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One could write a 500 page book on the drawbacks of the Kindle – a device attempting to redefine the paper-bound medium we’ve known for the last 1000 years… the book. It’s understandable that society’s response might be one-part head scratching, two-part vitriolic retaliation to a computing device that is trying to mediate the written word. There may be some validity to criticism aimed towards eReaders. Critically missed UX qualities aside, the future of eReaders won’t be found in remediating our long standing tradition of pages and chapters… but instead will be found in breaking away from it – redefining narrative text in a new form that exploits the electronic medium.
Electronic text isn’t new, but a singular electronic device whose marketing, design, and intended-use draws upon culture’s understanding of reading books is threatening. The Kindle and Nook are devices that challenge the way we think of books and the narrative values they embody; this poses uncertainty in cultures that are made up of story-telling people. If we look at books as a medium or transmitter of narrative text (which they are), we begin to see how humans have created content for this medium. Simply put, books are vessels for stories, and the stories found in them have (in part) been created for these vessels they occupy – making sense of the unique characteristics exemplified in the medium. Narrative text doesn’t need a page number; it can exist without it. A story doesn’t really need “chapters” – but a story found in a book is organized and made sense of around this construct. Doing so has created content that lends to these qualities. We feel anxiety or tension when authors leave readers hanging at the end of the chapter! We get excited when we see only a few pages left in a book and the author still hasn’t explained how the hero will win…
The Kindle has no pages. It has none of the narrative signifiers like those found in it’s predecessors. It doesn’t smell, it doesn’t make a sound when a page is turned, and it doesn’t even display the cover of the book you’re reading when turned off! It’s been sold and marketed to society as a “book”, but it isn’t a book. Calling a cat a “good dog” doesn’t make the cat a dog. The Kindle can’t mediate narrative content that was created for books! It’s folly for Amazon to position the Kindle as a book, especially when it’s content was written for the paper-bound medium. If Amazon was smart, they would hire some authors to either create or re-write works of text that exploited the digital medium, asking themselves – “What can a narrative experience be like on a computing machine?” Now we’re talking!
Imagine sitting in your most comfortable chair, turning on your Kindle and downloading a “Kindle” story that received good reviews from other readers. Just for kicks, we’ll say that it’s a mystery. Now imagine before you even begin reading the first chapter, the Kindle prompts you to enter a name of your choice for the three characters introduced in the first chapter. As you read the book, the book and it’s characters take shape around your input, creating an interactive experience that is more visceral and meaningful – formed in part from your own creative ideas. Imagine, as the story progresses, a little map relating to the story becomes accessible and reveals additional details over time. Imaging that you are able to track a character’s movement through the geo-spacial reference of this map, being able to review a portion of the story by clicking on it. Imagine if the suspense built up at the end of a “chapter” was further amplified by the Kindle not letting you start a new chapter immediately! And what if the story on the Kindle changed a little bit each time you read it, giving the reader a different experience each time it was read. What if the character you helped create in one story could be transferred to another story?
That’s what the Kindle could be – the kind of device that changes the way we think of narrative experiences. If that device existed today, I would buy it immediately. Until Amazon reconciles the fact that narrative content created for one medium “changes” when expressed through another medium, we’ll keep making a list of all the ways reading stories on the Kindle isn’t as good as reading them in real books. Anyone wishing to really change the narrative experience through reading needs to consider providing content created for the new medium.