Dan Cohen

The Idealization of the Book

Let me take the liberty of being the last academic with a blog to comment on the launch of Amazon’s new e-book reader, the Kindle. And let me also not waste any time on its design, screen, wireless technology, business model, or its uncanny resemblance to the Sinclair ZX80 I used in seventh grade. What little I have to say about the Kindle has less to do with the “e” than with the “book” part of it.

Although I’m generally an early adopter of technology, the Kindle—and indeed all e-book readers—strike me as similar to “photoplays,” or the filming of stage performances, that followed the introduction of film in the early twentieth century. In Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck, she distinguishes between “additive” and “expressive” features of new media, and notes that photoplays were “a merely additive art form (photography plus theatre).” Only when filmmakers learned to use montage, close-ups, zooms, and the like as part of storytelling did photoplays give way to the new expressive form of movies.

Just as many of those who were used to plays assumed the highest form of film would be the fixed-camera photographing of Shakespeare, those used to books assume the highest form of digital reading will be the book transported to a dedicated electronic device. This idealization of reading paper as the highest form of intellectual consumption has led so many to believe that we need an electronic book reader like Amazon’s just-released Kindle: to do real reading we have to take a text from our computer and put it onto a book-ish device that’s as close to paper as possible.

Wrong. Just as people kept going to plays, people will continue to read books (albeit perhaps fewer) while they adjust to online reading for many other purposes. Only a rigid elitist would insist that book reading is optimal in all cases. What book or journal allows me to keep up with the work of over 250 scholars in the digital humanities? My RSS reader does, and quite well. And while some of us older folks may idealize the daily reading of newspapers (in addition to loving books I subscribe to two newspapers because I love them so) we might as well admit that online reading is a far better way to stay informed about many topics—just ask sports junkies. Or compare the breadth and depth of the coverage of Web trends between the New York Times‘s business section and the TechCrunch blog.

Matt Kirschenbaum of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities eloquently covers this issue in his far more subtle analysis of the state of reading than found in the overanxious National Endowment for the Arts’ report To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence. (Unfortunately Matt’s article is behind the Chronicle of Higher Ed‘s electronic gates; when will they join the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in opening these gates and becoming part of the online discussion?) Matt highlights the many new forms of reading uncatalogued—or worse, dismissed—by the NEA report. These types include the exponentially growing forms of online reading that young people take for granted. While not idealizing these new forms, Matt notes that they can (contrary to the NEA’s belief) involve serious thought, and that they can engender writing as well.

As Matt points out, people are already voraciously reading on their computers, and when they read in an electronic format they want to take full advantage of the medium—link to texts from their blog or syllabus, email them, connect them to the universe of other writing and other people online.

To be sure, the reading of books has declined and there are elements of that decline to worry about. But let’s also remember that that very little of what kids read offline is Proust, and not all of what kids read online is their Facebook news feed.

Update: The Chronicle of Higher Ed has made a rare exception to their gating and provided an open access copy of Matt’s article.

9 Responses to “The Idealization of the Book”

  1. Dorothea Salo said on November 29th, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    The problem I ran into in the old ebook days was that people who uncritically expected to transfer books to electronic form didn’t actually know anything about book production or design, how they came to be the way they are and what purposes they serve.

    If you’ll credit it, for quite some time I was the ONLY PERSON on the old Open eBook Forum’s PubStruct working group with any book production (print or electronic) experience.

  2. Matt K. said on November 29th, 2007 at 5:32 pm

    Hi Dan,

    The if:book folks got permission to link to an open access copy of my Chronicle piece:


    And you can find Ben Vershbow’s very thoughtful write-up for if:book here:


    I’ve been happily reading from my Kindle for the past several days. It’s already become my venue of choice for reviewing long documents (at .10 a file I’ll suck it up). Yes, I’d like PDF too, and yes, I’ve been mentally bracketing the DRM considerations and lots of other stuff, but the screen, at least, is truly comfortable to look at–not a bit of fatigue or eye strain.

  3. Peter Murray said on November 30th, 2007 at 11:24 am

    Dan –

    Thanks for the thoughtful review on the subject. The analogy of “photoplays” is useful to me. I also appreciate the thoughts and links to the critiques of the NEA study.

  4. Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities Blog » Blog Archive » Digital Campus #16 - Steal This E-Book said on December 4th, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    [...] As noted in this space recently, Amazon.com’s release of its new e-book reader the Kindle has set off a frenzy of speculation about the future of books, reading, and publishing. On the new episode of Digital Campus, we debate the promise and problems of the Kindle and e-book readers in general. In the news roundup we express outrage at a possible new U.S. bill that would remove funds from universities that fail to stop online piracy and at Facebook’s new feature that allows everyone to see what you’re buying. Listeners beware: it’s a cranky week on the podcast. [...]

  5. Cherine Munkholt said on December 6th, 2007 at 9:43 am

    I’ve just come across a reference to a recently published handbook with a mind-boggling 37 chapters and 790 pages – perhaps it’s this sort of literature that can most usefully be read on the Kindle!

  6. P 293/07: Kampen om læringsmarkedet « Plinius said on December 11th, 2007 at 3:39 am

    [...] The idealization of the book. Dan Cohen [...]

  7. YCAN said on December 13th, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    When electronic ink gets colour (3-4 yrs), get s “bendable” (1-2 yrs), A4-format (1-2 yrs) – this might be the preferred way of reading. Machines can have different purposes.

  8. Amazon Kindle as a Metaphore for the History Web « Digital Clio said on May 2nd, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    [...] Cohen, “The Idealization of the Book,” Digital Humanities Blog, Nov. 29, [...]

  9. Kindle as a Metaphore for the History Web said on January 28th, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    [...] Cohen, “The Idealization of the Book,” Digital Humanities Blog, Nov. 29, [...]

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