By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Sick of toting ten pounds of books whenever I traveled, I bought a Kindle a few years ago—the early model, with the keyboard and the e-ink that’s so easy to read in daylight. Unfortunately, that model’s text can’t be read in the dark, which led to some unhappy moments in flight. I’d be assuaging my sleeplessness by reading. Then my seatmate or someone occupying the row in front of me (or back of me) would complain about the overhead light: too bright.
Light or no light, someone was going to be unhappy.
Fortunately, a solution had appeared. I could buy a new e-reader, the backlit type, and I was sorely tempted to buy one. If I can't sleep away the wee hours while flying over the Atlantic or the Pacific, sanity requires that I be able to wallow in the printed word.
Except I wasn’t entirely happy with any Kindle by this time.
The problem was something I hadn’t anticipated. I’d noticed some faint lines under certain passages in e-books I’d acquired. Soon I figured out why. These faint lines were ghosts clamoring to be re-embodied. There was a setting that would allow me to see other readers’ favorite passages from any book I’d just bought.
No, thank you, I said to myself. I can reach my own conclusions. So I didn’t activate that feature.
But an alarm had gone off and a question arose: if any kind of electronic note-storing and note-sharing was taking place, how would it affect my use of the “serious” books I’d installed on my Kindle, the ones I needed for research, the ones with passages that I'd turn into footnotes eventually? Would I be able to delete/erase/obliterate evidence of my selections once I’d laboriously transferred them to my computer? Would I thus be able to protect from uninvited snoopers the thinking (however contrarian, subversive, mainstream, vacuous or just innocuous, but nevertheless my own intellectual property) that had produced my selections? Even if I'd activated some essentially pseudo delete function, might my notes not reside forever in some ambiguously-labled cloud eternally available to a secretive, over-eager spy agency?
My library and my book store have taken steps that make it impossible for anyone to learn from them what I’ve been buying and/or reading. Can Amazon make the same guarantee? I don’t think so, because Amazon doesn't want to let my data go. The company intends to study my past purchases in order to entice me with new titles I won't be able to resist. So far their efforts have been laughable, thanks to what appears to be a dull, unimaginative model of human behavior. For the time being, anyway, I'm armored against the sales algorithm.
But that's a human ego thing, and what concerns me here is privacy. Any attempt to manipulate my purchasing habits requires data storage and data mining. If Amazon has the data, that data will also be available for misuse by overreaching spy agencies. Whether Amazon approves or not. Whether Amazon knows or not.
And I will never know, unless there's an unexpected knock on the door, so to speak.
It looks as if I'll have to acquire my serious books in the more expensive, old-fashioned, privacy-protecting way if I can't borrow them from the library without joining a too long waiting list.
As for any e-reader I may own, I’ll fill it with read-and-forget genre stuff, to provide for minimal distraction during endless sleepless nights in the air. Packing a mere five pounds of reading material is better than carrying ten.