It’s still a new thing to have book-shaped readers for reading books—new on all sides. For readers (the people), what feels new is obvious. And for reader-makers, what probably feels new is that devices have gotten so fine, have retreated so far back into the quotidian world, that they now have a reason to share real estate with the grungy objects they outmoded. They cover everything, so they cover books. (And, hey, remember books?)
The advertisers for the iPad, Kindle, and other reading devices are in a strange spot, forced either to sell readers on readers (who thought they were the readers) or to tell everyone else why books are grand. And they have responded, in a sense, in kind: with a series of strange spots. Apple runs an ad on its website starring the reading experience (a mom reads Winnie-the-Pooh to her child, and we see some mommish titles socked away for later). In Amazon’s stop-motion TV commercials, twee pop plays as silent Kindle-holding characters are swamped repeatedly—almost worryingly—by costumes and high jinks: raw bookstuffs. And in the New York Times Book Review, newsprint ads struggle to cobble together the resolution to show just how legibly this electronic device renders print.
One theme is common to all the ads: No one can grip either device naturally. The actors handle them more like scrolls (certainly Steve Jobs does, in his initial presentation of the iPad, as he pulls up Ted Kennedy’s True Compass). And for Jobs and the rest, the reading looks oddly oracular. They peer at the devices formally, expectantly. It is as if the e-reader will not so much behave as a book but predict the future of books.
They peer at the devices, and the devices peer back. In the iPad’s world, everything has been turned to greet us. “The iBooks app opens to a beautiful bookshelf,” the mom’s voice announces in Apple’s web ad. Too dark to be pine, the shelf appears to be made of walnut, and her description is fair: there is nothing not beautiful about it. But it’s also a strange platform: it looks to be no more than a few inches deep, and—as if to accommodate that design flaw—all the books are facing out. Fully frontal, they appear a bit abashed; they are grudging conscripts in all this. It’s as though they’ve been forced to trade their slim, sidelong seduction for a kind of literary flashing. “Good morning,” they seem to say gloomily, much like Eeyore, whose words are intoned at the beginning of the ad: Winnie-the-Pooh sits on the top left of the beautiful bookshelf.
Also resting on, at, or in the top left of the sylvan screen are Thomas L. Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded and Ted Kennedy’s True Compass. The latter is apparently a popular choice. It’s certainly an intriguing one, directionally speaking. A book about the late senator facing his fears, facing his past, facing Hyannis Port on a beam reach.
True Compass is also a book about mortality tinged with hope, I’m guessing, and as such Jobs’s choice feels coded with a claim about books: they’re sort of dying, but their best days are ahead. Finally able to shed their physical forms, they can live on as icons—quite literally—totally weightless and a snap to move around this strangely cool, flat, and crowded bookshelf. Weightless and, of course, in the case of all of the books in the ads, which range from Stephen Coonts’s The Disciple to J. A. Jance’s Trial by Fire, quite spineless.
We can’t help but translate these ripe symbols—yet where do we file the translations? These titles signify, but without further depth to the family (which lacks even a proper den for its shallow bookshelf), the signifiers float free. We have no real characters, just their taste: these bobbing, lost symbols. And then we open the New York Times Book Review, and there is a full-page ad for the Kindle, featuring the first page of the first chapter of Dan Brown’s latest best seller, The Lost Symbol.
The Kindle TV commercials are another story. Rather: which stories are they? Each of these ads (there are several versions) opens with a Kindle floating, via a few stop-motion herks and jerks, into the hands of a lucky reader. No sooner has he or she spotted some text than things that are known to happen in books start to happen. In one ad, a woman sprouts fangs, finds herself wearing a satin cape, then flies toward a corner of the screen through clouds made of gray hair. The moon turns into the sun, she disintegrates into sand, is reconstituted as an ancient Egyptian, then a scuba diver. She kisses a fish, blows some bubbles, and, while underwater, spots another, apparently waterproof, Kindle.
All of this is charming in about the same way that Apple’s bookshelf is beautiful. But the sequences make the viewer curious. Which books are being quoted? Are these scenes from real novels? It figures that if so, they would be fairly recognizable, but no texts jump out. If anything, each set piece seems to stand in for a whole genre: crime, adventure, vampire.
There does appear to be some loose relationship between the ads’ song lyrics and the action. The spot featuring “Stole My Heart” (by the songwriting pair Little & Ashley, whose Annie Little also stars in the ad) includes some caper visuals. “Fly Me Away” (Annie Little again) summons up old aviator gear, though also some other, less-relatable stuff, like magic and small-game hunting.
Indeed, these clippings of imagination are lost symbols of another sort: plot twists without the plots they twisted from. If that’s no concern in its own right, it does start to feel strange in light of the line that appears at the end of each spot: “Books in 60 seconds.” That means, presumably, that 60 seconds is what it takes to download a book to a Kindle. But it also seems to mean that we’ve just watched a 60-second spot explaining what books are. (To be fair, the spots are 30 seconds.)
Interestingly, the Kindle itself pops up repeatedly in the ads, even after it has done its work launching the flights of novelish fancy. And we start to get the sense that the device isn’t just the departure point but perhaps a feature in these increasingly tangled scenes. And we start to wonder, then, if this interior Kindle contains other false books within (false) books: perhaps The Prismatic Bezel, by Nabokov’s dead author Sebastian Knight.
Dig around in the online reviews that trail both devices, and you’ll notice they are sometimes rendered without the hyphen: ereader. The term instantly trumps all Amazon’s spilled faux-ink about genuine pagelike pages. To eread: to read, and also to erase. To read in some middle space. Ereaders also sound like people—
a certain kind of reader, the voracious reader-traveler Amazon and Apple seem to believe in: always moving, always genially looking for plots that move. Reading itself doesn’t seem fraught for ereaders, as it usually is when iread (and seems to be for most readers iknow). The ereader—the device, the person—fears only a lack of books. It or she or he doesn’t fear what ido, which is just how many books there are.
And the thing about these ereaders as people, whether or not they exist, is that for them, reading already has the feel of downloading. The point of reading is smoothness. The point is success. Books are for completing without hitches. So this brand of reading not only accompanies commuting, it is a kind of commuting itself.
The ads argue this point by not bothering to sell us on it. It’s now natural to download books—in effect, turning all books into one long book—for a functional, frontal ingestion. It’s fine for all novels to queue up, behind the device’s windshield, and approach like scenery, hillocks of plot rising and falling, symbols symbolizing, on repeat. Books do a certain kind of thing, and the difference between them is about as consequential as the hyphen between that e and the word for curling up with one. Ebooks entertain the idea of ereaders.
“Discover the joy of reading all over again,” the iPad trailer instructs. Here, it seems, is the nagging premise of it all—and the promise. The ads treat reading as a memory. They feel weirdly certain that it is something you stopped doing; more weirdly certain that this is because it somehow became obsolete. Their tone is charming because it is nostalgic, nostalgic because it’s so historic. What do we recall about books? They sit on bookshelves. They contain highly booklike scenes.
The word kindle implies the promise. The interest you surely lost will now get a new spark. The problems of analog reading have finally been cleared out. Yet what’s offered as evidence—the grab bags of scenes, all these denuded denouements—turns the e-reader into a kind of droopy carryall: that is, a bindle.
Of course, to even bother with rhyme is to be a bit optimistic. It’s the synonym that poses the real threat. Kindle? For all Amazon’s memories of novels, a particularly freighted symbol seems lost on them: the notion—visions of Fahrenheit 451—of setting a spark near a stack of books.