So Sven Birkerts's "Resisting the Kindle" in The Atlantic ought to supply some more ammunition for rationality, shouldn't it? I thought so until I read this in a passage where Birkerts is bemoaning the ability to access the internet and look up something using a Blackberry, claiming that such an ability "abets the decimation of context":
Literature—our great archive of human expression—is deeply contextual and historicized. We all know this—we learned it in school. This essential view of literature and the humanities has been—and continues to be—reinforced by our libraries and bookstores, by the obvious physical adjacency of certain texts, the fact of which telegraphs the cumulative time-bound nature of the enterprise. We get this reflexively. . . .Here are the problems with that argument:
That is the trade-off. Access versus context. As for Pride and Prejudice—Austen’s words will reach the reader’s eye in the same sequence they always have. What will change is the receiving sensibility, the background understanding of what this text was – how it emerged and took its place in the context of other texts—and how it moved through the culture.
1. Umm, Mr. Birkerts? That ability to look things up instantly? Not going away any time soon.
2. Also, wouldn't the ability to look things up help to PROVIDE rather than erase context? Doesn't access enable context rather than erasing it?
3. And having a little knowledge about context creates a desire for more, doesn't it? That's why (trumpet flourish) investing in the humanities is a smart idea. "Context of other texts" and "how it moved through the culture"--wait, what's that murmur? Why, it's a chorus of humanities professors saying, "That's what we do! If you want to learn more, we have a wealth of information to share with you, and we want to hear your ideas, too!" For example, I've seen various history blogs make gentle fun of the History Channel enthusiasts out there, but honestly, doesn't the History Channel (at least until it eschewed history for "Haunted History" or "UFO History" or "Big Shiny Man-Gadget History" or whatever it's doing now) help to nudge people toward history courses?
4. Birkerts envisions this context as being transmitted through libraries and bookstores as people scan the books on the shelves. Now, nobody loves browsing in libraries and independent bookstores more than I do, but this option presupposes (1) the leisure to hang out in libraries and bookstores; (2) an acculturation process that values and promotes such an activity; and, for the bookstore, (3) the money to buy books.
I somehow don't think he's envisioning the kind of chain bookstore where Ten Things I Learned from My Dog Morley or Addiction Memoir Confidential or The 365-Day Cat Golfing Calendar are the featured big sellers. Here again is class privilege in action: he's picturing a big-city library or independent bookstore experience for people who have the leisure and means to appreciate it and the cultural tools, granted by a humanities education, to understand what they're looking at.
So the Kindle isn't the problem. Even a dead-tree book won't have the proper context unless there's some kind of additional learning involved. The answer isn't to fret about the Kindle and wish ourselves back in time; it's to support the humanities that make that context possible.