Fifteen years before COVID-19, novelist Richard Powers wrote that we were living in the middle of an epidemic. The disease wasn’t physical, but it was very real. It was the plague of “real time,” a rigid, wide-ranging temporal awareness that is as deeply capitalist as it is ubiquitous. Real time, according to Powers’ broad definition, insists on productivity and public persona—it is kept by clocks, yes, but also by your social media feeds, your screen time, your Amazon Prime. “Real time” ticks by in targeted ads, the crocheting you picked up last April and decided to market on Facebook by June, the way you are always doing at least two things at once. It is not about counting down the minutes and hours so much as it is about accounting for your every minute and hour. Powers saw only one cure for the kind of time that keeps us better than we keep it: reading. The reasoning behind this kind of inoculation is simple. To read, he explained, is to perform what may be “the last secretive behavior that is neither pathological nor prosecutable.”
And okay, maybe it’s not Moderna. But there’s something innately persuasive about the idea of reading as one of the last truly private acts—by which I mean one of the last ways to inhabit a world that isn’t gridded onto a matrix of metadata, or that isn’t in the literal Matrix. This is especially so now, when there are lots of ways to read that aren’t, in fact, private at all. In 2004, when Powers published his reflection on real time and its literary antidote, Amazon was still six years shy of releasing its first Kindle. Fast, sleek, and more spacious than any of your bookshelves, once on the market the Kindle quickly became the Kleenex of e-readers. Today, its name—which literally means to light on fire—is pretty much synonymous with a whole technology. If only to achieve a kind of poetic justice, then, I am going to suggest we start burning them.
Let me be clear: book burning is bad. But so is totalitarianism. And so is surveillance capitalism (which, I think, Powers might understand as an alternate articulation of real time). Also, your Kindle is not a book, really. It is a wolf in book’s clothing. It is a cover. We should judge it. In February 2020, The Guardian published a piece on one reporter’s outrage at discovering that her Kindle was tracking not only what she read, but how and, if at all possible, why she read it. Thanks to a new California privacy law, the reporter could see that anything she bookmarked, the Kindle bookmarked. Anything she highlighted, noted, defined—well, Amazon highlighted, noted, and defined those things, too. Except the definitions look like an uncannily curated RECOMMENDED FOR YOU tab. The reporter was right to be disturbed by this information, but totally bonkers to be so surprised. Amazon birthed a device that we know is listening to you inside your own home. Why should your Kindle be off-limits? Why should reading be more private than anything else?
Maybe because it is, like Powers says, the only thing that still can be. Everything on a screen is a two-way interaction—unless you listen to your music on vinyl, which no one really does even if they say they do, every piece of art or culture you privately consume is actually a public exhibition. In some cases, this doesn’t matter, or is even preferable. But in most, it is simply unavoidable. It’s faster, easier, and cheaper to use Spotify than it is to download music. It makes more sense to shill out $10.99 for a monthly Criterion subscription than to, God forbid, order obscure DVDs. We stream, we Kindle, we, I don’t know, Google Earth. Digitally, we have all the elements at our disposal, and they have us at theirs. But books—tangible, physical, printed books—are still widely available, even kind of trendy, in a faux-hipster-bullshit sort of way. Toward the end of The Booksellers, a 2019 documentary about the decline of the rare book market, Fran Lebowitz pops up to offer some uncharacteristically optimistic words of wisdom. “The people that I see reading actual books on the subway,” she reports, almost fond, “are mostly in their 20s. This is one of the few encouraging things you will ever see in a subway.”
Of course, there are still lots of ways to digitize and publicize physical books, to bring them into Powers’ “real time”: we post pictures of our stacks, we track our pages on Goodreads. I can’t think of a single book I’ve read that no one else has known about, if only because I was an English major, and I love to share my opinions. Even the publication where Powers championed private reading, The Paris Review of Books for Planes, Trains, Elevators, and Waiting Rooms, implies some kind of inevitable public interface. You hold a book in front of you at the dentist’s office, in line at the DMV, standing on the subway. You know someone might notice; you hope for a Before Sunrise meet-cute over a French novel, on a Paris-bound train. Still, even in these public places, reading carves out a pocket of impenetrable privacy. The wedge of space between you and your open book is weirdly intimate, and it has hard perimeters, even in paperback form. Book covers are there for other people to judge in a knee-jerk way, but the words you make out on the page—and, more importantly, what you make of the words you make out—are for you only, especially on first pass. Sure, standing too close behind you on the subway, someone could skim some of Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City over your shoulder. But think about it: you probably wouldn’t even notice. Standing together over the same book, you are both still reading totally, blissfully, alone.
Inflammatory rhetoric aside, I don’t really expect anyone to burn their Kindles. In part because this would be very hard to accomplish: books may burn at good ol’ Fahrenheit 451, but a Kindle would require something closer to Fahrenheit 2,000. And, honestly, since most of us, myself included, can’t even seem to boycott Amazon properly, burning a Kindle seems both a waste of (real) time, and beyond our collective abilities—which would be better spent paying close attention to Amazon warehouse workers’ insistent, failed attempts to form the company’s first union. Besides, I think burning a Kindle suggests the wrong kind of relationship to what the Kindle is and what it means. Media Theory 101 teaches every undergrad that the medium is the message. If the Kindle, if Amazon, holds all your books, defines all your terms, reads the way you read and sells it back to you in ways you can’t even imagine—if that’s all true, which it is, then we shouldn’t worry about Fahrenheit 451, because it’s already too fucking hot out here. That is, if the Kindle remains one of the most popular ways for entire populations to read, then we should think about redefining what it means to burn.
By Jadie Stillwell
Illustration by Gabriella Shery