Since the first days of the Kindle, readers have been somewhat undone by the absence of page numbers in the text of their Kindle “books.” Reactions range from bemused to outraged. Some purchasers claim to have sent their Kindles back because of this formatting peculiarity, er, innovation. Others say, no big deal; they seem to be fine with progress bars and percentage completed figures instead of eyeballing how far you have to go until the end of the book.
From those same early days, though, it occurred to me and to many others that academic customs and conventions regarding citation of works and of a passage in text would be turned on their heads by Kindle’s adherence to a new form of locating passages within a text by calling them, well, locations. Much of the discussion among teachers and students about the use of these newfangled mileage markers in text in schools has focused on the question “How do I check a citation if I don’t have a Kindle?”
Why do people struggle so? I think the hang-up has to do a little bit with the word book itself. Books have pages. And these pages are numbered. Right? If we go down this path in thinking that you are reading a “book” on your Kindle, then we would have to call it a book without page numbers. But that picture changes quite a bit if we posit that what you are reading on your Kindle is not a book, but a file.
Once we make this little shift in vocabulary, the problem gets a lot easier to deal with. The MLA has rules for citing electronic texts that are not paginated books. The following (from the Seventh Edition of the MLA Handbook) seems promising:
Rule 5.7.18. A Digital File (MLA membership required for online access)
For example, when citing a file, which a Kindle book most assuredly is, the citation might look like this:
Stephen, Levitt D. Freakonomics. Rev. and Expanded ed. New York: Harper Collins, 2006. Kindle file.
The APA even took up this issue in a blog post from last year, saying in part:
For the reference list entry, you’ll need to include the type of e-book version you read (two examples are the Kindle DX version and the Adobe Digital Editions version). In lieu of publisher information, include the book’s DOI or where you downloaded the e-book from (if there is no DOI):
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success [Kindle DX version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.
The Chicago Manual of Style keeps it pretty simple as well:
Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck, The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business (Harvard Business School Press, 2001), Kindle e-book.
Of course, there is no reason not to help the person who would like to find the source of your citation by including location numbers, or, as the APA suggests, using those structural features of the text itself that do not change by format, such as sections or chapters:
To cite in text, either (a) paraphrase, thus avoiding the problem (e.g., “Gladwell, 2008”), or (b) utilize APA’s guidelines for direct quotations of online material without pagination (see Section 6.05 of the manual). Name the major sections (chapter, section, and paragraph number; abbreviate if titles are long), like you would do if you were citing the Bible or Shakespeare.
Gladwell’s book has numbered chapters, and he’s numbered the sections in the chapters. An example direct quotation might be this:
One of the author’s main points is that “people don’t rise from nothing” (Gladwell, 2008, Chapter 1, Section 2, para. 5).
It is interesting what happens to the problem of proper citation in a Kindle book when you call it by its proper name: a file.