On Kindles and Commonplace Books

Well, Amazon seems to have done well with their last update to the Kindle. Dropping the price, improving the design (slightly) and the software, and adding a Wifi only version has had an impact. After a long few months of buzz about the iPad I feel like all of a sudden people around me are talking about the Kindle again.

People are now sharing their notes and quotes on Twitter and Facebook as they read, from right inside their Kindle. Friends who hadn’t ever thought about getting an e-reader are asking me about my thoughts on the device. And after buying an iPad for his wife and playing with it a bit, my dad decided he would rather get a Kindle.

When a friend asked me today if I had a blog post somewhere outlining my thoughts on the Kindle I decided it was time to sit down and mull it over. Ironically, I have been thinking about selling my Kindle and getting an iPad, but have yet to make up my mind. So I figured I would use this post to mull it over a bit.

What I love:

1) A dedicated reading device.
My Kindle is as close to a book as any gadget I have ever had. It is really just a reading device. Even though it has a built in web browser the implementation is so clumsy and awkward to access that I hardly ever use it. When I am reading on it I don’t feel the tug to check emails, switch apps, etc… I am too easy to lure into multitasking and sometimes I really appreciate that the Kindle comes with many of the limitations of a book. It helps me focus.

2) No backlit LCD.
I love e-ink. Yes I know it means I have to have a reading light on at night, but I stare at a computer all day and I find I have a very hard time reading any kind of long documents on back-lit LCD computer screens. On the Kindle, it’s like reading paper. The very slight delay in page turning doesn’t bother me at all.

3) Battery.
My only complaint about the battery is that it last so long I sometimes forget it even has one and I let the charge die out after a few weeks. Seriously, this thing seems to last forever.

4) Notes.
I have to admit that when it comes to navigation, there is little that is elegant about the Kindle. However, what they got right is the highlighting and clipping functionality. When you highlight text in a book/article it gets clipped and saved in a rich text doc on the Kindle. You can easily browse to all your highlighted sections, your notes, or tabs (like folding the corner down on a traditional book) within the book or you can grab the plain text file and open it on your computer and all your quotes, clips, etc… will be right there for quick reference or to use in a blog post, research paper, report, etc…

5) Social.
The most recent software update now allows you to share those clippings easily on Twitter or Facebook and to see what other people have have shared and noted inside the books you have on your Kindle. For example, if I have Moby Dick on my Kindle I can turn on the public comments feature and see what notations other people have left in the book. As someone who loves margin notes it is a cool feature (even if it is somewhat of a gimmick). These features are implemented in a simple and streamlined way that doesn’t interfere or distract from reading.

With all that said, why would I be considering an iPad. Some part of my interest in the iPad stems from the fact that I have a soft spot for new shinny objects (especially ones built by Apple). While I love the way the Kindle allows me to just focus on the reading, I am lured by some of the incredible apps available for the iPad – especially in terms of reading articles. About 95% of the time I use my Kindle to read articles that I would have otherwise printed out at work – blog posts, reports, PDFs, memos, etc… I have downloaded a number of free classics but never bought a book from Amazon. Increasingly, the iPad is outdoing the Kindle with apps like the New York Times, Flipboard, Pulse, and Instapaper (but damn that bright LCD screen). And finally, I want to go paperless and an iPad would be a much better note taking tool than my iPhone or my Kindle. I love the idea of having a iPad and a bluetooth keyboard as my go to device.

What Does it All Mean?

There has been a lot written on the impact of new technology, especially e-readers, on how we read, learn, interact, etc… (see here, here, here, and here for starters). So I won’t get into all of that, even to say where I land on the very robust debate about these issues. If you are curious enough to click, I did write a response to that first article called “On Not Resisting the Kindle” (available here, and written long before I got a Kindle).

Instead I want to focus on one aspect about the Kindle and digital reading that I love and that I think is an exciting development in how we approach texts. For me, reading on my Kindle (and to some extent on the web) has allowed me to reinvest in the practice of keeping a commonplace book.

I was first turned on to the idea of a commonplace book by Nicholas Baker in a brief article in the American Scholar back in the fall of 2000. I can’t find a copy of that article online, but here is the Wikipedia entry. However, the idea of commonplace book was brought up again more recently in a piece by Stephen Johnson. He writes (I have excerpted a few key points),

In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations… The tradition of the commonplace book contains a central tension between order and chaos, between the desire for methodical arrangement, and the desire for surprising new links of association… Each rereading of the commonplace book becomes a new kind of revelation… But all of this magic was predicated on one thing: that the words could be copied, re-arranged, put to surprising new uses in surprising new contexts. By stitching together passages written by multiple authors, without their explicit permission or consultation, some new awareness could take shape.

Johnson really makes the case I want to make here, so go and read his full post. But the essence is this, “When text is free to combine in new, surprising ways, new forms of value are created.” For me, this has been one of the key benefits of the Kindle. I love writing things out by hand into my own leather bound commonplace book. But I have gotten addicted to the ease of clipping and copying text from around the web and from books via my Kindle, iPhone, etc and the ability to search and tag those entries in my digital scrapbook is thrilling for the archivist in me who wants more order and less chaos.

With the Kindle’s new social features there is the potential for Kindle readers to turn Twitter and Facebook into into a collaborative commonplace book. The concern of course is that, as with the web itself, it will likely get filled with a lot of crap you aren’t interested in. But this is matched by the potential for new kinds of revelation like that which Johnson describes, and for those clippings to be remixed and reimagined in new ways.

I’ll always want to disconnect at times and sit quietly with a good book, sometimes an e-book, sometimes a bound book and I’ll always want to take notes, revisit those passages and write and think about what I have written. And finally, I’ll always want to engage in the broader discussion with others about the issues and ideas at hand in the texts I am grappling with. The Kindle is one tool in that process, but it is just a tool.

3 thoughts on “On Kindles and Commonplace Books

    • Touche – except that when I’m reading I’ll often “interrupt”” my reading to read my wife or a nearby friend a passage I particularly like or find interesting. Sometimes that won’t lead anywhere, other times it can lead to a great conversation.

      The way this is implemented on the Kindle is similar – although there is no instantaneous feedback. I can share passages on those networks and if people reply on Twitter or Facebook I won’t know it (until later when I log onto those places).

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