Down the memory hole into bibliomysticism

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For the better part of the past two years, I've resisted the temptation to run out and buy a Kindle. (Well, OK, I wouldn't have to "run out" to do it, nor could I; as far as I can tell, the Kindle can only be ordered on Amazon. But whatever, it's still an appropriate figure of speech.) The Kindle just seems made for me. I love books and I love to read, and I'm also a ridiculously huge fan of electronic publishing of all kinds, and (especially) of the idea of carrying a library worth of books with me wherever I go, because hey, you never know when you might want to read any one of them. (This also explains why my iPod touch overfloweth with just-in-case music.) The Kindle seems like it should be the best of both worlds: it's all there but the actual page-turning.

But still, I've resisted. I suppose I've been waiting for a sign, or at the very least for a definitive review of the Kindle — something other than the lap-doggish panting that was all I'd seen thus far. And in the space of the past two weeks, I've had both.

First, the sign: some of you may have heard that recently, Amazon not-so-quietly removed a couple of e-books from some of its customers' Kindle devices. For those looking to catch up, here's David Pogue's NYT blog post and a follow-up NYT technology article; I've been following Peter Kafka's continuing MediaMemo coverage on All Things Digital (here, here, here, and here); see also this section of the Kindle's Wikipedia entry.

A quick summary: a publisher had made Kindle-ready versions of George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm available on the Kindle Store, and after some copies were sold it was discovered that the publisher didn't have the rights to (those versions of) those books; Amazon responded by remotely deleting the copies that had been sold and refunding the purchase price to the relevant customers, in apparent violation of the Kindle's terms of service:

Upon your payment of the applicable fees set by Amazon, Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Device or as authorized by Amazon as part of the Service and solely for your personal, non-commercial use.

Some significant issues that have come up as a result of this action: some customers had annotated their Kindle copies of the books and have lost their annotations along with the books; Amazon (represented by CEO Jeff Bezos) has apologized for its actions and has promised not to remove content from customers' Kindles in the future "in these circumstances", but is being coy about the circumstances under which they may still take such action; customers wonder whether the text of their purchased content may be (silently) changed; and so forth. The irony of the situation has of course not gone unnoticed: the identity of the author and the books involved is just too good to pass up comment on. There are many, many references to "Big Brother" and to "the memory hole" of 1984; the aforementioned NYT technology article explains the latter reference right off the bat (but then ends with the claim that "[o]n the Internet, of course, there is no such thing as a memory hole" — excuse me, but Russ Kick begs to differ).

Second, the review: still following Peter Kafka's MediaMemo, I found out yesterday that the Kindle has just been reviewed in the New Yorker. And it's a pretty damning review, from start to finish, sometimes with faint praise and sometimes with sharp kicks to the knee caps. In my favorite section of the review, the reviewer (Nicholson Baker) indulges in just a little bit of bibliomysticism, which I will here define as the belief that the printed-on-paper word is somehow endowed with power that cannot be replicated otherwise. (See this note.)

The problem was not that the screen was in black-and-white; if it had really been black-and-white, that would have been fine. The problem was that the screen was gray. And it wasn’t just gray; it was a greenish, sickly gray. A postmortem gray. The resizable typeface, Monotype Caecilia, appeared as a darker gray. Dark gray on paler greenish gray was the palette of the Amazon Kindle.

This was what they were calling e-paper? This four-by-five window onto an overcast afternoon? Where was paper white, or paper cream? Forget RGB or CMYK. Where were sharp black letters laid out like lacquered chopsticks on a clean tablecloth?


[T]he wasp passage in "Do Insects Think?" just wasn't the same in Kindle gray. I did an experiment. I found the Common Reader reprint edition of [Robert Benchley's] "Love Conquers All" and read the very same wasp passage. I laughed: ha-ha. Then I went back to the Kindle 2 and read the wasp passage again. No laugh. Of course, by then I'd read the passage three times, and it wasn't that funny anymore. But the point is that it wasn't funny the first time I came to it, when it was enscreened on the Kindle. Monotype Caecilia was grim and Calvinist; it had a way of reducing everything to arbitrary heaps of words.

