The Tiresome Highbrow/Lowbrow Disctinction, E-Reader Edition

by evanmcmurry

Ten bucks if you can figure out what this Atlantic blogger’s talking about:

So there’s a reading gadget and a reading gadget with Angry Birds Star Wars. Which do you pick? Well, you, cultured person that you are, would select the dedicated e-reader, of course, just like you would rather watch Frontline instead of Honey Boo Boo, or pick up Vanity Fair instead of Us Weekly on the checkout line. Or at least that’s what the ideal version of yourself would do. But as Amazon and Barnes & Noble are quickly discovering this year, the highbrow ideal all too often gives way to the mass-market realities. Sales of the Kindle and especially the Nook fell this holiday season, despite lower prices than more fully functioning tablets, which are distinctly on the rise. And market researchers estimate that these divergent paths will continue — The Wall Street Journal reports that e-readers sales will be cut in half, from 14.9 million per year to just 7.8 million, by 2015. But the death of the e-reader has less to do with the iPad than what’s inside of it: from tablets to TV shows and everything in between, the most high-minded of ideas for cultural consumption always seem to devolve toward mindless entertainment.

I guess we’re supposed to ignore the fact that she’s writing this under the Atlantic banner, which has managed to publish since 1857 without completely devolving into Buzzfeed.

Her argument, near as I can exhume it from beneath a forced analogy involving The Learning Channel and US Weekly, is that the Nook is failing because it is exclusively a reader, and most people who spend money on a tablet want something that offers them more than just a reader. Makes sense! But I don’t get how this is a highbrow/lowbrow distinction:

So, in the slowly dwindling technological world of the e-reader and its advanced brethren, Amazon’s Kindle is like old-school TLC and the B&N Nook is maybe a little younger and cooler, like Bravo, but still failing; the iPad, however, has Here Comes Honey Boo Boo written all over it.

It does? Do I really have to link to the Atlantic iPad app here?

Not that there’s anything wrong with what Amazon and Barnes & Noble were trying to do — a small audience might enjoy a device that has novels and long biographies and maybe some newspapers and little more. But the majority of people these days want to spend their downtime with HBO Go and Netflix apps, with games and email and other ways to relax their entire brains… not just the fancy parts of it.

Leaving aside that HBO Go has some of the smartest shows on teevee, and that you can use your Netflix app to watch sophisticated documentaries on, say, the relationship between economic theory and the 2008 financial collapse, in what ways are watching movies and reading books culturally exclusive activities? In what world do you either read Portrait of a Lady and are highbrow, or watch Portrait of a Lady and are lowbrow, but not both? And since when did cracking a book become synonymous with getting your monocle down from the shelf with the first editions?

Plus, the iPad has its own Kindle app, for those times when you do, after all, feel like indulging in something a bit more highbrow.

Jesus Christ, lady, it’s reading. We’re not bringing the Bentley around to have Jeeves drive us to lacrosse practice. And 107% of the books read on the Kindle app are 50 Shades of Gray; contextualizing the contemporary act of reading entirely within literary fiction seems narrow and inexplicably anachronistic. And how do you “indulge” in something highbrow, anyway? (Last night, I ate an entire carton of Thackeray!)

But the most straw-manniest line comes at the end:

Because people do, still read a lot of books. They just like doing everything else a lot more. If the death of the e-reader is nigh, maybe the age of the straight-and-narrow, undistracted smartypants isn’t far from ending, either.

So readers are getting their comeuppance for not being as exclusively literary as this blogger imagines they are, and for that we all lose our gilded Kindles. Would someone please explain to the non-smartypants Atlantic blogger that real highbrow readers—the rather small set that goes to movie adaptations of classic novels simply to bitch afterwards—turn their noses up at Kindles in the first place?

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