The Times, 24 November 2007


How do you feel about the shops in late November? A festive delight of fairy lights and joy? Or incontrovertible proof that Sartre was right, and hell is indeed other people? And what tactics do you employ to remonstrate with the ravaging hordes of the rude? I usually opt to ignore them, in the certain expectation, contrary to all evidence, that they will then go away. But I do admire the more direct route. When faced with the behaviour of an unusually foul child, misbehaving in a public space in the latter months of the year, my boyfriend (who is, I should say, an otherwise good and patient man) will turn to me and ask loudly, “Did you see on the news, darling? Apparently, Father Christmas has died.”

And the sudden demise of Santa will be felt in homes across the land on Christmas morning. Not because my boyfriend will be making house calls, you understand, but because children everywhere will finally realise that they aren’t getting a Nintendo Wii. The Wii, I should explain, to those of you who aren’t techno fans, is a games console. It’s different from other games consoles because instead of fidgeting over a controller, developing giant thumbs and a hunch, you play it by replicating the movements you would use to perform the task in real life. The controller is, in essence, an expensive stick, and you move it around as though it were a tennis racket, a golf club, or a samurai sword. On screen, you then hit a volley, or a putt, or disembowel someone irritating. It is, not to be too technical about things, brilliant. And you have roughly the same chance of getting one between now and Christmas as you do of tracking down the Ark of the Covenant. HMV had a delivery in their Oxford Street store this week; they sold out in thirty-four minutes. And two of those customers paid with a kidney.

The must-have Christmas present is a relatively recent phenomenon – I think it began about ten years ago with an unobtainable Buzz Lightyear doll. I certainly don’t remember it from the eighties - my mother would never have been expected to crawl over broken glass to get us a game of Hungry Hippos. So is the must-have gift scarce because everyone must have it? Or is it must-have because it’s scarce? Do we only want it because we think we can’t have it?

I suspect that the need to have what no-one else can get is behind this week’s news that the Amazon Kindle has sold out in a matter of hours. The Kindle, once again for those of you who don’t salivate over wireless devices, is an electronic reader – like an iPod, but for books. Amazon describe it as ‘a revolutionary wireless reading device’, rather heroically ignoring the fact that most pre-revolution reading devices didn’t have wires either. We called them books, and they were awfully popular. We hardly ever had to plug them in either.

Now, I might realise that every technological shift is met by people not understanding the point of it – who would need to carry their entire music library around with them when they had a walkman? And one day, I may look back on my Luddite reaction to the Kindle with shame. But probably not. Because it was and is perfectly plausible to think you might be listening to, say, The Killers, and suddenly realise that actually you wanted to hear Jeff Beal’s soundtrack to the television show, Monk. A desire to hear something different is hard-wired into our brains: that’s why, before the almighty iPod, there were juke-boxes. But who thinks, “Well, I’m certainly enjoying this murder mystery, and I can’t wait to find out whodunnit, but I must just read some bits from another two hundred books first. And, while I’m at it, I should go to wikipedia and find out who composed the soundtrack to Monk”? No one, is who. Call me linear, but I want to start a book, read it, finish it, and then I’ll read another book.

My misgivings aside, the Kindle flew out of stock, even though its Amazon critics give it an average review of two and a half stars which, despite what a PR company will tell you, isn’t a ringing endorsement. I realise that public review sites are open to abuse, but unless the creator of the Kindle has left a positive bevy of vengeful ex-girlfriends in his wake, all of whom had the same idea for payback, at least some of those negative reviews are real. And they’re from people who have bought, or at least used a Kindle, so presumably don’t have the intrinsic belief that it is a stupid idea. And still, it’s becoming a must-own, unavailable gadget. So get ready for more tears this Christmas.