Saturday, January 30, 2010

More is Less

According to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, "millions of people now own Kindles". I'm baffled. It's an ugly, clumsy-looking device that reminds me of the first generation of mobile phones. The Kindle lacks the elegance of the I-Touch and I can't see it winning any design awards:
Bezos adds that "Kindle readers read a lot", but what does that mean? I listen to a lot of music on my MP3 player, but I would argue that the quailty of my listening has deteriorated, as the technology allows me to jump tracks so easily.

It feels like a long time ago (it is a time long ago) since the days when I'd carefully remove an LP from its sleeve, put it on the turntable, gently lift the stylus arm and place it down on the outer edge of the record, listening with anticipation to the crackles and clicks. Whether I was playing a Shostakovich symphony or a Stevie Wonder album, I would lie back and listen to the whole thing, experiencing the record as a whole.

I'm ashamed to say that I can't remember the last time I listened to a piece of music in its entirety. I can partly blame my children - we live in a small house and I don't have a "room of one's own". However, there is nothing to stop me lying down on the bed and listening to a piece of music on my headphones.

When I do listen to anything on my MP3 player, I find that I have the attention-span of a two-year-old. I will dutifully begin listening to Beethoven's Eroica symphony, right up to that sublime moment when Beethoven gets really angry, then my attention will wander and I'll start zipping through my tracklist: St John Passion, Andy Warhol, Siegfried Idyll, Meera Nam Chin Chin Chu, Luonnotar, The Headmaster Ritual, Concerto for Orchestra, Wichita Lineman, Trying Not to Think About the Time, Peter Grimes...

30 seconds here, 15 seconds there, I know I've only myself to blame, but it's too easy to change tracks. I need a deterent - the modern-day equivalent of the tedious, time-wasting process of rewinding a C-120 cassette back to the beginning.

If I had a Kindle with several dozen books at my fingertips, I'd probably go through a similar process, giving up on anything that wasn't utterly gripping. My Kindle would have to be restricted to one book at a time.

I'm not a Luddite, but I'm concerned about the increasing emphasis on quantity rather than the quality of experience. Our Kindles can store hundreds of books whilst our MP3 players and cameras can store thousands of tracks and photos, but what is the end result? Are we leading richer lives as a result?

I can see certain situations where the Kindle comes into its own. If you're backpacking for several months or are one of those commuters who devour airport novels, the Kindle is ideal. But, to quote the title of a novel, books do furnish a room. The book isn't just a medium, but the thing in itself. It is something that we see, touch, smell and even hear, as we flick through the pages.

Working with secondhand books, I am acutely aware of the sensorial qualities of a book: the slightly indecent softness of calf leather, the odour of stale pipe tobacco, the cracking of the binding as you open an old book, the unpleasant, chalky feeling of photographic plates, the smell of public libraries and, occasionally, damp, mildewy cellars.

These qualities proved to be too much for one of my customers who, last week, returned a 1920s book to me with a handwritten letter explaining that she felt that the book was too dirty to take to bed. There was nothing wrong with the book. Perhaps my customer would be happier with a nice, germ-free Kindle?

I shall not be buying an e-reader or I-Pad. I don't need more technology. What I do need is something that I got rid of years ago and have been quietly regretting it ever since: a wind-up gramophone.

Twelve years ago, when I lived in Twickenham, there was a power-cut late in the evening. Everyone was plunged into silence and darkness. However, my wife and I lit candles, opened a bottle of wine and listened to Noel Coward records on our gramophone. It was one of those perfect moments.

No piece of technology I own has ever bought as much pleasure. With their vast array of functions and huge storage, my gadgets promise so much, but somehow they seem to deliver so little.


Duchess said...

Hello, I wandered by from the Poet Laura-eate, whence I sometimes wander from Nuts and Mutton...

I think the Kindle is the perfect thing for students. If they digitize textbooks, these will sell. Kids travel a lot, always think they are going to work, lug masses of books.

The rest of us want something we can take to the bath.

