The iPad's (and Kindle's) One Inherent Flaw

Books behind the bed
Image by zimpenfish via Flickr

Loss of connection.

Not connectivity. Connecting readers.

While many are thrilled at this new world, one in which nasty old paper artifacts like printed books, magazines and newspapers will disappear — and not a moment too soon! — here’s something that bothers me.

How many times, whether you’re 25 or 65, have you discovered a story, an idea, an author or a new friend because you saw what they were reading? Two nights ago, I was getting off the commuter train from Manhattan to my suburban town. I noticed a woman behind me reading “An American Wife” by Curtis Sittenfeld, a book that’s received rave reviews which I have yet to read.

“What do you think of it?” I asked, without preamble. “I really like it,” she replied.

“Have you read ‘Prep’?” She hadn’t, which led, as we shared the doorway ready to exit, to a brief conversation.

For me, there were multiple pleasures in this: two readers, two Sittenfeld fans trading notes, two neighbors having a quick conversation about work. All of it sparked by the visible physical presence of a book. I don’t know about you, but I’ve done this, and it’s happened to me worldwide, on planes and trains, in waiting rooms and airport lounges, anywhere someone is reading printed matter — or I am — a lively, enjoyable conversation has begun when two strangers realize they love the same thing.


This may seem trivial. It is deeply important to authors because books become best-sellers in one way: word of mouth. Not ads, not reviews, not book clubs. Word of mouth. And, as someone whose first book has been rendered invisible by its publisher thanks to print-on-demand (i.e. it is not sold any more in bookstores, only available by special order), a book that is not seen is a book that is not heard about, not loved, not argued over, not sold.

Re-play this recent scene with the young woman reading an iPad. There is no point of conversational entry. I can’t see what she’s reading, nor can anyone else. You can’t as we all have done, read over their shoulder, or, subway-typical, read the other side of whatever newspaper page might be held up in front of you.

Is this a loss or a gain?

Privacy. Anonymity. Facelessness. These are becoming the new hallmarks of people who read, thanks to the new ways in which they are reading.

I was given a Kindle for my birthday last June. I love almost every gift I reveive from my partner, but this one failed. I’ve barely looked at it since — and yesterday came home from our local library with half a dozen books, with more on order. As I write my new book, I’m also buying books for research, books I need to dog-ear, underline, Post-it note, photocopy for research. I need, and want, a physical object when I read. I already spend my bloody worklife attached to a screen. I want to flee!

And, as someone who also deeply values design, photography, even typefaces, the loss of the visual beauty of a printed book saddens me; I love the cover of my first book and look forward to seeing what the designers choose for my next one.

As someone who never leaves her home without at least 1-4 forms of printed reading material, who thrives on the pleasure of shared enthusiasm for a great story, idea or writer, these sexy new toys annoy me on another level.

Anyone who deeply values thoughtful reading looks forward, perhaps with some trepidation, to the first time they enter the home of a new friend or someone they have fallen in love with — what do they read? A quick glance (every journo’s trick, which is another reason why about 99% of celebrity interviews are held in restaurants) at someone’s bookshelves often reveals a great deal about their taste level, their ambitions, history, hopes and dreams.

If they don’t even have bookshelves, let alone stacks of magazines, that’s a warning sign for me. Are they addicted to sci-fi? Cookbooks? Self-help? History? Thrillers? An intellectual match, for some of us, is as much as crucial piece of “chemistry” as someone’s smile, smell or sense of humor.

If you’re deeply curious about their reading habits, what are you going to do — grab their iPad or Kindle and sneak a quick peek when they go to the bathroom?

If all books, magazines and newspapers disappear from their printed forms, if all we read is on our private, invisible, unshared electronic machines, have we lost anything valuable?

21 thoughts on “The iPad's (and Kindle's) One Inherent Flaw

  1. Colin Horgan

    Well put.
    I feel like I have made this comment before, but something like a Kindle or iPad removes that tactile connection with a book that you can get from browsing for hours in a store… more often that I’d like to admit, my choice between two books will actually come down to how it feels in my hands.
    Not to mention that on an electronic device, there’s instant distractions available with a quick click… the commitment to what’s in front of your face is lessened, which might suggest that content will also eventually change to account for this. One wonders what that might entail…

  2. It really is a different world now. I’m 26 and I expect if one of my friends or peers is reading something worth talking about, they’ll tweet it or at the very least note it on Facebook. I have exactly the conversation you had on the train all the time, though it’s now done digitally and often consists largely of exchanging links to what smarter people have said about it and discussing whether we agree.

