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Initial post: Apr 26, 2009 3:32:52 PM PDT
SARA NELSON, the former editor of Publishers Weekly, was at a dinner party recently when Ed Rollins, the Republican campaign consultant, arrived carrying a Kindle.
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PAGE TURNER With a book on the subway, you are what you read.
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"And I just said, `Can I see it?' " said Ms. Nelson, also the author of "So Many Books, So Little Time." "In this honeymoon period of Kindle - when a lot of people don't have them - you can look to see what someone is reading, in the guise of looking at the hardware." (For the record, Mr. Rollins's Kindle was crammed with the day's newspapers.)

Ms. Nelson owns a Kindle and a Sony Reader. And for her, the ownership of an electronic book reader, while not necessarily a badge of literary honor, at least telegraphs a commitment to books.

"It's really expensive," she said of the Kindle 2, which Amazon sells for $359. "If you're going to pay that, you're giving a statement to the world that you like to read - and you're probably not using it to read a mass market paperback."

But to other writers and editors, the Kindle is the ultimate bad idea whose time has come. Anne Fadiman, the author, was relieved to learn that her essay collection, "Ex Libris," was not available on Kindle. "It would really be ironic if it were," she said of the book, which evokes her abiding passion for books as objects.

"There's a little box on Amazon that reads `Tell the publisher I'd like to read this book on Kindle,' " she said. "I hope no one tells the publisher."

The publishing world is all caught up in weighty questions about the Kindle and other such devices: Will they help or hurt book sales and authors' advances? Cannibalize the industry? Galvanize it?

Please, they're overlooking the really important concern: How will the Kindle affect literary snobbism? If you have 1,500 books on your Kindle - that's how many it holds - does that make you any more or less of a bibliophile than if you have the same 1,500 books displayed on a shelf? (For the sake of argument, let's assume that you've actually read a couple of them.)

The practice of judging people by the covers of their books is old and time-honored. And the Kindle, which looks kind of like a giant white calculator, is the technology equivalent of a plain brown wrapper. If people jettison their book collections or stop buying new volumes, it will grow increasingly hard to form snap opinions about them by wandering casually into their living rooms.

"I always notice how many books there are on the bookshelves, and what the books are," said Ammon Shea, who spent a year reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary and published a book about it. "It's the faux-intellectual version of sniffing through someone's medicine cabinet."

It's a safe bet that the Kindle is unlikely to attract people who seldom pick up a book or, on the other end of the spectrum, people who prowl antiquarian book fairs for first editions. But for the purpose of sizing up a stranger from afar, perhaps the biggest problem with Kindle or its kin is the camouflage factor: when no one can tell what you're reading, how can you make it clear that you're poring over the new Lincoln biography as opposed to, say, "He's Just Not That Into You"?

"Do you lose all kinds of wonderful things about seeing the physical book?" said Kurt Andersen, the novelist and host of the public radio show "Studio 360." "Absolutely. But I don't think it's the end of the world. At least people still pay 10 bucks for the book." (Most books for Kindle are $9.99 on Amazon.com.)

Mr. Andersen is proud to live in a two-Kindle household. "Giving people a new, other way to read books is fine and good," he declared.

TO some book lovers and editors, there are myriad reasons to deplore the Kindle. Publishers will no longer get the bump that comes when travelers see someone reading, say, the latest James Patterson and say to themselves: "I've been meaning to get that. I think I'll buy a copy at Hudson News before I hop on the train."

And as books migrate from paper, it means the death of the pickup line, "Oh, I see you're reading the latest (insert highbrow author's name here)."

Michael Silverblatt, host of the weekly public radio show "Bookworm," uses the term "literary desire" to describe the attraction that comes with seeing a stranger reading your favorite book or author. "When I was a teenager waiting in line for a film showing at the Museum of Modern Art and someone was carrying a book I loved, I would start to have fantasies about being best friends or lovers with that person," he said.

David Rosenthal, the executive vice president and publisher of Simon
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The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (Hardcover - February 29, 2000)
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