The dark side of the whiteboard - Digital Darcy's unmanly chest

14th January 2011 at 00:00

My son has gone over to the dark side. He got a Kindle for Christmas and has become a born-again reader. He is now a proselytising apostle for the e-inked word. And he is not alone. The Kindle outsold Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to become the best-selling product in Amazon's history. Apparently this third-generation model sets the gold standard for e-book readers thanks to its slim design and cross-platform transportability, although personally I always found a Penguin Classic easy enough to carry on the train. The makers also claim that the Kindle's soft-touch, textured back never gets hot in your hands. Again, not a problem with the paperback unless you happen to be a careless smoker.

My son never tires of telling me how much it can do, although I notice it has yet to empty his bin or take the top off the Toilet Duck. According to him, the Kindle's greatest features are its storage capacity (3,500 books), its battery life (up to four weeks) and its connectivity. He gave me a quick demo of the latter and I have to say that surfing the web with an e-book reader is weird. Imagine using an internet tablet that has been genetically modified by an Etch A Sketch.

Its matt monochromatic screen produces a sort of Fritz Lang version of the web: grainy, shadowy and dimly lit. If you want a real laugh, try Googling current affairs and check out the images of the Coalition. They belong more to the cabinet of Dr Caligari than the cabinet of Mr Cameron. In this shadowy world of film noir even Michael Gove looks dangerously attractive.

While I have to agree that the Kindle's storage capacity is impressive - just think how much space that could free up in the downstairs bathroom - some of its other features are less compelling. The text to speech function has a particularly emetic quality. When you press the shift and symbol keys together, the text on the screen is narrated by an automated voice. The effect is surreal. It may be written by Shakespeare, but when it's read by sat-nav it really does sound like a tale told by an idiot. What makes it worse is the fact that the automated voice speaks with an American accent.

I wanted to see how this would sit with Jane Austen so I got my son to pull up a few pages of Pride and Prejudice. Now like all women, I have a crush on Mr Darcy. It is a truth universally acknowledged that he can tame the feistiest of mares with a gag-bit, some spurs and a full-market valuation of Pemberley. But this digital Darcy is a let-down. He sounds like he would sooner command Miss Elizabeth Bennet to "Press the # key to speak to an operator" than to crush her heaving bosom against his manly chest. Not that I'm a staunch traditionalist, but if ever a man were to declare how "ardently I admire and love you", I would like to think he was driven by passion, not a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

But given that many kids hate reading, maybe we can turn the Kindle to our advantage. Usually when I urge kids to pick up a book it feels like I'm flogging a dead Penguin. What self-respecting teenager is going to choose the deferred gratification of a novel over the instant jackpot of a celebrity tweet? If a battery and a few buttons stop literature being lame, then bring it on.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England.

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