12 November 2008

plain, gray shirts: how the kindle stole my identity and dismantled my 8x6" billboards

Yesterday, I wrote about my pride-sale. I told you how I sold my library a few years ago for a hill of beans and how I found myself awash in freedom, out (for a fleeting moment) from under the strange “collection-itis” that plagues us all.

Well, related to that divestiture of ink-stained paper, I was thinking about the way in which we are all billboards. Most of us display our identities in multiple ways, some more subtle than others.

Just think about the t-shirts you have stocked away. I am promoting (or identifying myself with) Art Vandelay, Nike, AIDS Walk, etc… It is a slice of my identity for all to see.

As any reader of this blog will know, I was given the Amazon Kindle, a new e-book device. And the Kindle abruptly upended my broadcasted identity.

I am a public reader. I love to read around people. Coffee shops, sidewalks… There is something exciting to me about being lost in a book in the midst of swarming humanity.

And physical books present themselves as little billboards to the world. They are 8-inch by 6-inch pronouncements of beliefs and persuasions. I see a guy at Starbucks reading David Sedaris or Glenn Beck and I can make an immediate judgment on who he is or what he might believe based solely on his choice of author. I see a lady clutching a Dr. Phil book, a teen with an Anne Rice novel, a man holding a Richard Dawkins book, a woman cradling an Eckhart Tolle volume… Instant identification!! Instant association!! Instant judgment!! It’s terribly inaccurate but great fun.

I always appreciated my little stump in that way. I could tell the world something apparently significant about myself by holding my book up to where everyone would see my choice in literature. I could make them feel insecure by reading a hefty history or by holding a weighty theological text. I could inspire curiosity by reading a coy self-help book or I could develop a mystery around myself by showing off the brooding novel that struck my interest. How’s that for a slice of pride? I wonder how many of us would admit to pulling a Bible out of the ol’ backpack at Starbucks for no other reason than to show others how righteous we are…?

The Kindle has changed all of that. Of the 200,000 books available on the Kindle, none make the Kindle look any different. They all are contained on the screen, leaving the world to witness only an off-white electronic gadget with a gray back. A digital bible is the same size as a digital Harry Frankfurt book. A drug-store romance novel is as polished as Tolstoy. They are all shown off in the same uninspiring off-white tablet.

It was as if you replaced my colorful rainbow of quirky, unique t-shirts with a bunch of plain, gray shirts. The message is gone, unless the austerity is the message.

So the Kindle, an object of intellectual identity in itself, does effectively help kill my intellectual identity. What does that mean? I don’t have the slightest clue. What is the point of today’s blog? I am not sure I had one to begin with.

Today does open up an interesting psychological question for another day…

“Has the anonymity afforded me by the Kindle changed what I read?”

Or rather: If no one was watching, would we behave differently?

I have a friend with a PhD in psychology. Maybe he’ll send me a link to some interesting study and we can find out together...

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