Steerforth means you must be a Dickens man... But why him, I wonder. He wasn't such a great guy.

ps I had to sign up for a whole new account to make a comment on this blog. Why? How about allowing name/url ?

Steerforth said...

Thanks for going to the effort of setting up an account to post a comment - the rules of are a mystery to me.

I think the real Steerforth was much maligned, in spite of his flaws.

As far as textbooks are concerned, I agree that the Kindle has great potential in this area. I just wouldn't want to read a novel on one.

Brian Busby said...

Your comment about lying back and listening to albums as a whole sent me drifting back to my sharper, yet ignorant, youth. Why had I done this? I remember listening to The Hoople whilst staring at the record sleeve, never daring to leave the room. Why? Because I was afraid the record would skip (my copy was badly warped). Wouldn't want it to be damaged further.

For me, the experience of listening to music was lessened not by the MP3 player, but by the compact disc (which I embraced). No longer did I listen to every track - I could programme! And, if feeling lazy, I could simply put the thing in and press play. This practice, I came to realize, means listening to the first four or five tracks over and over again, but rarely the last six or seven.

End of rant.


Steerforth said...

Not a rant - interesting. I want to know how other people have or haven't been affected by changes in technology.

Jim Murdoch said...

Years ago my wife bought me a Rocket eBook and I have to say that I enjoyed using it. Its problem was that it couldn’t read PDFs which is a bit of a bind. I’ve read a few whole books on it and, if the software was available I’d dig it out of retirement and use it whenever I get a PDF version of a book to review. Other than that I doubt I’d use it. It’s not simply my age but I grew up with books and will always have affection for them. I have adapted to computers with no trouble at all and I rarely pull one of my very many dictionaries off a shelf these days because I can access the information far quicker online. It’s the small matter of cost. I rarely buy new books except as pressies and I’m damned if I’m going to fork out practically as much as a real book for a few kilobytes of data.

I will get a new reader one day when the technology has sorted itself out and come down in price but I’m in no rush. I see an eBook reader as being like a pen. You’re going to use the thing a lot and you want it to have a nice look and feel. I see the Kindle as the Biro of eReaders. Not for me.

As for digital music I play complete albums, always have and always will. The only time I’ll only play part of an album is if I’m providing an example of something for someone, if I’ve misjudged my mood or if it’s a new album and I hate it. I have some kind of iPod-thingy my wife bought me but I forget to take it with me more times than not. At least it doesn’t go through batteries like my old CD player. I was lucky to get two albums out of that thing.

Annabel Gaskell said...

Like you I miss lps. They did take up a lot of room though, but quality vinyl has a sound cds could never capture, and the rituals - we used to replace all paper inners with proper acetate ones, use a microfibre brush to pick up any lurking dust before sitting and listening to the whole side minimum. Then there's the sleeve artwork that you can see and appreciate ...

I'd secretly quite like an ebook reader, (apple probably), but just to have it - not to use it seriously to replace books. I just love handling and looking at my books - I can't imagine a house without oodles of bookcases, it would be so sterile. There are of course many good uses for Kindles etc, but not reading for pleasure.

David said...

I'm not a Luddite but I loathe the idea of ebooks/ e-readers (for proper books - I work in tax and can easily imagine all 5 volumes of Tolley's going on one, and good riddance to the paper: I think the same would be true of any technical manual that has to be regularly updated).

There are all the reasons given in the article, and more besides - if I buy a real book I can give as a present or lend it: not with an ebook, if it's locked to its device. And I know that (barring fire and flood - though most of my books survived a fire 3 years ago) it will be readable in 30 or 40 years time - will Kindles still be here then?

(In passing, I see a huge row has now broken out between Amazon and Macmillan in the US over ebook pricing which has caused A to withdraw all M's books - or so it is claimed...)

JRSM said...

I'm still a whole-albums person (on CD), but have the advantage of only working part-time, and so having the house to myself for two days a week--I turn the music up and have it on all day.

