How do you hide behind a Kindle? Using books as screens on screen

Curator's Note

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?



An intriguing post, Elizabeth, though I don't share the perspective that copyright is a strictly reader-centric concern.  In any case, I do wonder if, ultimately, the trajectory of e-readers is in the direction of cultural leveling, and if that is indeed a good thing.  Is it desirable for people to make snap-judgments about others on the basis of the books they read?  I guess I'd be curious to hear more about the end-game of your thoughts on e-readers and cultural value.

Thanks for your comments, Ted, as well as pointing toward the fact I was potentially implying copyright may only be a reader's concern. (As I hope my hyperlink demonstrated, I was thinking, in particular, of the controversy regarding Orwell's texts being removed from Kindles this past summer, and the reader-oriented discussion regarding ownership that followed). As for your more involved questions, I'm going to have to waffle a bit. I don't necessarily think it is desirable for people to make snap judgments regarding readers based on the books they hold, but it is inevitable.  Further, as my clip shows, the ways that books function to this end are not wholly oriented toward the receiver. Rather, books allow their readers to display or deny particular personality traits, suggesting that the role books play as markers or makers of taste and judgment is not a one-way street. Ironically, I think the current cultural value of ebooks lends to similar judgment. Right now, it is fairly safe to assume that the majority of Kindle owners 1.) value reading as a pastime, 2.) have enough disposable income to invest in an expensive gadget, and 3.) are tech-savvy enough to navigate their device. But, operating on the hypothetical assumption that ebooks will continue to gain popularity and eventually be owned by a larger percentage of the public, I do think the consequences this may hold for culture are significant. Beyond enabling trite conclusions about others’ tastes, the presence of books (specifically) and print (more generally) serves the general populace by providing (at least) superficial exposure to cultural products that would otherwise go unnoticed. If I cannot stumble upon an interesting looking book by encountering it in a brick-and-mortar store, then what are the chances I’ll ever know it exists? In this way, I tend to agree with the scholarship that suggests one of the consequences of digital media is to allow consumers to only access content with which they agree. At its most extreme, I think the consequence of such behavior is polarizing (which, in my mind, is the opposite of democratizing).

Your last point is particularly intriguing, Elizabeth, especially in light of the growing prevalence of recommendation features such as those you find on  The displacement of juman judgment into algorithmic form raises all sorts of questions about taste aggregation -- questions with which scholars in the humanities (you notwithstanding) have only begun to grapple.

One thing that occurred to me in rereading your post was the Kindle artifact itself, and how much that $259+ piece of equipment conveys about the cultural and economic positionality of its bearer.  Perhaps what's at stake value-wise is not just the content of reading anymore, but also the forms in which one does so.

Quickly: Ted, I 100% agree that form matters greatly in the ways that readers derive value from texts as well as signal that value to others (I'm actually writing my dissertation on how book collectors value material books, which is an arena where form trumps content more often than not). However, in part because of my research subjects, I'm constantly forced to confront how form has always been important to the reading experience. Peter Stallybrass is particularly good at historicizing this point, reminding of us of the residual use of scrolls and manuscripts long after print proliferated. In more contemporary times, readers select specific editions of texts to engage with, and certainly reading Great Expectations in a gilt-edged copy connotes a different value than a pocket paperback. The question I am more prone to grapple with is whether the ebook is just the latest in a long string of devices used to convey words to readers, or whether there is something entirely different about its form that demands we ask different questions about value and impact (and a whole host of other issues).

Great post, Elizabeth, and a provocative set of questions in the thread.  I think that questions of value are central here -- as in what's the "value" of the printed form?  How does this value change across platforms?  I think it helps to think of "value" as a multivalent thing -- as in, it's not a question of simply mourning the loss of the dog-eared paperback (though it can include that -- I do!), but a question that's bound up in issues of use and exchange in each instance, at a given moment. 


The Kindle signifies a whole bunch of things right now -- a tech-y orientation, a fair amount of disposable income, etc. -- but I like materiality as an object of study here. Should e-books take off as a viable, widespread format -- which is not at all a given -- what will that do to people's bookcases?  The industry that makes them?  Etc, etc.  It's an interesting set of questions to raise here....

Thank you Elizabeth for your insightful posts. The questions about the value of printed material has me thinking of the way Kindle markets the value of the screen. The Kindle seems to balance on the one hand a desire to consume, but on the other a desire of pseudo-asceticism. Kindle allows one to consume (I mean through the act of buying titles, and not necessarily the act of reading of reading them) voraciously, but not bear the burden of their weight. While this might seem counterintuitive to those of us who love our bookshelves, there is some practicality to it. How does the push for an increasingly nomadic relationship to work play into the conditions of possibility for the Kindle to exist? With increasingly globalization that often requires temporary travel and sometimes geographic relocation for those who are in the financial position to own something like the Kindle, for $259 someone can feel that they are bringing a wealth of knowledge with them with little effort.


By selling the possibility of downloading whole books in under a minute, the Kindle also represents the craving to have our wants instantly satisfied. The irony is that reading is very rarely an instantaneous pleasure. It is instead often laborious. The download may be instant, but the process of reading is still a slow and drawn out one. I wonder if the emphasis Kindle has placed in marketing the instant gratification of consumption is meant to mask the labor one will inevitably have to exert in order to read the book itself? I have been wondering about the Kindle’s relationship to commodity fetishism. Rather than just masking the labor that went into the production of the Kindle (not to mention the labor that went into the production of the books that have been separated for their designed medium), is the Kindle also masking the labor one will have to put into the use of the product itself? I find it a bit heartening to think that though someone may feel that information is just a button and successful credit card transaction away, the digestion of words on the screen/page will continue to be only available at the pace of one’s ability, desires, and motivation to read.

Thanks Hollis and Kathryn for your insights. I'm particularly interested in the idea that ebooks might enable a type of inconspicuous consumption, allowing consumers to continue to participate in the "more is better" philosophy of contemporary (American) life, while also preventing the literal burden of their consumption from weighing them down. Kathryn, you're of course right that just purchasing thousands of books or ebooks has nothing to do with the time it takes to read and digest them, which I think plays into a central irony to the "you can have it right now" discourse of Kindle publicity. Having something immediately and having the time to read it immediately are, obviously, two very different things. I think all of this is connected to Hollis' point that value (as a multivalent term) is what is primarily at stake here. The trick for those of us who study these things is to identify what types of value people derive from both books and ebooks. I interviewed a book collector last week who reads almost exclusively on his Kindle, yet has a library of over 3000 volumes. Nor do I think he's an anomalous example. There are a surprising number of readers who see no contradiction in their desire to buy and own books and their desire to read on screens. The trick for scholars is to pay attention to these distinctions, because I think it will help us to better highlight the potential significance of new formats.

 Books will eventually not be the norm. Younger generations seem to constantly look for a more accessible, cheap, and instant form of text instead of looking for a hardcopy. That being said I agree that books used as props in film can tell a lot about the scene and the characters within it, but I also believe that the kindle, more importantly the nook, will have its sufficient place on screen as well. As technology begins to advance and more attractive models of e-readers come out, I think that we will see the e-readers become much more personal and advanced. For example, perhaps these e-readers will have a LCD screen on the back of it, that illustrates the cover of the book being read, or perhaps the kindle or nook will come out with a way for their readers to stick electronic post-it notes on the electronic pages. Being an electronic item might open a lot of doors in film rather than close them. The use of a kindle as a prop may guide a viewer with much more visual representation. I particularly enjoy this clip and the way the director uses the book as a connector to the characters, but I don’t feel that technology will dampen the revealing factors of hardcopy text.


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