I recommend reading the review — the critique of the Kindle is substantive, with the bibliomysticism served up as additional entertainment. Needless to say at this point, I'm not buying a Kindle anytime soon. I'd rather do as Baker suggests and read books on my iPod touch for now (yes, there's still room for some books even with all the music), and eventually on the much-rumored iTablet.

Note: My grad school buddy Ed Keer liked to say that bibliomysticism is responsible for the knee-jerk judgment that the book must always be better than the movie. I thought Ed had coined the term, but a Google search for it turns up (just) these two hits, from 1971 and 1987, respectively:

We cannot, as professional librarians, retreat into biblio-mysticism and ignore information storage media of a non-book nature.

Topics cover […] the challenge of the information society (including the charge that librarians who limit themselves to the book are "bibliomystics") […]

(Go back.)


  1. Dan T. said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 11:14 am

    Calling the thing "Kindle" does prepare people for expecting it to be used for electronic book-burnings.

  2. Nick Lamb said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 11:26 am

    “the book must always be better than the movie”

    You don't have to read too many novelizations to know /that/ isn't true. More over, a huge (to the point that it's almost an obsession) Jaws fan took the time to tell me I shouldn't read Benchley's novel, that the movie is better all around. So, I think a more reliable rule is that an attempt to translate something great to a new medium is likely to fail, and that rule is itself probably just a natural consequence of Sturgeon's Law. That leave the bibliomystics only the advantage that the written word has been around long enough to build up quite an impressive 10%.

  3. bulbul said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 11:45 am

    I'd rather do as Baker suggests and read books on my iPod touch for now
    Precisely. Kindle-shmindle, it's the Kindle store that's the real revolution. The Kindle iPhone OS app was the main reason I bought my iPod Touch. Why carry around another piece of hardware when you can have all your music and your books on one single device?

  4. bulbul said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 11:47 am


    it would seem to me that there is a world of difference between a book made into a movie and a novelization of a movie/screenplay. I take "the book must always be better than the movie" to only refer to the former and to be true in 95% of all cases.

  5. Jonathan Badger said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

    Actually, I was surprised that Baker didn't wallow in *more* "bibliomysticism" than he did given his obsession with print newspapers (see his "Double Fold").

    However, given that he apparently accepts that electronic books aren't the work of the Devil, I have to say I'm rather shocked that he preferred reading books on his iPhone to his Kindle. Yes, as an owner of an iPhone I have read books on its tiny backlight screen. It's not very different from reading books on a PDA in the late 1990s (which I also did back in the day). It can be done, just not with comfort. And sometimes, like when waiting in a long supermarket queue, I can see its attraction.

    But reading on e-ink is just in another league all together. Don't let Baker dissuade you if you haven't seen the advantages of e-ink for yourself. As for the the "1984" fiasco, I really don't know what Amazon could have done otherwise. Blame the stupid US copyright law for keeping Orwell copyrighted while he is public domain elsewhere, not Amazon. (Not to mention that Amazon could only delete the copy actually on the Kindle; anyone who backed up their Kindle to their computer could restore the book) And if you still hate Amazon, look at the other e-ink devices such as Sony's.

    BTW, bubul — "Jaws" wasn't a novelization; it was a novel before the screenplay existed. There are plenty of movies that are better than the books that inspired them. Besides "Jaws", I'd count "The Shining" and "The Godfather" as classic movies based on schlock novels.

  6. Richard Pfeiffer said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

    The Chronicle of Higher Education had an interesting article called "Reading Dickens Four Ways: How 'Little Dorrit' fares in multiple text formats," by Ann Kirschner.

    The iPod Touch fared pretty well in her comparison, but the Kindle didn't do so well.

    The article is available to subscribers at

  7. Theophylact said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    Generally speaking, great books don't make great movies, and great movies don't have great books as their sources; the two forms are too different to sustain really good translation. In the rare successful cases, the transformation produces utterly different versions.

