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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Friday, 7 September 2012

On the Kindle


I promised that when I got a Kindle the first book I read would be Anna Karenina, then Middlemarch, and then maybe The Brothers Karamazov. Maybe this was ambitious, and I wasn’t in any case sure how I would feel about using a Kindle. While trying to keep an open mind, I have always appreciated books and felt them to be amongst the most important human achievements. My books tell me who I am; by looking at their spines I understand what I have learned. So I had several reservations. Would the texts purchased and embarked on disappear with out warning?  How would I manage my non-fiction reading habits, would I be able to put in notes, mark passages with symbols that I would understand as ‘good’ or ‘not so good’, or ‘awful’. I didn’t know how easily I would be able refer to passages one or two pages back without recognising the shape of the paragraph or certain key words.

I still don’t know how it works with non-fiction, but I have read 17% of Anna Karenina (which itself is a new way of looking at my progress through a book). This is in two weeks, including a few days reading a translation I didn’t like, and searching through the list for a better one. This is a major advantage of reading out-of-copyright literature in translation – a number of samples can be made before commitment. I very much enjoy being able to set the font to a size that does not strain my eyes, without feeling that I am becoming decrepit.

But most of all I enjoy the design and the feel of the thing. I have long considered the thingness of books: their size, weight, smell, feel, whether the presentation conveys ideas of power, importance, popularity, ease, false humility. The thingness of the Kindle is unavoidable: the softness of the leather cover (yes, I know that alone cost more than I have paid for most books I have bought), the gentleness of the page-turning button’s click, the silk finish of the surface of the machine. But the introduction to the machine comes as a letter which includes this:

‘Our top design objective was for Kindle to disappear in your hands – to get out of the way – so you can enjoy your reading. We hope you’ll quickly forget you’re reading on an advanced wireless device and instead be transported into that mental realm readers love, where the outside world dissolves, leaving only the author’s stories, words and ideas.’

Few texts could be as disingenuous. The point of a Kindle is that it is primarily designed for the reader in a world which does not disappear, where you can quickly step aside and back again at the click of a button, without the business of finding your place, finding a place to put your bookmark, adjusting your eyes to Times New Roman point 12. You know you are reading a Kindle – not ‘reading on’ a Kindle. For years I’ve read books, understanding by that word both the text and the thing; should I now begin the separation between message and medium?

And the idea that the Kindle should disappear in my hands; I see the intention, that it should be designed to the point of minimum intrusion, but it is too well designed. It is a pleasure. The cover is weighted so that it gives the feeling of being about 20% of the way through a book – too far to put it down, far enough to know that you are an active participant in the reading process, that you are investing time and work, which will be repaid. The book and cover design works equally well for left or right-handed readers. The screen with no glare and no loss of contrast in sunlight is achieved with the application of science far beyond my comprehension. And the overt discreetness of it, the use of lower-case ‘k’ so that it is presented almost apologetically – those designers knew exactly what level of reluctance they were up against. Maybe the ‘disappearing’ text in the letter is part of that too. The silent fanfare makes forgiving judges of us.  

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