Rethinking the Kindle

I absolutely love my Kindle, and take it wherever I go.  I particularly like the wireless feature, such that within 60 seconds of wanting a book anywhere in the country I can have the book.

But the recent events surrounding Amazon retroactively removing books from people's Kindles without their knowledge has me really worried about the model.  I have, by the way, no doubt that there were serious legal issues that forced them to take these steps in this case.  But considering the number of book burnings we have seen by religious nuts and totalitarians and statist-wannabees in even the last century, it is scary to me that we've actually made eliminating a book from peoples' homes so much easier.

Ray Bradbury was creepy enough, with his teams of book burners in Fahrenheit 451.  But even in that book the burning was a struggle.  There was conflict, effort, resistance.   How much worse is it now if books can disappear at a keystroke?  It is a cold sort of horror, like being unable to fight against a germ warfare attack without even the ability of a heroic stand against an invading army.

Update: I have read various places that Bradbury has said his book was not about censorship and the state but about TV and pop culture destroying books and reading.  That it is more of a book of low-culture vs. high culture.  Anyone know the truth of this?

It doesn't matter to me.   I am a fan of both high and low culture (I am reading Les Miserables but last night I took a break to watch a rented copy of Underworld).  If folks can read Huckleberry Finn as a Gay novel, I can read Fahrenheit 451 (while listening to my well-worn Rush 2112 CD, of course) as a critique of censorship and totalitarianism.


  1. Evil Red Scandi:

    This is one of two issues that have kept me from buying a Kindle (the other being the slow speed of page turning combined with the relatively small amount of text that fits on the page).

    The percentage of media technologies relying on DRM that have wound up not fucking their customers over is pretty small. You're at their eternal mercy - their DRM business has to survive, essentially, forever (or as long as you care about owning your media). If they go out of business, change their minds, or just say "screw you - we're doing something new and incompatible" (Microsoft's Plays For Sure, anyone?) then your options are pretty much limited to writing them a letter and telling them how angry you are and hoping there are tools available to crack the content.

    Ironically, Amazon is doing the right thing with their DRM-free music store - shame they can't do the same with books. I've always had mixed feelings about Apple, but I have to give them credit for forcing the music labels to let them drop the DRM in iTunes.

  2. Captain Obviousness:

    I had purchased the collected works of George Orwell on my Kindle for $5. I thought it was so cool I could get 1984, Animal Farm, plus a bunch of essays and lesser known works for so cheap. The other night I got an email from Amazon saying they were refunding me $5 for my purchase. I didn't understand and figured it was just some mistake, then saw the story on the news. So far I have outsmarted them - I keep the wireless antenna off all the time to save the battery, so at this point they've given me the refund and I still have the books on there. Luckily I've already got everything I will be reading probably for the next year on there, so I won't need to turn on the antenna for several months. This is my feeble attempt at revenge.

    I hope they get a lot of bad press and angry customers over this. I think the real reason is that 1984 and Animal Farm have had a sales surge the last year, and the publisher didn't like selling them for a couple bucks when they can sell the hard copies for ten times that.

  3. Charlie Bratten:

    Apparently, it a copyright snafu. Amazon bought the books from somebody with non-US copyrights. The owners of the US copyrights, rightfully, objected.

  4. Jens Fiederer:


    You can backup your books to your PC.
    You can bring them back to your kindle by USB.
    You can keep your wireless off as much as you like.
    Let's not exaggerate how much power Amazon has over our collection.

  5. Jens Fiederer:

    As Bradbury goes, I read the same thing on Wikipedia....then I followed the links to Bradbury's site, but I must have gotten the wrong clip (the one on 451), because he said it started with him being stopped by the police just for walking somewhere there were no pedestrians.

  6. Jens Fiederer:

    OK, the relevant clip is the one on Censorship - it says mainly he is not seriously concerned about censorship HERE. He really DOES say it is not "about" censorship.

  7. hanmeng:

    Coyote: next on the list of disappearing writers!

    As for Fahrenheit 451:

    Fahrenheit 451 is not, [Bradbury] says firmly, a story about government censorship. Nor was it a response to Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose investigations had already instilled fear and stifled the creativity of thousands. This, despite the fact that reviews, critiques and essays over the decades say that is precisely what it is all about. Even Bradbury’s authorized biographer, Sam Weller, in The Bradbury Chronicles, refers to Fahrenheit 451 as a book about censorship. Bradbury, a man living in the creative and industrial center of reality TV and one-hour dramas, says it is, in fact, a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature.

    Art is what people make of it.

  8. Phr3dly Phr3denhosen:

    This is the problem with DRM of all types. You're not buying anything. You're buying a temporary right to decrypt a stream of bits.

    The person from whom you've bought that right can turn it off. There have been some high profile examples of major companies disabling their DRM servers, leaving customers out in the cold with music or videos for which they paid real money and can no longer use.

