Last night I noticed something about the way I read books on the Kindle. Because I can so easily switch among books, it’s as if I am reading a composite book, a mashup of three books at once. This creates all kinds of possibilities in the way I encounter the content of the books. I’ll try to explain by following the pathways my mind took last night, curled up in my leather chair with the Kindle.
By happenstance, the three books on the device are Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America by Jim Webb, and The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie. I did not choose them because they had any relation to each other, except that they each interested me at the moment I decided to buy them via the magical whispernet built-in wireless connection to the Kindle Store.
But as it happens, there are points of overlap among the books. Andrew Carnegie had a brief role in Lincoln’s war administration, transporting Union troops by rail. Jim Webb, a potential Obama vice president, writes about military strategy in Vietnam, where he served and was wounded as a Marine. Carnegie and Webb seem to share personality traits around optimism and can-do attitude. Webb’s discussion of the political choices made in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq echo the complex drama of parties, personalities and positions leading to the Civil War. All three books feature prominent Americans playing roles in American history.
My pattern for reading “real” books has always been to have a few on the table by my chair, and to switch among them. My mind seems to enjoy changing the channel every 15 minutes or so. Whether I am conscious of it or not, my thinking goes to making connections among the books, making the entire reading session more creative and enjoyable.
What’s new with the Kindle relates to the fact that all three books appear on exactly the same screen, in exactly the same font. So when I return to the Home screen after reading, say, Team of Rivals, then select A Time to Fight, it’s as if I’ve simply changed chapters in one big, sweeping epic. The Virginia U.S. Senator trying to warn of the folly of a decades-long occupation of Iraq becomes another character in a long story, which also includes Abraham Lincoln’s skillful restraint during the Republican nomination contest in 1860.
What I love about this insight last night is that it demonstrates how the Kindle is changing the way I read. In this case, it’s not a huge change, because I have switched among books before. But the technology makes the process seamless and makes it easier and more natural for me to read this way. It’s of course particularly true when I travel. I would not take all three of these books with me on a flight to Denver, but with the Kindle they all come everywhere I take it.
A related feature of the Kindle is that it makes choosing my next book so easy. This means that I often find reference to a new book in the current one, and instead of having to make a note to remember to order it or look for it the next time I’m at the Harvard Coop, I can simply go to the Kindle Store without leaving my leather chair and have the book added to the Home page in less than a minute. This is so much fun that it takes restraint to avoid building up the supply of books on my Kindle to unmanageable and costly excess.
Literature has always enabled me to bring people, ideas, and events from any time in history into my current thought and attention. What I realized last night is that the Kindle makes that basic joy of reading a little bit sweeter.