Tom Foster on the Kindle

by on March 26, 2009 at 7:53 am in Books, Web/Tech | Permalink

Tom, a loyal MR reader, writes to me:

I've been following your Kindle posts for a while now and something that struck me is the signalling effects of reading a book versus a reading using a Kindle – yes I read Robin Hanson's blog too!

Reading with a Kindle, the signal is relatively constant and, at the moment, is something like "I'm an early technology adopter and I like to read". As the Kindle gets more commonplace the efficacy of this signal will, I think, diminish. Compare this with the signalling effects of reading a traditional book, where you signal to people not only that you like to read, but crucially what you are reading. 

I wonder if Kindle advocates are underestimating how important it is for people to show those around them not just that they like to read, but also what they like to read? 

1 Curt Fischer March 26, 2009 at 8:11 am

Tom must not read many books checked out from his university library. The binding machine they use tends to ruin the signal of what I am reading. Does “faceless brown hardback” count as a signal?

2 fish on a bicycle March 26, 2009 at 8:19 am

Or, maybe, Kindle readers don’t care? How many ebook readers are not used in public spaces? And how many books do people read that sit on a table or nightstand next to a bed in the bedroom (and that were delivered by mail or UPS)?

Possibly, those concerned about signalling with books are folks who signal with books, and assume anyone who reads has similar motivations….

“Innocence is ever simple and credulous. Conscious of no designs itself, it suspects none in others.”
— Excerpt from William Wirt’s Defense of Harman Blennerhassett in the Burr Trial

3 franko March 26, 2009 at 8:25 am

c’mon, let’s turn the page on the Kindle dilemma…..

sorry, i couldn’t resist


4 Lee March 26, 2009 at 8:38 am

Two of my first purchases for the Kindle were a book about sex and a book from the For Dummies series. All things considered, I think the world is a more interesting place when our reading choice can be private.

Before the Kindle I mainly read library books on the subway. And as Curt says (above), that meant a lot of brown and blue hardbacks. Now I read library books in bed, exclusively.

I am embarrassed to use my Kindle in public. I angle it so that people around me can’t see it. I feel strange about watching video on my iPod, too.

5 JP March 26, 2009 at 8:51 am

Like some the previous commenters, I *like* the privacy associated with the Kindle. I don’t want people to know what I’m reading. For example, right now I’m reading the Bible, but I don’t want my colleagues to think of me as a Jesus freak.

Relatedly, many years ago, when I used to commute by train, I was reading a collection of Carlyle’s essays. When I got to his “Occasional Discourse on the N—– Question,” I folded a little piece of paper in half and slipped it over the top margin of each right-hand page, so that no one would see the header.

6 John Sterling March 26, 2009 at 9:13 am

Tom’s comment is perceptive. It reminds how signalling contributed to the Toyota Prius’s dominance in the compact hybrid market. The form factors of the Prius are instantly recognizable and immediately signal the attributes one associates with a Prius owner. The Civic hybrid looks like a compact Honda automobile with minimal form factor differentiation.

7 Matt March 26, 2009 at 9:28 am

I think that the Kindle serves as a rather poor signal of early adoption. The slow, unlit, gray-scale screen is rather unimpressive next to just about any other device on the market today. And the true strengths of the e-paper technology that goes into the Kindle (long battery life, low eye strain) are difficult to convey to anyone who hasn’t used the device for more than an hour. I’ve tried to describe or demonstrate it for a few friends and family members who were curious, and many of them just seemed puzzled afterwards.

Conversely, I expect that many people are signaling more with books than simply that they are reading, and what they are reading. For instance, many people enjoy displaying collections of books prominently in their homes (I’m reminded of a line from the movie Anchorman: “I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany”). For many of these people the signal is not so much “I am reading”, but “I read”.

8 Tom Foster March 26, 2009 at 9:41 am

“Maybe people don’t want to signal what they are reading.”

I think the overwhelming evidence of this is to the contrary – see comments on full book cases, of which we’re all guilty. Think not of the early adopter who probably cares more about the technology signal than the literary one, but mainstream readers.

That said, maybe the positive benefits of a Kindle will overcome the signaling desire to show others what you are reading, time will tell.

9 JK March 26, 2009 at 9:59 am

In response to Tom Foster, there are certainly places and people who don’t want to signal what they’re reading for various reasons. As an example, in former Communist Bloc countries, older generations still wrap their books in paper while riding public transportation to prevent other riders from seeing what they’re reading.

10 Zamfir March 26, 2009 at 10:12 am

I postively like book shelves as wall decoration, they have a nice repetitve rhythm combined with changes in color and size and position. It’s a bit like music.

And any wall decoration is going to be either IKEA-impersonal or a big signal about you or what you want to be. And while a single book to carry with you can be chosen as artificial signalling (I think Sartre tomes where exclusively sold for that purpose), all the books you ever bought are going to be a pretty honest sample of your interests.

11 babar March 26, 2009 at 10:30 am

how can i signal something important — like which blogs i read?

12 JP March 26, 2009 at 10:31 am

Vanya — Or maybe it means that there are “readers,” and then there are READERS. 😉

13 Hell-Mikey March 26, 2009 at 10:44 am

But the Kindle gives the rest of a us a chance to icebreak with, “What are you reading?” and signal that we are literate, curious, and well, curious

14 mick March 26, 2009 at 11:03 am

I always take the cover off so I’m not “that guy” showing off what he is reading. But then again I am pretentious in ever other aspect of my life…

15 Andrew March 26, 2009 at 11:14 am

I do audiobooks.

