The downside of living in a small city, despite the tranquility is the lack of books that I want. Note that it’s not the lack of books by itself — this city has bookstores of all kinds strewn throughout it — but the books that I want. Making things more complicated, I want physical books, not Kindle — one of those where you could run your hands through the pages of what used to be trees and now the no-longer-tree found their place inside your home. I want books that didn’t need to be ordered and awaited for 1 to 5 weeks (looking at you Book Depository, although I’m trying to wean off you because you are also affiliated with evil Amazon) — I want to find these books in the local bookstores near to where I live and bring them home straight away! I thought of a friend who is currently a history postgraduate student in Melbourne, who is often seen touting and reading all the titles I want (he’s currently reading Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, of I have heard nothing but wonderful reviews of) while clutching iced coffee — also how dare he steal my aesthetics — and was struck with a longing for a city where I could just hop out of the house and pop into the nearest bookstore to find all the titles I want. Once you are almost paralysed with endless options, you finally walk out with the book in your hands, you have the choice to go straight home to indulge in your new purchase, or stop by one of those cafes and order one of those iced coffees and sip them while flipping through the pages. Local bookstore, close to the house, all the titles I want, iced coffee — is that too much to ask?!
All of us book reader traditionalists who still insist on reading physical books already knew this, that paper books can’t be shut off from afar. The idea that Amazon, or any other e-book providers, can decide how you own or not own your digital library is not of a new knowledge, but this is something we all should know, because it is the closest thing an authorarian government who used to confiscate books would do, only (in Tyra Banks’ voice) make it digital:
Having learned this, I went along and had a closer look at the then-current Kindle License Agreement. There was some simply petrifying stuff on there. For starters, then as now, you don’t “own” Kindle books, you’re basically renting them. (“Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.”)
Information Provided to Amazon: The Kindle Application will provide Amazon with information about use of your Kindle Application and its interaction with Kindle Content and the Service (such as last page read, content archiving, available memory, up-time, log files, and signal strength).
They can change the software on you whenever they like, or just shut it down completely, without so much as a by your leave:
Changes to Service; Amendments: We may change, suspend, or discontinue the Service, in whole or in part, including adding or removing Subscription Content from a Service, at any time without notice.
That is how a totalitarian state might go about confiscating books, if they wanted to. There is nothing in this agreement to stop Amazon from modifying the Kindle software to make it impossible for you to read any of your own files on the device.
More on books, Andy Mathuscak published an article on why books don’t work:
Unfortunately, these tactics don’t come easily. Readers must learn specific reflective strategies. “What questions should I be asking? How should I summarise what I’m reading?” Readers must run their own feedback loops. “Did I understand that? Should I re-read it? Consult another text?” Readers must understand their own cognition. “What does it feel like to understand something? Where are my blind spots?”
These skills fall into a bucket which learning science calls “metacognition.” The experimental evidence suggests that it’s challenging to learn these types of skills, and that many adults lack them. Worse, even if readers know how to do all these things, the process is quite taxing. Readers must juggle both the content of the book and also all these meta-questions.
This “grain” is what drives me when I gripe that books lack a functioning cognitive model. It’s not just that it’s possible to create a medium informed by certain ideas in cognitive science. Rather, it’s possible to weave a medium made out of those ideas, in which a reader’s thoughts and actions are inexorably—perhaps even invisibly—shaped by those ideas.
If you read further you’d understand the problem is not about the books, it’s how if we want to absorb and retain knowledge in any medium, we need to put more effort rather than just sit and read. This might include designing the medium to maximise information retention, which is what Matuschak had done with his Quantum Country project. The site runs so slow on my 2014 Macbook Pro I gave up halfway reading it, so if you decide to give it a try, let me know if the project works in term of absorbing and retaining more information for a longer space of time.
Also, stumbled onto this illustration in the Apple Ile manual today on how ‘scrolling’ was, or perhaps originated, which still fascinates me to no end.