    In some ways, it sounds self-centered to broadcast what you’re thinking, doing or reading to all your friends whether they’ve asked for it or not. But to me (and I assume others like me) it’s a vital part of the social-media ecosystem; it allowsand encourages exactly the kind of social interaction you recall fondly from your train ride.

    This article really struck me, because I’ve also had similar discussions on the train out of NYC with people I barely knew. Except, I was on my iPhone and the person I was talking with was in Toronto and the whole thing happened on Twitter, where any of our mutual acquaintances could overhear. It wasn’t face-to-face, but it made the 45-minute train ride much more enjoyable.

    The best part of my digital peer-group is that my circle of reading-influence is not just limited to my peers or people I run into on the street or on the train. By following intellectual idols, radical thinkers, long-lost friends and even people I don’t really like I’m able to learn about all sorts of things I’d not have known enough to start a conversation about in the first place.

  3. D.D. Cook

    You can’t judge a book by its cover if you can SEE the cover, can you? And you can’t meet a literary soul made if you don’t have that book cover as a glimpse into their soul. I completely agree with you on this one. Kindle takes us one more step away from each other in this life. While I might read a newspaper on a Kindle, I wouldn’t want to read a book on one. But then, I still live amongst my vinyl record collection, because I loved the canvas those recording artists and their visual arts friends had to work with. The cover and liner notes for Sgt Pepper just don’t work on a jewel case. Not for me.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    Colin, I would dearly miss the great pleasure of lingering, sometimes for hours, in the library or the bookstore. I find the covers alluring, want to read the blurbs, want to see what indie bookstores are offering; Posman’s in NYC is a favorite of mine, well-edited and always offering something I want. I love the sense of anticipation I always feel when I walk into a bookstore, prepared to be surprised and delighted. The visuals are very much a part of this experience for me.

    Chris, thanks for weighing in. I don’t think finding and growing readership for books is a zero-sum game, either real-time or digitally. It can, and clearly is, both. I am intrigued and heartened you: 1) like books 2) look for new things to read 3) look to such a wide group of people to get ideas from for things to read. I agree that it’s helpful to hear from a wide group of people, especially those who see things differently from you.

    I think there is clearly a generational divide between those of us who can, if done 24/7, find endless social media usage wearying and intrusive and those who cannot enjoy a day without it.

    The greatest challenge for every writer, no matter in what format our work is read (and, we hope enjoyed and discussed) is finding and engaging an audience, of any age. My new book will be relevant to 18 yr olds and 70 yr olds. Can I find and reach out, when it’s time to do publicity, to both groups effectively? I hope so.

    D.D. I had this very conversation today with a book editor who agreed it’s difficult indeed to visually eavesdrop (is there a word for that?), to read what someone’s looking at on a Kindle or e-book. Those of us who who are passionate readers are always (?) looking for something great to dive into and hungry for reliable recommendations.

    I also have piles ‘o vinyl and miss the art that made those covers so great.

  5. inmyhumbleopinion

    This is a toughie. I’ve been debating for some time now about whether or not to buy a Kindle–my friends who have them swear by them and a nice gentleman at a local breakfast eatery demonstrated his for me when I inquired how he liked it. It was definitely cool.

    I’ll tell you what my real hesitation is: I’m concerned about my ever-declining eyesight clarity as a result of working on the computer so much. Yes, some of that is inescapable at my age, but I tend to think the decline is being hastened by so much screen time. I can only imagine that reading from yet another screen will keep my optometrist in business.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    imho, I like the Kindle OK and plan to use mine — at some point. But when we recently took vacation, in a place choked with dust, it wouldn’t seem a smart place to use it. Or at the beach. Or in crazy humidity. Who wants to wreck a $250+ item versus a $15-22 printed book?

    I feel like my eyes are going to fall out of my head some days if I look at any screen of any size or sort for one more damn minute! I’m to 14 or 16-point fonts most of the time to make things easier. I can’t even read the 2-pt type on aspirin bottles anymore. Oy.

    What do your friends like so much about the Kindle?

  7. The inherent flaw for me: A journalist can’t use the Ipad in ways s/he can use a cheaper netbook. I wish that weren’t the case because I’d really like an excuse to get one instead of a less pretty netbook.

  8. I miss the intimate connection between the reader’s eye and the distinctive handwriting of the individual scribe who inked each parchment before Gutenberg came along with his infernal movable type printing press.

  9. Nick Obourn


    I went to a talk at Melville Book the other night and authors were talking about e-books and e-readers. One of the things they pointed out was that with e-readers we are not only losing a certain object worship in our society, the book as a loved object, but we will no longer be able to see what people are reading from their bookshelves. This means if you are a guy and trying to figure out about a girl or vice versa, we can’t tell anything without bookshelves. We also can’t just lend a book by grabbing it off a shelf and handing it to someone. That tactile sense is important.