  8. Joe said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

    I wonder if Fetishism is a better word to use in this context than Mysticism. Mysticism typically refers to belief systems while Fetishism refers to specific objects. Biblical treatment of "The Word", I think, can rightly be considered biblio-mystical and, I guess, librarians might consider themselves biblio-mystics and the library a holy place. But the endowment of power to printed words and pictures on papers bound as a single volume can cover a lot more ground than that (say, from the aforementioned preference of books over movies to the practice of displaying books for purposes of interior design). I do know that some folks will attest that lugging around a well-thumbed copy of Finnegan’s Wake in a coffee house can attract the right kind of person to a conversation about Joyce just as well or better than wearing a pair of high heels.

  9. Nathan said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

    @Jonathan Badger: You really don't know what Amazon could have done otherwise? How about leaving their customers' property alone? Yes, the books in question are stupidly under copyright in the US. But copyright law has never given a company the right to access someone else's storage device and erase files–no matter what loony ideas the RIAA and Orrin Hatch have proposed.

  10. Mark P said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

    The idea of the Kindle is mildly interesting to me, but I would never buy one if Amazon retains the ability to modify its contents without my active and timely permission.

  11. GPburdell said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

    With all the hubbub about the behind-the-scenes deletions & the possibilities of text modifications on the Kindle, I should point out that it's possible to read books on the same e-Ink screen on Sony's book reader, and since it's not permanently connected to the mothership, the books you buy & read are as permanent as you like.

    I think "bibliomysticism" is an excellent term–I'll have to remember it! It puts me in mind of an amusing talk by Salman Rushdie recently regarding remakes–books to books, books to movies & movies to movies. He allowed that sometimes the movie was better than the book.

  12. Leonardo Boiko said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

    As an example of the rare cases Theophylact is talking about, I’d say Naked Lunch.

    As for the Kindle, I for one will wait for a Linux-based e-ink device that can read arbitrary text files in standard formats (txt, html, pdf). No little black boxes for me, thank you very much.

  13. AJD said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    Not exactly apropos to the topic of the Kindle, but: In Baker's New Yorker article, my eye was caught by his unusual way of punctuating the quotative be like. He puts a comma between the copula and like, as follows:

    “When we first got involved with this, people were, like, ‘Oh, you’re trying to kill the book,’” Wilcox said recently, by telephone. “And we’re, like, ‘No, we love the book.’”

    I don't know if this is Baker's idiosyncrasy or his editor's judgment, but it seems very unusual. Other sources—even other mainstream, presumably standard, edited journalistic sources—don't appear to put a comma between be and like:

    "I think we're like, 'Oh, we got two kids now, so now we really have to be tough, or strong.' " (NPR)

    “I’m like, ‘Hey, I just work here.’ ” (New York Times)

    “After the dinner, me and Lorenzo were like, ‘Hmm. That wasn’t the dinner we were expecting.’” (The Atlantic)

    This suggests to be that either Nicholson Baker or the New Yorker editors don't really understand the difference between quotative like and discourse-marker like.

  14. Jonathan Badger said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    @Nathan: If doing nothing was a feasible alternative without leaving them open to legal attack, then why didn't Amazon do that? They didn't gain anything themselves by doing what they did; besides the bad PR they received (all the more so because of the ironic idea of making "1984" an "unbook"), they *refunded the money* for the "1984" purchases.

    @Leonardo: The problem with a "truly open" ebook reader is that commercial content won't be available for it. I suppose one could just read Project Gutenberg books, but to me the exciting factor is the ability to read a NYT book review of a new release and then have the book in question within seconds.

  15. Ed said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

    Eric, stop antedating me!

  16. Nicholas Waller said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

    I don't think Nicholson Baker was particularly indulging in bibliomysticism here – ie wanting to read the material on actual woody paper – so much as wanting to have a better screen: less of the grim and Calvinist dark grey typeface on a greenish, sickly, postmortem grey background, but some readable black typeface on paper-white or paper-cream-type background.

  17. Andrew M said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

    I purchased a Kindle a couple months ago. So far I do have an issue with Amazon deleting/editing content at will, especially since the Kindle was marketed as computer independent (so users backing up on their computers is less than likely). I also find it disturbing that they broached there license agreement so easily (at least how it appeared to owners). Finally, the proven ability and will to muck about with already purchased content is disconcerting.

