The popularity of the latest generation of ebook devices has not been profitable for everyone. Recent articles in the New York Times and Vanity Fair point to the loss suffered by those who can no longer rely on books as accessories or markers of taste. The ability to tell whether the subway passenger across from you read Stephen King or Kingsley Amis was a fast and fairly reliable way of assessing a stranger’s habitus. Personalized Kindle covers cannot convey the same degree of information about their owners. The transition of books from print to e-ink also complicates their use as film props. As my clip (from Whit Stillman’s brilliant 1994 release Barcelona) demonstrates, the use of books as screens (in the earliest definition of the word), particularly when they are depicted on screen, is a common way to develop a sense of a character’s personality or taste. In this particular example, the book in question is, of course, The Book, obscured by The Economist in an ironic reversal of the girlie-mag hidden behind the classic novel cliché. This literal layering of reading matter, enabled by the format of physical codices, works quickly to establish the beliefs, anxieties, and relationship between the two characters in the scene.
The hypothetical substitution of an ebook for the book-inside-the-book would at once save the necessity for concealing potentially objectionable reading-matter from prying eyes, and prevent the prop from performing any semiotic work related to the content of the reading material. When the Bible is removed from its hiding place, it is covered in Post-It notes, physical markers that testify to frequency of use. In its newly revealed state, it is free to play dance partner to its reader, standing in for the woman he has not yet found. Again, it is hard to envision a Kindle fulfilling such a role. Certainly, it could not emerge clad in Post-Its, but it would likely prove a clumsier dancer, too. Of course, in imagining such an unlikely prop substitution, I don’t mean to imply the very existence of ebooks must result in the oblivion of the printed codex. However, as ebooks become more ubiquitous, our discussion of their influence should expand beyond reader-centric concerns about backlighting and copyright. Apart from our ability to snoop on fellow train riders or pass quick judgment on a person’s taste, what are the potential consequences of fewer printed books in public spaces? Conversely, as books and screens become less diametrically opposed, what might a morphing of media enable?