  10. Caitlin Kelly

    Nick, that was one of my points exactly — getting to know someone by seeing what they read and keep and love.

    I’ve also thrust a beloved book into someone’s hands; it means sharing something special and cherished. I raced through “Water For Elephants” on vacation last week and promptly mailed it off to my mom so she, too, could enjoy it. My partner and I love to read and I love to dip into some of his books and vice versa.

    I recently bought a gorgeous coffee-table book (and how will those work on Kindles and iPads?) about Expressionism. Like my many books on design, interiors and antiques, it’s a pleasure to dip into for a few chapters or pick up when I want inspiration. Books are not simply words and paper.

  11. Caitlin Kelly

    You probably could read yours in the tub, but maybe it’s like a hairdryer — the shock, literally, of dropping it in might kill you? Too bizarre.

  12. vickielyna

    I have a kindle. I love it. But you are right I have lost alot in the transition. I read in lines at grocery store, banks, and just about everywhere. People are constantly talking to me about this book or that book. With my kindle (which has classics in literature to the latest in politics. That doesn’t happen.

    More over I have several really good friends who I use to share my books with on a daily basis. One friend loves Romance, another loves politics, another loves self help, and so on. I enjoyed talking with them about all these books, sharing, laughter, thoughts and debating the merits.

    Now my books are in my kindle. My book shelfs, closets, etc. are a little less conjested. And now my life is a little less rich.

    Hmmm I am defently going to have to rethink Kindle.

  13. Caitlin Kelly

    vickielyna, interesting to hear that this is happening for you. I can’t say it surprises me. I don’t want to be, or be seen as, an anti-Kindle or Luddite on the principle of new delivery vehicles for books. I want as many readers, she said greedily, as possible. But…

    It is a real loss if/when we lose the easy, low-cost friendly ways to share our passions. The word is share — not everyone can afford a Kindle. Anyone can use a library.

  14. vickielyna

    Caitlin, One of the most blessed things in life for me is when I can share a book with someone who loves to read as much as I do. Books are meant to be shared. I even wanted to buy another Kindle to download my books and share that one with my friends. In fact I lent my Kindle to a friend when she had a vacation forced upon her. Then we would talk about what book she chose to read and why.
    Where in the past I would simply share a box of books. She would pass them on and so on. It was always fun to see how many people would read one of the books and which ones they would chose.

    Gaving us much more to talk about a gathering then gossip (not that I mind a good gossip).

    Thank you for the blog. I love when something makes me reflect on life.

  15. Caitlin Kelly

    vickie, one of my favorite gifts — ever — came when I was 12. My mother gave me a box, a large one, filled with books. Some of them were too advanced for me at that point — like Thomas Hardy’s Under The Greenwood Tree, but I could dip into it whenever I liked and could eventually grow into the others. Glad you’ve joined our party…

  16. dalina

    When I’m at an airport, I always buy the paper or a magazine — unless I’m at the Portland airport, then I come out of Powell’s with at least three new books. It’s just been my thing. I admit, sometimes I even want somebody to notice and ask me about whatever it is I’m reading so I can hook them into a conversation. It’s like bait for journalists.

    Last week, my sister flew out of Seattle where she found a book on a table with a note, saying “please enjoy this as much as I did.” She read it during her flight, layover and finished it as she landed in Tucson. Then she left the book on another table with the same note for someone else to read.

    I doubt anyone would pass this type of kindness on with a Kindle.

  17. Caitlin Kelly

    Dalina, great story and a great way to share a book or magazine. I bought Le Point, the French newsweekly, last week and wondered if anyone would chat me up en francais, so I know what you mean.

    Kindles are too costly to pass on to a stranger.

  18. And while that earlier quote was from Bill Barol’s critique of the
    piece, and well said, Bill, the entire piece was in my opinion silly
    and naive. Why? Because future MRI brain scans which are being done
    even now at UCLA and Tufts and in Norway will indicate, as I have
    hunched, that reading on screens in inferior to reading on paper in
    terms of processing of info, retention of info and analysis of info.
    Until we see the MRI scan tests that people like Gary Small and
    Maryanne Wolf and Anne Mangen are doing, about reading versus
    screening (my word for reading on a screen), we must proceed slowly.
    Stick with books and newspapers, friends. This tech train might be out
    of the station, as Dr Small says, but we must watch it carefully. If
    we go all gaga over it like teenage gadgetheads, our fate might be,
    drum roll, “frankenbooks”. Is that what we want?

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