    However, one mitigating factor that I will concede to them is that the book in question was not banned, the change was not done because of content, per se, and one could easily purchase another copy. While this hardly condones what they did, it at least shows to me that they are not attempting to be "evil".

    While the whole mess does diminish my enthusiasm for the device, I am still a huge fan of it, find the screen supremely readable, and really my only (prior) complaint was the lack of support for *.pdf, txt, etc. While having the ability to convert is at least a workaround, sometimes I want to read a file right off the internet.

    So there is the perspective from an young, technophile engineer who loves to read. YMMV, though my other two friends who have purchased them have beem similarly pleased.

  18. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

    I once interviewed Anthony Burgess, who was a screenwriter as well as a novelist, and he told me that mediocre books make the best movies, while good books rarely become good movies. His point was that mediocre books usually focus on plot and action, the stuff of movies, and the author's voice is unimportant, while in the best novels the author's voice is usually of primary importance.
    He was pretty much right, I believe. I'm a big Jane Austen fan, and I think the movie/TV adaptations of her work are terrible. Stripped of her wonderful authorial voice, her novels become mere soap operas. To cite one other glaring example, The Great Gatsby was an awful movie because Nick Carraway's voice is of supreme importance. The real point of the novel is not Gatsby, but the effect that Gatsby and his story have on Nick.
    Of course, there are exceptions. I would say that Tom Jones, The Horse's Mouth, and The Sun Also Rises are perhaps the best movie adaptations of outstanding novels. But they are the exceptions that test the rule.

  19. Hyman Rosen said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

    At the very end of the review, when Baker finally gets around to using the Kindle as it is meant to be used, it works fine. He gets engrossed in the book he's reading instead of worrying at its technological frame.

  20. dr pepper said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 7:45 pm

    I think that the Kindle and other digital slates are merely a transitional stage. Just as the pda has been merged into the phone, the slate will also become a function of phone or of a tablet pc, not a seperate piece of hardware. Hopefully it'll also mean the end of proprietory formats.

  21. Nathan said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 8:09 pm

    @Jonathan Badger: So it's all right for Amazon to (actively, knowingly, intentionally) do something they had no right to do to their customers' property, in order to head off a lawsuit for (inadvertently) infringing another company's exclusive legal right? If that is what the law supposes, then the law is an ass. I won't develop a full-blown analogy, but in what other circumstances is one allowed to damage another's property to prevent a lawsuit from a third party?

    It would be a different story if Amazon were simply destroying printed copies that had not yet been sold, or if the Kindles belonged to the company. But these devices were sold–not leased, not rented. It's much more convenient for Amazon to do it this way, but it's not right.

  22. Garrett Wollman said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 10:03 pm

    @Nathan: the devices may have been sold, but the books certainly weren't.

  23. John Cowan said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 1:44 am

    Amazon's grant means nothing in this context, because Amazon can't grant a right it doesn't have. And US$50,000 per copy in statutory damages (meaning that as long as copyright formalities have been complied with, the copyright owners need not prove actual damages) has to be a pretty huge threat even for Amazon. I think their decision to pull copies from users' Kindles was the only defensible one in the situation. "He who sells what isn't hisn / must buy it back or go to prison" (Daniel Drew) is usually applied to short-selling stock, but it's just as appropriate here.

    Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice, but it's not the unauthorized practice of law, either.

  24. Sili said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 8:12 am

    Some day there'll be e-books in the shape (and texture) of books.

    I'll get one then.

    It may well be bibliomysticism – I have hundreds of unre'd books that I may well never read – but I like the feel of paper, the sensation of turning the page.

    But for all I know I may be the last of my generation (though some of the younger (ex)friends did confess to being book-addicted).

  25. Ryan Daley said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

    The book, if good and not "schlock", is usually better than the movie, but this might result from the greater impatience (read, capital) in getting the movie to the box office than the book published.

  26. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

    The first thing to do when you get your Kindle is to cough up around $3.00 for David Emberson's The Kindle 2 Cookbook. He explains in detail how to find and download over a million books, how to send and receive e-mail and news feeds, search the Web, print pages from e-books, convert a great many file formats, listen to audio books and MP3 files and lots of other things. There's a huge body of Kindle hackers out there busy clearing away the undergrowth. (You can easily change the font if you don't like Cæcelia.)

