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June 19, 2011

Never Judge a Book by its Wireless Connection

The Los Angeles Times takes its op-eds seriously and doesn’t allow just anyone to write them. So when it came time to publish an opinion piece regarding how the Kindle measures up in comparison to printed books, they turned to an expert:

Sara Barbour.

Sara Barbour describes her credentials early in the article:

“I've never used a Kindle.”

This could explain a lot about Los Angeles Times op-ed pieces.

This is a little unfair to Ms. Barbour as she did do some research on the Kindle:

“I've seen them in an over-the-shoulder sort of way”

Well, if that’s good enough for the Los Angeles Times, it’s good enough for us, although you might want to check the next time you read an LA Times piece on the war in Afghanistan that the correspondent didn’t base the story on something he saw on CNN “in an over-the-shoulder sort of way.”

The thrust of Ms. Barbour’s argument for the superiority of printed books is the fact that they are printed books. Coincidentally, this is the exact same argument we used in favor of the Kindle when we wrote our own review a couple of years ago. However, we made the amateurish error of actually purchasing and using a Kindle first.

But then, what can you expect? Planet Moron is just a blog. We never went to J-school and simply don’t understand the important role ignorance plays in informing the public.

Regardless, she makes a strong case for printed books:

“And then there is my childhood habit of making books into companions"

This is starting to sound less like an op-ed and more like a DSM entry.

"It isn't just about reading 'A Wrinkle in Time' — it's about my copy of the novel, with its cover appropriately wrinkled from hours of bathtub steam. I delight in the number of cracks on a spine.”

For the record, my own Kindle has a stain where I spilled a Jack Daniels on it as I passed out trying to make my way through a David Kessler book.  Ah, the memories…

“In eliminating a book's physical existence, something crucial is lost forever. Trapped in a Kindle, the story remains but the book can no longer be scribbled in, hoarded, burned, given or received. We may be able to read it, but we can't share it with others in the same way, and its ability to connect us to people, places and ideas is that much less powerful.”

She does have a point. By trapping a book in a Kindle, what with its Internet connection, social networking capabilities, capacity to display within the text how many times other people have highlighted and saved certain passages, and ability to access your entire collection through any wireless connection, its ability to connect us to people, places and ideas is that less much powerful than the printed book, what with its ability to become cracked, wrinkled and steamed.

For Ms. Barbour, printed books set her on her journey:

“If it weren't for the signature in that stolen copy of ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ I wouldn't have felt a personal responsibility for books and their authors, a conviction that led me to New York to study at the only university with a great books curriculum.”

See, a single book established a conviction within her and set her on her life’s journey.

If it weren't for the gift of that galley of "The United States of Arugula," I wouldn't have developed the friendship with my boss, a food editor, and that was what made me realize that exploring the place of food in our lives was what I really wanted to do.”

You know that first book that established a conviction within her and sent her on her life’s journey? Yeah, never mind. Now this book, this one really established a conviction within her, one totally unrelated to that first conviction on which she spent four years of her life and tens of thousands of dollars. 

If we were her father, we’d have taken away her books.

“But once we all power up our Kindles something will be gone, a kind of language. Books communicate with us as readers — but as important, we communicate with each other through books themselves. When that connection is lost, the experience of reading — and our lives — will be forever altered.”

Imagine if the Kindle had been invented first, that you could have immediate access to all the world’s great written works through a small, portable device. One that allowed you to take notes, highlight passages, and tweet or otherwise share those passages with your friends in an instant. And one that allowed you access to your entire collection through a variety of electronic devices, even your phone.

Now imagine that after centuries of that, someone invented the “printed book.” What might a Sara Barbour op-ed look like in this alternate reality?

“But once we crack open our printed books, something will be gone, a kind of language.  Kindles communicate with us as readers—but as important, we communicate with each other through the Kindle’s social networking options. When that wireless connection is lost, the experience of downloading – and our lives – will be forever altered.”

You know how our life has been forever altered?

We’re going to stop reading the Los Angeles Times.


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June 19, 2011 at 09:32 AM in Books | Permalink


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It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

I remain fond of of printed books myself and share some concerns regarding digital manipulation which is why I insist that my bank and 401K statements be mailed to me even though I do pretty much everything online.