I kind of like the idea of reading, kind of like I like the idea of sitting around sipping coffee. I have crap to do and no time to signal leisure. In fact, graduate students tend to work hard to signal the opposite.

Incidentally, noone knows I’m listening to podcasts, finance, and engineering. I’ve even converted some textbooks text to audio for classes.

Noone has ever asked me what I’m listening to.

16 db March 26, 2009 at 11:33 am

I think the fact that the Kindle doesn’t show what you are reading makes it an even better tool for signiling your reading prowess because it can be used to show that you are the sort of person who reads lengthy or otherwise obviously challenging books purely for fun.

If you haul out Swann’s Way on the bus you might come off as a tool who just wants people to see that your reading Proust. If you pull out your Kindle and it baits someone into asking what you’re reading then you can say Proust or War and Peace or whatever and look as though you are reading these things for your own pure pleasure. Of course you could lie, but that’s less fun and probably more trouble than its worth for most.

17 db March 26, 2009 at 11:45 am

Because it only makes sense financially to buy a Kindle if you are reading at least 15 or so books a year it also signals that you read a lot. And it is a more expensive signal to fake so more people might be convinced that you actually are an avid reader.

18 Fenn March 26, 2009 at 12:20 pm

as usual Tyler, the Onion scooped it:

“Man Reading Pynchon On Bus Takes Pains To Make Cover Visible”

19 Howard March 26, 2009 at 12:35 pm

I’ve had a Kindle for some time now, and I use it quite a bit… I read it in bed, I read it while sitting outside on my balcony, and I even read it in the bathroom. I suppose that if I ever used it in public, signaling might be an issue; but that certainly didn’t factor into my purchase decision.

A few comments: I love physical books. I love ’em so much, in fact, that I’ve accumulated several cubic meters of them. With very limited shelf space, that’s a problem for me. A book on Kindle takes up exactly zero space.

Next, a frequent complaint is that Kindle has a monochrome screen with no backlight. Two observations: first, paper books are often monochrome and don’t come with backlights, yet we do manage to read them nonetheless, right? Second, a rarely-mentioned feature of Kindle’s screen is that it’s clearly legible in the full glare of the noonday sun. In fact, the brighter the ambient light, the better the screen’s contrast gets (also rather like a paper book). I haven’t encountered any display device that was legible in full sun since my Mac Powerbook 170 back in the early ’90s—which I’d bet had the same display technology as Kindle. So, Kindle’s display may be technically retro, but it sure works for me.

Finally, there’s a tendency among reviewers to view the Kindle-vs.-paper book debate as an either/or issue. I think this is not useful. For some kinds of books (textual content that I can read serially) Kindle is great. For other applications (technical documentation, for example), I prefer documents I can display on my computer. For still other applications—especially anything where I’m going to be constantly leafing back and forth, or where there’s significant graphic content—I pretty generally want the paper edition.

The point here is that the various forms publications take these days all have their strengths and weaknesses. From where I sit, using each form to its best advantage is the smart way to go.

20 Taeyoung March 26, 2009 at 12:56 pm

Wow — so many people concerned about what folks in public will think about what they’re reading. You’d think they had never heard of the “spotlight effect.” Hey folks: barely anyone else notices what you are reading, and barely any of those who do actually give a turkey tail.

My experience would suggest this is incorrect. I routinely notice what other people are reading, even if I don’t set out intentionally to do so (if I’ve forgotten to bring reading material along, it’s not like there’s anything else to occupy my attention other than advertisements and the walls of the subway tunnel rushing past). And other people used to come up and commented on what I was reading, back when I read novels with the covers exposed, probably out of boredom on their commute.

21 Rich Berger March 26, 2009 at 1:39 pm

Regarding the Prius-

I’ll bet most Prius drivers are liberals and it is important to signal to others about their liberality. No hiding their light under a bushel basket!

22 babar March 26, 2009 at 1:50 pm

> Some books you feel good about in public

i have an idea. let’s keep books where they are and move ‘public’ to a little device with a screen that you can carry around.

23 8 March 26, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Remember this?

University apologizes to janitor scolded over KKK book

Sampson’s troubles began last year when a co-worker complained after seeing him reading a book titled Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan.

…”I have an interest in American history,” Sampson said. “I was trying to educate myself.”

But Sampson says his union official likened the book to bringing pornography to work, and the school’s affirmative action officer in November told Sampson his conduct constituted racial harassment.

“You used extremely poor judgment by insisting on openly reading the book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject in the presence of your black co-workers,” Lillian Charleston wrote in a letter to Sampson.

24 secretivek March 27, 2009 at 2:53 am

Some people used to listen to music in public, loudly, to signal what type of person they were. But once portable music players, starting with the Walkman and continuing to the iPod, came out, you didn’t have people getting on the bus with boomboxes any more.

If this does matter, the easy technological fix will be a separate e-ink screen on the back of the Kindle, that would display “album art” or the book cover. It would not be promoted as a signaling feature, but simply a cool design aesthetic.

25 liberty March 27, 2009 at 10:51 am

“i have an idea. let’s keep books where they are and move ‘public’ to a little device with a screen that you can carry around.”

Ha!! Best comment here, by far.

26 Kaj Sotala March 28, 2009 at 3:19 pm

how can i signal something important — like which blogs i read?

Read blogs via a service that lets you make them public, like Bloglines.

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