only a few occasions looking for directions and such.

That really made me start to think, what exactly is this Kindle for? Is it a book or is it something else? I guess it is no longer a book because it has internet access, but then again it is made to look and feel a bit like a book. It seems that the main intent of the Kindle is for it to be used for reading.
At first I was discontent with the slow and clumsy internet and keypad use on my Kindle but after considering it I think I am happy about that. In that way it remains more of a book because it discourages me from doing anything with it but reading. There are enough things in life to distract me; I don’t need the thought of being able to easily access the internet while reading to be one of them.

Considering my Kindle brought up two questions for me. First, will the book remain as it basically has been for a millennium? I would say no, but yes. Despite the fact that paper book sales are down 9% this past year I think yes, books on paper will continue.There are some things that electronic books just can’t do and do we really expect everyone in the world to buy an electronic device to read? I think not. You could also look at it from the angle of a connoisseur. Just because most people use CD's or electronic files these days that doesn’t mean that there aren’t those who buy vinyl. I had a great conversation with my boss the other day about how things have changed. She thinks books are on the way out, completely, and that they are likely to go the way of vinyl. That is collectors items, but not much else.(she was also, btw, the first class in her elementary school to use ball point pens instead of ink, think about that) She cited the fact that for our students books are not what they were to us. Every kid now has grown up from birth touching an interactive screen. Very soon we will have kids entering our high schools and then become young professionals, who have very little contact with a physical book.
Then again, books will change. With all the capabilities of what “books” could be there will inevitably be some tinkering. I think the change is good. Imagine a text book in which the diagram of a rain cycle that actually moves.That would be pretty neat. Maybe a novel in which Alice shrinks and grows as you tilt the book (already exist actually)

Second, how will this change our society? The French writer Jean-Phillipe De Tonnac says "the true function of books is to safeguard the things that forgetfulness constantly threatens to destroy." That is a very interesting quote, but historically i think books have allowed us to actually lose memory among individuals at the gain of society. If you think about the vast change that the printing press and hence the start of the mass distribution of books caused, well, that is massive. Information preservation was placed on a higher shelf (ba-dam-ba-ching!)and societies could more easily access the collective knowledge of people past and present.
However, something was lost with the invention of the book and that was part of an oral tradition based on memory so that quote by Tonnac could be turned on itself. People used to tell each other tales that were very long. Take for instance the Iliad and the Odyssey. Those were poems or hymns and so were told from memory. With the advent of books those were written down. I doubt anyone could tell the tale from memory today, though there are some who are able to do similar things. The memory that was used for those tales was then allocated to something else. A similar example could be told with the advent of the cell-phone. I don’t know anyone’s phone number anymore except that of my mother and grandparents and that is because I remembered those numbers pre-cell-phone. That’s what you did with important numbers before cell-phones, you remembered them. Does that mean my memory is any worse for it? I would say not actually since the memorization of phone numbers is pretty trivial and it opened up my mind to remember something else that could be more important, like remembering my passport number or the password to my blogger account which are more important to me than knowing David Jinkins's phone number.
As I sat with my boss and talked about the changes over her lifetime I hearkened an even older person, my grandfather, who just turned 90 years old. He saw the automobile become popular, flight(almost the beginning of), travel to outer space (!), antibiotics(!), traffic lights, frozen food, the jet engine, television, the power of the atom, video film, cell phones, personal computers and the internet just to name the big ones. Life as he knew it when he was a boy could barely compare to our present. It makes me wonder as well, as I was looking at Kristin Frea-Davis's baby's picture the other day, will she read books? Is it really the end of books? If she reaches 90, what will the world contain then? That will be 22nd century.