“Small, clumsy letters” – Amazon’s Kindle and the Culture of Shame

Much has been made of Amazon’s recent remote deletion of purchased copies of certain George Orwell novels from its Kindle devices, apparently because the specific digital editions weren’t actually authorized by copyright for publication. While such covert action had apparently been made before, news outlets presumably couldn’t resist the irony of casting Jeff Bezos and Co. as Big Brother (one can only imagine that the remote deletion of Fahrenheit 451 would have caused an armed uprising). If, as a recent New Yorker article published before the Orwell scandal suggests, publishers are continually under “not so subtle” pressures to embrace the Kindle, or at least the ebook model more generally, the spontaneous erasure of hundreds of thousands of words across however many devices seems to foreshadow a kind of Savonarolan future where books of the slightest controversy are simply wiped away without a trace, without even the reassurance of hard, paper copies left around to back them up. Or, in other words, the world would tend to look a little bit like 1984 (and hence the irony).

And yet the first truly striking image from 1984 isn’t of literature’s comprehensive destruction, likely because said destruction has already taken place well before the novel starts. Rather, Winston’s first real rebellion is an act of partial shame as he sits in a partially obscured corner, reading his illegal diary in one of the few blind spots Big Brother has accidentally provided. If he can’t be seen reading, then his transgression remains innocuous, and might it not be true that the Kindle offers this same kind of anonymity?

I confess that, ever since I learned that it was a protracted analogy for marriage with some throat cutting thrown in, I’ve been curious to read the Twilight book series, but would be damned if I’d ever be caught dead actually purchasing a copy (every time I considered doing so, I imagined myself swaying back and forth at the register, failing to meet the cashier’s eyes, and pretending that I was just buying the book for my nonexistent niece). From what’s been anecdotally reported, many Kindle sales are fueled by romance novel and erotica readers (and as this aptly-titled WordPress blog would have it, these readers are a vociferous lot). Unspoken in this arrangement is the fact that Kindles and like devices provide the perfect cover for anyone wanting to read about turgid members (or teenage girls courting century-old vampires) entirely undetected by the outside world. “It’s stuff I never would have checked out at the Barnes and Noble, because the gleaming and oily man chests would have made me blush too much,” one reader opines in the aforementioned New Yorker piece. As Shahriar Mandanipour’s recent Censoring an Iranian Love Story has it, it’s precisely these eroticized images that are most likely subject to Big Brother’s razor. But with a Kindle in my hand, or an iPod touch in my pocket, what exactly I’m reading means more to me and less to you than it ever has. If, as Nicholson Baker presupposes, every ebook is reduced to an “arbitrary heaps of words,” then hell, to anyone looking over your shoulder, it might as well be Absalom, Absalom!

That’s not to say that the clandestine benefit of the Kindle lies only in smuggling smut. At one time, prior to its official U.S. publication, Nabokov’s Lolita came packaged in two volumes, the same way that pornography was segmented so that it could be better smuggled stateside in false bottom trunks. We spend lots of time worrying about censorship from above. Yes, the threat to publishing, to the sanctity of print, posed by Amazon’s spontaneous deletion (which, for the record, they’ve nominally vowed never to do again) is grave, yet perhaps graver still is the nine-year-old who can’t pick up Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets because he’s afraid that fellow parishioners will suspect him of witchcraft, the housewife who has to hide her copy of The Audacity of Hope before the other members of her book club arrive for coffee.

Big Brother might be watching, but from time to time, we’re our own best censors.

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