    It's striking that 98% of the negative comments are based purely on æsthetics. Sure, the screen contrast could be better, but postmortem grey? If you wait for perfection, you miss a lot of good stuff.

  27. q said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

    As for the Kindle, I for one will wait for a Linux-based e-ink device that can read arbitrary text files in standard formats (txt, html, pdf).

    The Kindle 2 can read txt, prc and mobi files natively. The Kindle DX can read pdf's natively. In any case, there are many tools that can convert any e-book format to one that is readable by the Kindle natively. The Kindle is automatically detected as a removable drive when connected to your computer; or you can e-mail your files and they will be automatically downloaded onto your Kindle for 15 cents.

    As for reading on one's iTouch, I find the Kindle to be easier on the eyes. I blame the lack of contrast on the current limits of the technology; but it still provides much better readability than any LCD-based screen. My only complaint about the Kindle is its speed, especially when using its pretty shoddy browser (clearly not one that was designed to be heavily used).

    And a big meh to the whole book revoking brouhaha. At worst, a few people lost their annotations.

  28. Stephen Jones said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 2:00 am

    I don't know if anybody else is like me but I find it nearly impossible to read a whole book on a computer. I'm on holiday at the moment so am spending around six to eight hours a day reading on the computer but I can only read short articles or blogs. Even a mere 35 page article, such as Fallis's paper on lying that Geoff recommends on another thread I have printed out so I don't have to read it on screen.

    It's not a question of time. I will easily read the equivalent of a couple of hundred pages on screen, but ten pages seems to be about the most I can read one continuous article for.

  29. Stephen Jones said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 2:43 am

    Regarding the relationship between books and movies Burgess has pretty well got it right. You can get excellent films from great books ('Great Expectations' directed by Lean comes to mind) but rarely do you get a great book that is also a great film. There are exceptions; one of my favourite films of all time is 'L'important c'est d'aimer' directed by Zulawski, based on the great novel by Christopher Frank 'La Nuit Américaine'

    Frank also wrote another excellent novel, 'Le reve du singe fou' which was made into a top class film in English by the Spanish Director Fernando Trueaba.

    Another great novel that became a great film is the early nineteenth century Polish novel, The Saragossa Manuscript, which was adapted to the cinema in Polish in 1965.

    The case of Graham Greene is interesting. Mediocre novels such as 'Brighton Rock' or 'The Power and the Glory' become great films, precisely because we don't have the grating irritation of the author's voice, (and of course 'The Fallen Idol' is a great short story becoming an even greater film), but what in my opinion is by far his best novel 'The Human Factor' became a totally pedestrian and forgettable film.

    One of the main problems I feel with adapting a great book is that directors are overawed. It's no coincidence that the first three examples I gave were all oddball novels that would require imagination to get to the cinema at all. Films of Shakespeare plays are uniformly dreary, and the best screen adaption of French drama is Roxanne, Steve Martin's version of Cyrano de Bergerac, set in a small town American fire station.

  30. Leonardo Boiko said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

    @Johnathan: I see that as a problem with the current economic model of book publishing, not with the idea of openess. I expect the next couple generations to fix it. After all, today it’s already trivial to find any commercial book of note in piratebay or ebookee or whatever, so if the industry doesn’t come up with a better model they’ll starve.

    @q: The point is not simply that I want to read PDFs in my reader; I want to read PDFs in my reader with open software that I can read the source, modify, improve for my purposes, and be sure that my new expensive toy is controlled by me, not by Amazon or the press or whoever. I don’t trust the buy-but-don’t-own model; never did, never will.

  31. Danny Bloom said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 11:51 am

    This is a great discussion and all the comments have been enlightening. I esp liked Sili who said "Someday there will be e-books in the shape and texture of books:"


  32. Danny Bloom said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 3:10 am

    By the way, Eric, I liked the terms here of bibliomysticism and bibliofetishism so much that i blogged about them on my Zippy1300 blog in Taiwan (which gets hits per year, sigh) and today I also added Sili's wonderful comment about "some day there will be ebooks in the shape and texture of books". I love what she/ he said there.

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