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Reading in Black and White

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Friday, April 02, 2010

Such is our gadget obsession that the launch of a new electronic reader has set off a death match between two new-media gorillas, Apple and Amazon.com. Apple's iPad seeks to end the Amazon Kindle's domination of the market for devices that let you download books and read them on a screen.

The tech bloggers are taking sides, of course. (You can imagine the passion, invective and casual use of expletives.) Your correspondent started off as a disinterested observer, but the more the Apple partisans sang the praises of the iPad, the more she favored the Kindle.

One Apple enthusiast writes that the iPad offers "color and multimedia with the promise of moving video, color charts and pictures, and so on." He adds: "As a travel companion, all you can do on the (Kindle) DX is read." (Ignore the dangling modifier. He clearly means that the Kindle is your traveling companion, not the other way around.)

Hmmm, all you can do on the Kindle is read . I don't know about this fellow, but isn't the point of an e-reader to be a convenient medium for reading? It replaces traditional books. Sure, I've used books to flatten photographs or hold down tablecloths in the wind, but they are bought to be read.

The blogger can't be assuming that the gadgeteer who would plunk down hundreds for an e-reader doesn't already own a television and laptop -- and perhaps a super-phone and game console. All are capable of fulfilling anyone's minimum daily requirement for exploding images.

Indeed, books have become an escape from the noise, clutter and flash of video. They ease the attention-deficit disorder that "screen sucking," as the kids call it, has visited on previously relaxed personalities. The Kindle uses "E-ink" technology, which mimics words on paper.

I have a hundred-plus cable channels, a Netflix subscription and a Roku to stream video on demand. But all these options can't always fill my need for a good story the way a book can. Books let readers customize images and emotions. Furthermore, books don't have to be recharged -- nor does one's brain (though I sometimes wish I could plug mine in for more juice).

A day of staring at TVs and computer monitors can strain the eyes. The iPad is another cornea-parching screen. By contrast, the Kindle does not have a backlit display, so it's easier on the peepers. Unlike the iPad, the Kindle can be read on a sunny beach (and one needs a light to read it in the dark). That it's not a video screen is a virtue, in my book.

The thinking goes that young people must, absolutely must , have color all the time. Some probably must, but black and white, which includes shades of gray, is the foundation of the youthful geek chic. I defy you to find an Apple Store "Genius" wearing fuchsia.

There was a big campaign starting in the '70s to colorize classic black-and-white films for a new audience raised on Technicolor. Movie lovers picked up their pitchforks. "Could you imagine watching 'Casablanca' or 'It's a Wonderful Life' in color?" they asked. As it turned out, younger audiences weren't clamoring to see a pink nose on Oliver Hardy, so the fervor for colorizing old movies faded.

This could be Tyrannosaurus rex issuing his last primal scream as the Cretaceous Period draws to a close, but here goes: Black letters on white paper-like backgrounds will always play a major role in our culture. Words on screens can change colors and dance, of course. However, the question remains: Why would anyone past "Sesame Street" age need a colorful screen to read "Moby Dick"?

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