But like all media creations, most books are pretty disposable. I love my various collections of "great works," and retain a handful of "emergency" type books in printed form (if you're having an emergency, there's a good chance you won't have electricity) but for summer fiction and current-event type or political publications, the Kindle is my choice. But then, I've actually tried the Kindle, unlike Sara Barbour, so you should take my opinion that with a grain of salt.

Posted by: Planet Moron | Jun 21, 2011 12:21:46 PM

My Dad loves Kindle since he can check out ebooks, and the print blows up for poor eyesight, but I will stick with books. I share Hilfy's concerns about waking up one day to find that "some animals are more equal than others" and my books have been edited for PC content.

The LAT is another rag unfit for lining birdcages, along with the NYT and WaPo, so I am a little surprised you made it all the way to the kindle review.

Posted by: John | Jun 20, 2011 7:28:21 PM

Boy, am I behind the times. I didn't know a hot tub was a place for reading.

Posted by: barryjo | Jun 20, 2011 7:25:54 PM

I like my Sony eReader for travelling. The rest of the time I use paper books. Except for the hot tub, there I read the newspaper or magazines. I dare you to take you Kindle with you in the hot tub. This is why paper media will never go away.

Posted by: TheOldMan | Jun 20, 2011 1:29:27 PM

They'll get my paper books when they pry them from my cold, dead fingers. Yeah, all that portability seems nice until they start adding advertisements. Not to mention that someone else is in control of the books that you have. Have you forgotten the "1984" Kindle incident?

Posted by: Hilfy | Jun 20, 2011 8:13:29 AM

Jumping too on the LAT commentariat bandwagon to say I loved the
article,....... and one more thing, GFK: .......one thing you did not
mention because maybe you don't know this yet and the mass media in
the USA won't publish my findings yet, even the LAT oped refuses to
print my oped on this, but it's just a matter of time: reading on
paper lights up different parts of the brain vs readong on a screen,
and these regions of the brain for paper reading are vastly superior
in terms of brain chemisty and neurons. I am not talking about the
smell of a book, or the materiality of turning pages, and all the
other important things you mentioned in your very good oped,
no.......I am talking about how paper reading is superior for these
threee vital things: processing the information we are "reading";
retaining the memory of what we just read, and for a long time; AND
analyzing what we just read, as we read it on paper, aka critical
thinking. Current MRI and PET scan studies show that reading off paper
surfaces does light up different and superior regions of the brain,
compared to when we "screen' on screens. I call what we do on screens
as "screening" because it is not really "reading." Maybe you can write
a future oped on this since you have connections at the LAT oped page
obviously, and they won't even give me the time of day. That's okay.
The research I have now is coming out soon, and it will turn the
reading device industry on its back, and they won't like it one bit.
But in fact, reading on screens is vastly INFERIOR to reading on paper
in terms of brain chemisty. That's the key here. Not one US newspaper
will publish my findings. WHY? Ask Anne Mangen in Norway. Ask Maryanne
Wolf at Tufts, Ask Gary Small at UCLA......

Posted by: dan e. bloome | Jun 19, 2011 10:41:28 PM

Maybe next week's op-ed will be about how our society will change in light of our diminished book-burning opportunities. How can we suppress ideas in the future?

Posted by: Mªrty | Jun 19, 2011 7:04:22 PM

While not explicit in the piece, the notion that you can access books anywhere, anytime, means you'll have more opportunities to read them. Of course, that has to balanced with the diminished opportunities you'll have to burn them. So really, it's a trade off.

Posted by: Planet Moron | Jun 19, 2011 11:54:33 AM

"I've never used a Kindle" is where I stopped reading that article, and since the phrase was thoughtfully included near the start it saved me a lot of time.

I hadn't read more than a book or two a year recently until I got my Kindle. Now I'm on my fifth in about 7 weeks.

Posted by: Christopher Fotos | Jun 19, 2011 11:41:52 AM

As an avid reader and owner of hundreds of books, I have to say I freaking love my Kindle! Best gift I ever got. Not just the convenience, but all the free public domain books that are available, as well as the much lower prices on mainstream books, this little wonder has saved me a ton of money.

You know what I got out of Barbour's ramblings? "Trapped in a Kindle, the story remains but the book can no longer be scribbled in, hoarded, burned, given or received."

Uhh, burned?

Posted by: fleeceme | Jun 19, 2011 11:20:57 AM

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