I want to be a digital reader

On 26 November, A. N. Wilson wrote an article in his Word of Books column entitled ‘I don’t want to be a digital reader’, a review of the Kindle, and in the current issue of PC Pro there’s another. I want to compare them because PC Pro, as one might expect, gets it about right, and A. N. Wilson gets it very badly wrong in a way that’s rather interesting to those who are trying to imagine what shape and size the eBook market is and will be. Both start with the design: Wilson thinks it looks like ‘a vintage pocket calculator’, apparently not seeing the six-inch screen, while PC Pro remarks that ‘Jeff Bezos has himself claimed that one of the key design points is to allow the reader to forget they’re using the device at all, becoming immersed in the book itself.’ Wilson does notice the screen, however, when he writes ‘One thing to be said in its favour [actually the only thing he can think of in its favour] is that the Kindle is not a scroll but a codex’, in that text is presented in whole pages that the reader can turn, which he thinks doesn’t happen on a computer: the change from continuous text to page realized ‘a peculiar intimacy’ that effected the birth of Protestantism (he’s reading Luther’s translation of the Bible to learn German). Had he seen one, or even looked at Amazon’s page, he wouldn’t then have written ‘Presumably you can flip back a page, but even if you can do so in seconds, this will be longer than the split second that it takes us to turn back a page when you want to check the name of a character in a novel or to refresh your memory of who is speaking’: PC Pro’s reviewer, who had, wrote ‘much has been made of the half-second “flash”, where the image is inverted to white-on-black before the next page displays. In fact, we found that we quickly became used to this and, within a few pages of a suitably compelling text, we found that we stopped consciously noticing it at all.’ Its only complaint was that the Prev Page button was easy to press by mistake.

So as Wilson reads his Bible in the dark ‘by torchlight’ (really) he reflects on the intimacy he enjoys: ‘It is simply you and it, with no electric battery, no lit-up screen . . . alone with my book I am impregnable’. Well, you can be alone with a Kindle, the battery is silent and lasts for a week or more, and the screen is not lit up but uses ink on electronic paper. PC Pro points out that, as intended, it can be read even in bright sunlight, which is surely a more likely environment. But Wilson’s final point is that this intimacy can never be consummated on a Kindle: ‘how do you scribble telephone numbers on it, or half-finish the crossword?’ Without getting too Kristevan about the matter, crosswords aren’t supplied in the Kindle newspaper editions, but of course ‘because it is digital, you can edit, delete, and export your notes, highlight and clip key passages, and bookmark pages for future use’, as Amazon explains, and a dictionary is included.

So why consider this nonsense? Because A. N. Wilson is an influential reader who’s frequently perceptive about things that matter to people who read, and to get his account so badly wrong, quite apart from the fact that he thinks it’s acceptable not to look up the basic facts about something he evidently considers he can live without, is itself revealing. It’s been said before, but not often enough (and even PC Pro thinks it’s worth mentioning): whether on dedicated devices or familiar platforms, eBooks don’t replace books, they replace libraries. A. N. Wilson in his bed reading Luther in his cell inherits a tradition and practice that astonished St Augustine when he saw Bishop Ambrose in Milan. ‘When he read his eyes would travel across the pages and his mind would explore the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent’: for St Augustine, reading had been a matter of physical involvement with a text, speaking it aloud, infusing and suffusing it with one’s breath; reading it aloud was communal, involving all those around, literate and illiterate, in its consumption. PC Pro’s reviewer wrote ‘we found that we quickly became used to this’; while the Kindle or its successors are $399, this sharing will be physical, but eBooks invite, or demand, a new consummation with the texts they hold: they’re no longer confined to the printed page, plastic (noun and adjective), scriptible, missible; the text your Kindle receives is not yet like the Hitchhiker’s Guide, receiving updates and revisions over the sub-etha net, but it is truly palimpsestic in ways that traditional readers like Wilson haven’t the experience to imagine. The scholars and pupils in St Augustine’s youth were engaged in a one-to-many relationship, reading communally in a lithographic practice: the text was immutable and the metadata ephemeral. In 2007 eBooks are beginning to find a new form: ‘enhanced’ or digital-only editions; editions that carry a history of their composition; editions that link to other editions or resources, textual, visual, graphical; editions that exist in a many-to-one relationship with their readers, who are also their authors (and here author, from the Latin for ‘increase, originate, promote’, not writer, from the Old English ‘score, form (letters) by carving’ conveys the change from lithography to a new sense for demography). ‘The book changed my way of feeling . . . For under its influence my petitions and desires altered. All my hollow hopes suddenly seemed worthless, and with unbelievable intensity my heart burned with longing for the immortality that wisdom seemed to promise . . . It had won me over not by its style, but by what it had to say.’ A bezonian is an old word for a raw recruit, and in Henry IV Part Two Pistol brings news from the court; Shallow, the bezonian, says: ‘If, sir, you come with news from the court, I take it there’s but two ways: either to utter them, or conceal them.’ Like St Augustine we should be astonished, but not at the new, rather at the old. Tolle, lege, communicare.