Saturday, December 29, 2007

A Reflection on the Amazon Kindle

By Adam Corson-Finnerty

In 1962 a taxi dropped me off at the men's dorm at Penn. I had a small trunk filled with clothes and a wallet. I did not have a laptop, a cell phone, an iPod, or an Amazon Kindle. I was a primitive.

I didn't know anybody. Fortunately, I had two social skills that came in handy. One was bridge, and the other was rugby. There was no rugby team at Penn, but a few Brits and a South African formed a rugby "club". The difference being that a club was unofficial, unregulated, and while I didn't get PE credit, I did manage to drink a lot of beer after each game in the company of mud-stained, bruised, funny-talking men.

One of those men was a fellow American who sold encyclopedias during the summer. During a long ride to Penn State, he regaled five of us squeezed into a Dodge with stories of salesmen's tricks. Here was one: you found a house in the suburbs that had children's toys in the yard. You knocked on the door and said that you really needed to go to the bathroom. Naturally (this was 1962, after all) they would let you in to use the facility. When you came out, you looked around with slight consternation and said that you didn't see an encyclopedia anywhere. Didn't they care about their children's education?

The key to selling encyclopedias was the notion that a good chunk of the world's knowledge was contained therein. Little Johnny may only be five years old, but soon he will enter first grade, and the next thing you know he will be reading. Don't you want him to get ahead of the other little johnnies? And with this, he sold aspiring families a set of 20 volumes that cost thousands in today's dollars. But wait; there's more. Lucky them, each year they would receive a Yearbook with the very, very latest knowledge—and at a modest additional cost.

The Amazon Kindle requires 399 of today's dollars. It comes with wireless access to Wikipedia as a door prize, a freebie, a sweetener for geeks like me who realize what utterly astonishing times we live in.

Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world. There are more than 75,000 active contributors working on some 9,000,000 articles in more than 250 languages. As of today [Dec 22, 2007], there are 2,139,791 articles in English; every day hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world make tens of thousands of edits and create thousands of new articles to enhance the knowledge held by the Wikipedia encyclopedia. (Source: Wikipedia, of course)

The Kindle also comes pre-installed with the New Oxford Dictionary, and oh, btw, it allows you to search and navigate the entire Web.

Big deal, you say. My wireless laptop already allows me to search the web, with images and in color. My laptop streams movies and music. It sends email and allows instant chat. I can skype with my laptop. Can the Kindle do that? (To which the answer is no, not yet.)

So why would anyone who owns a laptop, or a desktop computer, or for that matter an iPhone—why would any such person want a Kindle? Amazon-dot-com hopes that the answer is obvious: to read a book.

The Book

We don't think of the book as a piece of sophisticated technology, yet it exactly that, evolved over twenty centuries. Our good friend Wikipedia reminds us that early writing appeared on clay tablets, migrated through parchment leaves and the vellum scroll, and ended up in the codex format (bound leaves), mass-printed, on paper of varying quality and durability. The modern book, with its table of contents, list of illustrations, index, bibliography, and footnote or endnote is efficient, portable, relatively lightweight, durable, and requires no power cord or battery. If we drop it on the floor, it doesn't break. If we leave it on the subway, we are not out 400 bucks.

So what "value added" can possibly make it worth purchasing a Kindle? If you are at my age and station in life, the answer is nothing, nada, zip, won't happen.

I have been completely acculturated to regard each book as a trophy. When I carry Shantaram on the train, I am showing the world what I am reading. It helps start conversations; even silent observers are likely to be impressed, or at least curious. I can casually perch it on my desk at work, or my coffee table, or the reading shelf next to the bed. And when I am done, I feel a sense of accomplishment. I have bagged my game, brought it home, digested it, and now I can display it on my bookshelf. Oh yes, I finished that, I say to the visitor who is lazily waiting for the film to arrive. And now I am into Becoming Madame Mao. Anchee Min is so critical to understanding the tortured Chinese mind, don't you think?

Similarly, I learn a lot about other people by perusing their bookshelves and magazine racks. Such displays are my generation's facebook.

But what about the newest generation? Are they ready to go post-paper? If so, the Kindle will be seen as a step in the right direction. Shantaram--the tale of an Australian prison escapee hiding out in Mumbai--is 933 pages long. It weighs about three pounds. It lists for $24.95 in hardback. The Kindle weighs ten ounces. A full download of Shantaram will take less than 30 seconds and will cost $9.99. The Kindle will hold more than one hundred books like this. And, frankly, the print on Shantaram is kind of small. On the Kindle I can choose six font sizes.

I haven't loaded Shantaram onto my Kindle. Score one for the old guard—it's not yet available. But 94,592 books are, including Eat, Pray, Love; Born Standing Up; and I am America. Here's what I have bagged so far: A Thousand Splendid Suns, The Black Swan, and Emma. The first two cost me $9.99, Amazon's top price. The latter, being out of copyright, cost me $1.49. I also have free trail subscriptions to the Nation, the Washington Post, and MIT Technology Review. If I keep the Washington Post, it will cost me $9.99 per month. Blog subs are also available (Huffington Post, The Onion) at $1.99 per month.

