For the last few years there has been a lot of speculation about the future of publishing. The downturn of the economy coupled with the already in-decline publishing industry has been the impetus for all sorts of debate about the rise of self-publishing, the viability of on-demand publishing, the madness of digital rights management, and the inevitability of electronic book readers.
For the largest part of all this talk and ado I’ve been of the mind that there is only one thing I know for certain: I’m not going to start reading on any kind of electronic device and you can have my traditionally bound books when you pry them from my cold dead hands.
There is more to reading a book than just the words on the page, right? There’s the beauty of the paper, the typesetting, the bindings, even just the weight of it in your hand. Things that just aren’t there if you’re staring at a computer screen.
It goes even deeper than that for me as a writer. I can write and edit something all day long on my laptop but when I see it in print and hold it in my hand it inevitably reads differently on paper. The physical presence of it in your hand gives it import and substance and finality, doesn’t it? So to the revolutionaries and prophets of the coming electronic age I have said, “No, thank you.”
Now it’s time for me to offer them my apologies. I was mistaken.
After a great deal of hem-hawing around and curious investigation I finally managed to talk myself into buying an Amazon Kindle. I’ve been using it for a month or two now, long enough to develop some solid opinions and I have to admit that it’s the real deal. In many ways I now prefer it to an actual, physical book.
I can already hear you shaking your head as you read that. You’re thinking to yourself, like I did, that there’s no way you’d switch from actual books to reading off an electronic screen. But before you discount me entirely let me tell you why I changed my mind.
I’m the sort of person that typically reads four or five books at a time. Depending on my mood I might pick up Hugo, Buechner, Lewis, Berry, or maybe even Barry. This presents a sizeable problem to a man that travels often and has to weigh the packing of his suitcase against the weight of the many books he’d like to have with him along the way.
The Kindle did away with that problem in one swift stroke. It lets me have a quarter of a million books at my fingertips no matter where I am. That’s because included in the purchase price of the Kindle ($250) is access to Amazon’s Whispernet 3G network that allows you to purchase a book wirelessly, from the Kindle Store’s library and download it in about thirty-seconds flat.
That means that when I’m sitting in a restaurant talking to a friend and he recommends a book that I can, right there, on the spot, pull my Kindle out of my backpack, buy the book, and be ready to read it without ever leaving the table.
On top of that, new books that are currently on bookstore shelves in hardback only and selling for $30 usually sell for about $10 on the Kindle. So a few weeks ago as I was perusing the shelves at Barnes and Noble and came across Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, I remembered Matt Conner’s review of it and decided I needed to buy it. But when I picked it up and realized it was going to cost me $24 I put it back on the shelf and walked away. Then I remembered my Kindle. I pulled it out and bought the book for $9. I downloaded it right there in the Barnes and Noble and went to the coffee shop to enjoy it, $20 richer than I’d have been otherwise.
Now I don’t go to the bookstore without it. This makes bookstore owners want to put out a hit on Kindle-carriers, I’m sure. But wait, just because I buy a book on the Kindle doesn’t mean I won’t buy a hard copy later. I will certainly still pick up a hardcopy of a book, even if I’ve already read it digitally, simply because I want it on my shelf.
So the Kindle undoubtedly simplifies the buying of books but what about the reading of them?
One of my biggest aversions to the idea of digital reading was the eyestrain that results from reading off of a screen. That’s not an issue anymore. The Kindle uses a technology called digital ink that, in my opinion, is actually easier on the eyes than reading a physical book. The best way I can describe it is that it’s sort of like looking at an etch-a-sketch. The screen produces no light so the eye fatigue that usually results from looking at a computer isn’t a factor. You will, however, need ambient light to read, just like reading any other book. The lettering is rendered in very high resolution and is black on a light grey background. You can even size the font to please your own eye.
Do you like to make notes and highlights when you read? Me too, and that’s all built into the Kindle. So is a dictionary. Not sure what that obscure word means? Just move the cursor to the word and the definition instantly pops up. Any notes you take or highlights you make are copied to a personal file on the device that you can reference later and link to via your own personal footnotes.
I can also email Word and PDF documents to the Kindle and read them like any other book (though there are a few file translation issues that result in imperfect formatting at times.)
Battery life? About a week. Size and weight? About the same as a trade paperback.
The device isn’t perfect, though. It is still very much an emerging technology that the publishing industry hasn’t quite figured out what to do with. Some of the buttons and functions are a bit clunky and there is a lot more that could be done with the software when it comes to hyper-linking and searching.
Overall though, it is quickly becoming something that, like my iPod, I wonder how I ever got along without. I can buy newspapers and magazines and have them delivered directly to my Kindle the moment they come out. The same applies to blogs. Blogs are available via a subscription price of usually a dollar a month (the Rabbit Room should be available in Kindle format soon.) There is some doubt about the future viability of the blog subscription model though because the Kindle comes with free internet access and a crude (thus far) browser with which you could easily circumvent the fee.
At this point it’s foolish to think that digital readers like this are not going to play a major part in the future of the written word. Remember carrying around all those school textbooks? No more, they’ll all fit on your Kindle. Want to look up that quote but you left the book at home? No problem, your entire library is in your backpack. Lost a book? Not an issue, you can re-download anything you’ve bought from Amazon at any time for free (unlike iTunes.)
Imagine books that hyperlink to video and audio clips. Imagine books with soundtracks or even sound effects (that’s right, the Kindle has speakers, it’s an MP3 player, and will even read the book to you.) Is this all this possible with the Kindle in its current incarnation? No, but anyone that’s lived through the last couple of decades knows that technology moves at a frightening pace.
Remember what I said about a book being about much more than just the words on the page? I was wrong. I was wrong and it seems so obvious to me now. I haven’t yet read a book on the Kindle and wished I had bought the physical book instead (although I have thought that I would like to go buy a physical version much in the same way that movie geeks love to buy a special edition DVD.) A book is about the story. It’s about communication. I love cover design, and paperstock, and the feel of a unique book in my hands just as much as anyone else, but when it comes right down to it, when it comes to the reading, all that other stuff disappears into the background. What matters is the story.
I submit that if while reading a book you find yourself marveling at the texture of the paper or the quality of the binding that you are perhaps not lost in the storytelling and isn’t that where a reader really wants to be? The transportation to the realm of Other isn’t something that can be stopped by the digitization of the words upon which the traveler wends his path.
Is the Kindle for everyone? Certainly not. Niether are iPods, nor cell phones, nor laptop computers but the days when the idea of reading books electronically was relegated to the world of Star Trek are gone. Electronic books are coming and while I’ll always enjoy a good old-fashioned book, I’ll enjoy the new-fangled electronic ones as well.