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The Irony of Amazon's Kindle Electronic Book Reader

December 2008/January 2009

I have a love/hate relationship with books. I deeply enjoy the marvelous worlds opened to me by my favorite nonfiction books — topics such as human prehistory, evolutionary psychology, emergent phenomena, chaos and synchrony. There’s nothing quite like settling in for a couple hours and getting lost in thought.

But I hate books too. They tend to accumulate, become a burden, gather dust. My domicile is small, and 90% of my books are in plastic Wal-Mart storage bins in an outdoor shed. Such a waste. When I think of a particular book I want, it’s practically inaccessible.

Enter Amazon’s Kindle. I wish I’d had one of these 30 years ago. Indeed, I wish I had one now. Santa, are you listening? It would sate my love of books while obviating the storage problem — and many other limitations of the medium.

The Kindle is an electronic book reader. And when Amazon first announced it, critics panned the very notion. Early reviewers dissed it. Every article I read was negative.

And then what happened? Consumers loved it. Counter to all predictions, the Kindle was hot. Amazon couldn’t keep them in stock and for months had a notice on their home page apologizing for the shortage.

Oh the irony. In an era when one wonders about the future of books, given the predominance of electronic media, one of the more popular consumer devices in 2008 was a book reader.

What’s to like about the Kindle? First of all, those who have embraced it say that the reading experience is as close to the real thing as an electronic device can get. The text is sharp, it’s conveniently book-sized, thin and light. You can even highlight text, fold the corners of pages, and make notes in the margins.

In a lyrical op-ed in the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan says, “I don’t know why I waited so long to buy one. I can’t seem to put it down. It’s ideal for book reading — lucid, light — but lately it has become something more: a kind of refuge.”

It’s that last point that she focuses on. A refuge. The early reviewers criticized the Kindle for what it was not: you couldn’t surf the web, you couldn’t do e-mail. You could only read text on a page. Why, they asked, would someone pay $400 for an electronic device whose only function is reading text on a page?

Heffernan says that that is what book reading is all about: “A sustained encounter with just about any good book on the Kindle is a rich, enormous, demanding, cerebral event. It’s like reading used to be — long ago before anyone had ever seen the brightly backlighted screens of laptops, cellphones and iPods that, when activated, turn everyone’s personal field of vision into layers of garish light and sound, personal Times Squares.”

She glories in the fact that the Kindle isn’t a web browser, doesn’t have e-mail, doesn’t offer the incessant distractions of the electronic world.

And there’s so much more to love, because the Kindle does have many of the advantages of electronic text. For one thing, if your eyes are a bit weak, presto: larger type. That feature alone would sell a lot of us middle agers.

In addition, there’s search. I am so accustomed to the electronic medium that now as I sit reading a book and want to quickly refer back to something that was already said, I almost unconsciously want to do Command-F, and jump to the exact text I have in mind. Then I remember that it’s a book, and books can’t do that. But the Kindle can. And you can quickly look up word definitions, save clippings, and more.

Also, with Kindle there’s no storage problem. As you know, any electronic medium these days can hold a huge amount of data. Imagine being on a long flight with your entire library in hand.

In addition, there’s the cost factor: Amazon’s electronic editions are much cheaper. And the Kindle makes it extremely easy to purchase them. It actually connects to a cell phone data network (Sprint’s EVDO). You don’t need an Internet connection — it’s always connected to the Amazon store. If you’re out and about with your Kindle and you hear of a book that you’d like to read, in a matter of seconds it’s in your hand.

I suppose some day there will no longer be books. But for now they’re still hanging on, and the Kindle is giving them new life. I can’t tell you how heartening that is. Santa?

© 2008 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen