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domingo, maio 03, 2009

With Kindle, Can You Tell It’s Proust?

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”?


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