  9. Greg:

    It's a problem a lot of people have with the always networked model. They can know what books you have, what you are reading, and even what pages you have read. They can, theoretically, edit books, see your notes, etc. Not that everyone should go shopping for tinfoil hats, but the potential is there, you sacrifice privacy for the convenience.

  10. Bob Sykes:

    Greg has got it right. The potential for monitoring is the issue. Then there is the issue of what Amazon might do with what it knows about you. The information Amazon has includes what's on the Kindle, where you are at the moment, your home address and telephone number, your credit card number, your purchases of books, music and movies, and more. This information is extremely valuable to marketeers, criminals, police and intelligence agencies and political groups.

    Now consider what is available if you do online data storage or computing, twitter, Facebook, etc, etc.

    Amazon did this without notice or second thought. Think what Google might do. What if there is a criminal or committed politico in any of these companies? What if the company itself is criminal or politically active?

    The irony that the books were 1984 and Animal Farm is too delicious for words. But Amazon's action show that we on the very edge of such a society.

    The future: A boot smashing a face ... forever.

  11. markm:

    "There have been some high profile examples of major companies disabling their DRM servers, leaving customers out in the cold with music or videos for which they paid real money and can no longer use."

    Not just music and videos. A few years ago, my then-employer lost their machine maintenance database - with periodic maintenance and repair records for tens of millions of dollars worth of production equipment - because the software vendor went out of business and so there was no authorization server to certify that they owned a license for the software.

  12. mld:

    I saw Ray Bradbury speak a few months ago at the LA Book Fair (he is a huge supporter of books and libraries) and he opened with an actor (as Montag) performing a stinging in-your-face new scene from 451 clearly aimed at people's preference of TV, celebrities, and pop culture. To paraphrase the actor: "I don't even need to burn the books -- you are doing such a good job for are only interested in a headline, no...the sound bite, that's all *you* want." Ray followed-up with a rant against the LA Times for cutting its book review section of the Sunday Times to 1 page a month. It was...glorious.

  13. Esox Lucius:

    I rediscovered Bradbury when I was 22. I reread 451 and he had put a forward in the version I read that said the book was about censorship and specifically minorities that were unhappy with what the majority was reading. He may have toned that down recently but I specifically remember him writing that his work was abridged and put into condensed versions for people in grade schools to read as "easy readers" I remember reading them as a child and liked his work then. He mentioned in the forward that the editors always wanted to tone down 451 and it made him crazy that they wanted to censor a book about censorship. I will have to dig out that copy and take a look at it again.

  14. Anonymous:

    I don't understand the dichotomy here between censorship and ubiquitous low-brow expectations of art. When you have a society that is compulsorily collective, they are one in the same: the collective decision to destroy an asset is carried out by what passes for government. Unless 451 is less well-crafted than I remembered and expected, this is the overall point.

    In a society where individuals are creative and do not force themselves on others via democracy, yet still demanding of art any type, then book burnings as a tool to oppress individuals does not exist. Both Brave-New-World-style ignorance and taste for the inane _and_ a fascist government are required here (and obviously reinforce one another).

  15. Evil Red Scandi:

    I don't get what's different about the potential for monitoring. Yes, I suppose you could go to the bookstore and pay cash if you want your collection of Ray Bradbury to be anonymous, but for most of us the trade-off in time between jerking around with brick and mortar and vs. a few seconds of point 'n click outweighs the need for privacy of our reading habits - in any case, Amazon knows what I read anyway.

    Even that's not necessarily "evil" - I also own a retail store and we track every purchase by every customer so we can figure out which products they like. It's pretty much Management 101 stuff.

  16. aub:

    I think what creeps most people out about this Kindle episode is that users now realize how easily an electronic book, magazine, or newspaper can be deleted or modified without owner approval or notification.

    As for Fahrenheit 451, I enjoy re-reading it every now and again. The alienation that comes from everyone wearing earbuds and interacting with their wall TVs rather than with neighbors and family seems prescient for a book originally written in 1953. And it's not really about government censorship; it's about society's rejection of intellect.

    "There you have it, Montag. It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum , no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no!"
    Captain Beatty

  17. morganovich:

    is it possible that this is, in fact, a brilliant and subversive marketing campaign by the owners of the Orwell copyrights?

    if anything is going to make people WANT to buy the more expensive physical copies of 1984 etc and ferret them away, this is it...

    you can't buy that kind of publicity. sucks for amazon, but maybe they make it up on hard copies?

  18. Gil:

    Maybe easy book burning is why it's called a "Kindle."

  19. epobirs:

    Sounds like Bradbury. He always struck as a huge snob. Look up some of his writing disparaging the ownership of personal vehicles. He has this bizarre utopian memory of Los Angeles in the 40s that nobody else can seem to recall, where everybody happily got about on foot. He seems to think LA, of all places, was no bigger than old London and all the rest of county not worth considering.

  20. John and Dagny Galt:

    We swear we will never purchase or use a Kindle.


  21. Todd:

    1. I agree with morganovich.
    2. There is no such thing as copyright.