Monday, May 18, 2015

The broken book

The book weighs only 170 grams but has a potentially very large – although not infinite – number of pages. It is made of plastic and rubber, and has a translucent sheet at the front that acts like a window for reading its contents.

The book is portable, durable and robust, but not robust enough that you should sit on it. Which unfortunately is what I did with mine. It bent under my weight and something inside made a crunching sound. When I looked again, the black case of plastic and rubber looked intact but I could tell that the book had been damaged. The bottom half of the page I was reading when I put the book down was badly smudged, as if the text had been drawn in pencil and someone had hastily rubbed it with an eraser. Otherwise, the book was fine. I could still turn the pages and view the top half of each one.

Given the very low energy consumption and lack of significant moving parts, I could preserve the book in this state for quite a long time, there to uselessly collect the top half of a few dozen books and many more articles and essays.

What I chose to do instead was open the book and look inside. This proved a surprisingly difficult task, as the back rubber panel of my damaged Amazon Kindle was held in place by eight very tight clips and took a lot of prying. I wasn’t just driven by curiosity: seeing as I possess an older keyboard model with the screen still intact, I thought I could carry out a little transplant, in the off chance that parts were compatible. I found websites dedicated to replacing a screen on those older models, but nothing for my relatively more recent Kindle 5.

Once I finally removed the back cover, the book looked like this.

The next step was to delicately unplug the soft connections of the display and the page-turning buttons and remove the lithium battery. This was held onto the chassis by two T5 screws and a whole lot of glue: the first sign that my little operation would be unsuccessful. I had to dig the flexible square battery out with a knife and almost certainly damage it in the process.

In order to get to the display I was required at this point to turn the device over, remove the front bezel (which peels off without too much effort), unscrew five more screws, and slide the motherboard out. This is what it looks like.

Most recognisable components are shielded – with the exception of the Atheros wifi chip – but judging from the specifications, housed somewhere under those metal hoods are a Li-Ion battery, 128 Megabytes of RAM, the CPU and a 2 gigabyte flash drive, enough to store around 1,000 books by most standard calculations. I doubt that it would be possible to remove this drive from the board, even if you could prize open the soldered metal cover without damaging it. The shielding is a strong indication that the drive is not serviceable by the user, meaning that if the motherboard had been the part of the device that malfunctioned, I wouldn’t have been able to recover the data.

Once the motherboard is removed, it leaves the block that the display sits on. And it’s at this point that I conclusively discover that I failed in my quest. As it turns out, the display assembly is what is sometimes referred to as a midboard, and it houses components that are specific to this device, plus the frame and the side buttons that are part of the casing. None of these parts can be detached without breaking them, nor is the midboard compatible with earlier devices. It's farewell, then, my Kindle.

Still, I got this far so I might as well go a bit further. I proceed therefore to peel the translucent plastic from the base of the screen. This is the juicy bit: I’ll get to see how the display works. And it’s really quite interesting. The last page of text has stuck to the plastic. Here it is on nothing but my kitchen benchtop, looking (the top half at least) like an ordinary typeset page.

It’s an inert object now, needing no power to hold the ink particles in place. I can bend it, or even rub or scratch against the coarse side where the ink sticks to the plastic, and its appearance won’t change even a little bit.

On the base of the display, which bear signs of the damage caused by my sitting upon it, are the remaining millions of microscopic spheres not currently sticking to the plastic.

Each sphere contains black and white ink particles which an ordinary functioning Kindle would rearrange at each page turn by means of an array of electrodes. The ink particles are charged – the black ones negatively, the white ones positively – so that a negative charge by the bottom electrode sends the black particles to the top, a positive one to the bottom, resulting in the sphere (or pixel) appearing black or white. Yet in spite of its name this ink is not fully electronic, but behaves in most respects like regular ink. I rub my fingertips across the surface of the display, and they pick up a fine grey dust which I can use to make marks on regular paper.

Those marks are a concrete reminder that there is something very particular about these book machines.

Words can be rearranged on a computer screen at will, but they remain virtual, and when I turn the screen off they vanish as if they had never existed. To bring them into the analogue world of inert objects, I need to print them on paper, and then they behave in every way like the old technology. Electronic books straddle those two worlds, typesetting at each turn the ordinary page of a book, only on a special plastic instead of paper. And if the book machine breaks, as it could do at any moment (and eventually will, since the battery cannot be replaced), that last page will become permanent, as if out of your whole library you had chosen to print that one alone.

I enjoyed tinkering with my broken book, although I am not sure what I learned from the experience. It seems likely to me, as it does to many historians and scholars, that the form of the technologies in which our words are written and read affects our psychology as writers and readers, therefore the character that textuality takes in any given epoch. It’s just too early to say exactly what those effects will be for ours. All the same I occasionally worry that books without physical dimensions will entail a loss; that their ghost materiality will make them mean less. As I peer within the layers of the screen of my dead Kindle I am reminded that this is not quite so, and that aspects of that history survive –for history is always the hardest to die.