The iPad, and other advanced ereadery things, bug me for another reason, too. When you have a device that can do everything, it will be so easy to read a paragraph or two, then just decide to check your email, and then maybe do a blog post, and then get distracted and never go back to the book. Internet reading is such a fragmented experience, and I can see the iPad turning books into just another window you have open to skip between.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I have just blogged on this subject for the independant bookshop in which I work You have made exactly the point I was writing about last week (and more elegantly too - damn it!). It is the sensory element of books that I like, the different papers, smell, binding and not buying the TV/movie tie in cover. When everything is streamlined and digital the world will be a sadder and greyer place.

As for the Amazon and Macmillan bust up, it seems that everything these days is a race to the bottom. Yes book prices will be lower if Amazon are triumphant but what is the knock on effect? There will be little or no risk taking in the industry as the publishers will not have the margins to absorb failures, they will not be able to publish interesting but unknown authors or books that do not have a wide appeal. We are already drowning in a sea of celebrity biographies and 'commercial' titles these type of books will continue to be dominant in a world where margins are trimmed again and again at the behest of the big corporate booksellers. The old addage of 'You Get What You Pay For' is true.

Lewis William said...

I love books for precisely the reasons you list. Just to hold them is part of the pleasure. Books that have been enjoyed and passed down are my favourites, it is like holding onto the happy memories of those before me. I cannot ever see myself enjoying a novel via a computer nearly so much as I enjoy turning the pages.

But a pet-hate of mine is when people skip songs half-way through!

on site said...

Of course we are leading richer lives as a result of all this new technology. If Kindles bring in a new lot of readers, even if they are reading rubbish or fragments of books, isn't that better than them not reading at all? And if one is in love with printed books there is no end to them. Bookstores for new books are vast warehouses, there are more second hand bookstores than ever, and then there are always libraries, expanding not just for new computer bays, but also their collections.
It used to be that to do research one had to live near a university library. No more. I'd be very reluctant to go back to the old days of about twenty years ago when there was a clamp on the dissemination of information.

So, if one wants to lie on the bed listening to a Greetings from Asbury Park record and remembering being a student, fine. If one wants to sit on the bus every morning listening to an iPod shuffle, great.

I, like everyone else, did a little post on the iPad last week:
I don't mind them, although I doubt I'll ever bother with a Kindle sort of thing. Can't get through the piles of books I already have.

on site said...

please take off one of my comments: got completely thrown off when google wouldn't accept my password and had to then try to copy all those distorted letters they get you to do and got them wrong and then google closed me down.
So then, being quite cross about this, tried to rewrite my comment, which wasn't at all interesting and I couldn't remember what I'd said. And now I find they have published it twice.
It is odd, I find people who protest 'I'm not a Luddite, but ...' sound very much like the women who used to say 'I'm not a feminist, but...'
What is wrong with being a Luddite? No need to apologise, be proud of it.

Steerforth said...

Lots of thought-provoking comments. Two things are clear: Kindles are fine for reference books like good old Tolley's and I have a poor attention span. I shall try to stop skipping songs!

Jim raises a good point about how technolgies can become obsolete so quickly. I have several floppy disks with God knows what on them and even if my laptop had an A drive, it would probably come out as goobledegook.

Carole, I also wonder where the publishing world is heading. There is a glimmer of hope from the growth of innovative small publishers (not to mention the good independent bookshops), but mainstream publishing is depressingly formulaic.

Re: the iPod shuffle - I suppose I'm worried that real listening is being replaced by a postmodern, anchorless succession of experiences. But that's probably nonsense and I need to just lighten up.

Am I am Luddite? I've always thought of myself as a gadget junkie, but I am becoming increasingly unexcited by new technology. Maybe I am.

markwoff said...

Good article.

Well then - I too used the phrase 'I'm not a Luddite' in the same sense on my post here, just to add to the other comments saying something similar.

It does have that 'protest too much' air about it, but so what? WE KNOW WHAT WE MEAN.

I agree with our fellow non-Luddite David, who fingers the nub of the crux with his observation that a better use for eKindlepads would be to contain multi-volume text books.