Opinion: Kindle by its cover

Commentary by Terry Anker

We might know spine. Certainly, we’ve learned the definition for cover. But what is the fore edge, hinge and free endpaper. Our lexicon must include hand-stitched, end-stained and hardbound. While one would be hard-pressed to find someone who has never held a book, few of us show more than a limited command of the vocabulary required to describe its many components. Most focus on the ink – the words on the page – at its most fundamental, the ideas. The means of conveyance, well, means very little.

For generations, we humans have scribbled our hopes, aspirations and accumulated knowledge into the most permanent and accessible forms our technology would allow. From stone tablets to books took centuries; yet, the conversion to the digital may be done in a single lifetime (or less). The great mass of collected human knowledge has largely been made electronic. E-readers and PDFs have come to be as familiar as the family bookcase. Convenience, low-cost and adjustable font size (that one is just for me) has driven us to rethink the way we approach how we absorb information. And, so what?

Bits and bytes are increasingly controlling the way we live. Currency, communication, and, now, data, all move without any of the pesky need for an actual physical specie. Still, is it wise to judge a Kindle by its cover? When we have lost the corporeal, how do we know that our recollection is correct? If a book is edited not with a pen but with a keyboard, can we show its evolution, or devolution, from one iteration to the next? Does it matter?

Someone recently reminded that books, by their very nature, are romantic and mysterious objects. At sight, we don’t know what they will bring us. Will our smartphone come to embody the same promise?