Commentary Magazine

Literary Blog

When a Kindle Goes Bad

While on a Thanksgiving trip to California, my Kindle decided to go blooey. More technically, the device’s screen was permanently burned with one of those goofy literary images that come up when the Kindle goes to “sleep.” Now Harriet Beecher Stowe’s head and upper torso block most of the text I’d like to read. Because of travel and its preparations, I hadn’t turned the device on for three or four whole days. My bad!

The question of what happens to electronic texts when the hardware goes bad or becomes obsolete has worried me before. Now that it has happened I find myself in a quandary. I’m no fan of the Kindle. To navigate around in a book you must click-click-click through multiple screens. (In a paper-and-binding book, you can flip to where you want to go in about one-tenth the time.) The print on the screen is unattractive, and if the earliest research is to be trusted, the human mind does not process and save information from a screen nearly as efficiently or durably as information from a page.

As I’ve suggested before, the Kindle may appeal largely to older readers for whom it solves long-standing problems (how to take along a stack of books on vacation, for example). Younger readers, with a different experience of reading, may not find them as tempting. From this angle, the evidence offered by John Podhoretz in his editorial in the November issue of COMMENTARY (on a 2010 cruise sponsored by the magazine, he found that “people over the age of 50 were reading” predominately on Kindles and iPads) may not be as “stunning” as he thinks.

Now that my Kindle is useless, I must either (a) purchase a new device that I am not thrilled with, before I was ready to upgrade, or (b) discard the rather substantial investment that I have made in electronic texts by giving up on the Kindle, either by purchasing a different kind of e-reader or waiting for something better. I still believe that the technology must and will eventually reconceive literary text. Right now physical text, designed for a printed page, is simply (and awkwardly) migrated onto an electronic screen, a platform for which it was not designed.

These are the sorts of bad choices that cause a slow bubble of consumer resentment. One more reason to remain skeptical about the future of the Kindle.