Groovey, man. I'm a pioneer, an early adopter. People interrupt me at Starbucks and ask "So what do you think?" (Notice that they don't say "So what are you reading?") To which the answer is: don't know yet. Sure, it's easy to acquire a "book," but will I ever read it?

Ask around. Has anyone in your circle ever read an entire book on a screen—any screen? I doubt it.

The fact is that people do not read books online. People don’t even read long articles online. The vast majority of people who come across something they want to read print it out. And they read it later, on the train or on the plane, or in the car, or on the can. Or they go and buy the book.

Virtually no one is going to read an online copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (freely available at, 502 pages). Viewers might read a passage, or search for a term, or even read a chapter, but they will not sit at a screen for hours reading page after page of text. They won’t even do this for Eat, Pray, Love or John Grisham’s latest novel. If they are truly interested in the entire work, they will borrow it from a library, or buy it, or print it out. Hewlett-Packard knows this. Its printer business is clipping right along, with the major source of growth being this: printing Web pages.

Of course a fistful of Web pages can be awkward to carry and difficult to store. How nice it would be if those Web pages were printed on two sides, reduced from 8.5 x 11 to a more manageable size, and bound for easy handling and storage. Face it: the book is a remarkably good piece of technology. It is easy to access, portable, durable, and relatively inexpensive. The book has not gone the way of the cracker barrel or the buggy whip. It still works just fine for conveying text and images.

So the codex can say, along with Mark Twain, that the rumors of its death are premature. But one should note that Mark Twain did eventually die.

The Death of Print

The Amazon Kindle is not going to kill the printed book, nor the printed magazine, nor the printed journal. They are already dead—if by dead we mean that they have lost their centrality to the transmission of information and culture. Radio started the process of undermining print, television accelerated it, and the Internet jumped up and down on the carcass.

If we want to find an era when books and newspapers were "electric" in their influence, we need look no further than the life of Benjamin Franklin, narrated in his Autobiography. Franklin educated and improved himself through books. By the age of 16, he had already established a small "fund" for purchases, wrestled from his meager apprentice wages. He borrowed books from friends and even had a friend "borrow" books from a gentleman's library which he would read overnight and have re-shelved by morning, lest they be missed. Pilgrim's Progress, Burton's Historical Collections, Plutarch's Lives—all these were devoured in his early teens. Coming across several books against Deism, he read them and decided he was a Deist. He developed his own writing style by modeling it against articles in The Spectator.

Franklin was famous for launching public projects to serve the common good. His first such project was to create a subscription library in Philadelphia, with the aid of fellow members of his reading and discussion group, the Junto:

…[T]his was the mother of all North American subscription libraries, now so numerous. It is become a great thing itself, and continually increasing. These libraries have improved the general conversations of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defense of their privileges. (Source: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, taken from our home shelf, and contained in The Harvard Classics, "Deluxe Edition," copyright 1909. Page 67. )

Fast forward 280 years from the time of Franklin's youth. How "bookish" are today's teenagers? Not very, according to a study financed by the Kaiser Family Foundation. America's teens spend 16 hours and 34 minutes a week watching television; 7:26 listening to music; 5:46 in various computer activities and another 1:53 playing video games. They spend two hours and eight minutes in reading. (Summarized in "Watch and Listen", a clipping I saved from The Atlantic Monthly, April 2007, page 32.) Another study found that only 9% of teens read a daily newspaper. (Another saved clipping: "Young Adults Are Giving Newspapers Scant Notice," by Justin Jones, NYT, July 16, 2007.)

And it isn't just teens. Overall, America's newspapers have experienced steady declines in circulation for the past 20 years. In the first six months of 2007, the decline in daily circulation was 2.5%. Sunday circulation was down 3.5%. Newstand sales were down 5%. (See: Exclusive: FAS-FAX Preview -- Circ Declines, Some Steep, Continue, by Jennifer Saba, November 03, 2007. At

But we should not fixate on the delivery mechanism. Yes, in Franklin's time the printed book, the printed newspaper, and the handwritten letter were the best technology for transmitting information and ideas over both distance and time. Times change.

The Kindle won't replace the book, but we need to recognize that the book is becoming more like the candle each day: attractive, useful in many contexts, but not usually necessary for the purpose of interior or exterior lighting.

The book, the magazine, and the newspaper are already marginal. Television and the Internet have taken their place. But the story isn't over. The next big thing will be something very much like the Kindle. The main difference will be that the Kindle version 10 will give you everything: movies, TV shows, video games, news, magazines, blogs, YouTube, Facebook, text books, courseware, telephone, email, chat, GPS, music, audiobooks, crossword puzzles, instant translation, recipes, your photo album, your home movie collection, the latest in cancer research, your calendar, your scientific calculator, pornography, and the time in Sao Paulo.

If this sounds like a marriage of the wireless laptop, the iPhone, and the Kindle—well, you have cottoned on to the idea.

But you may not have grokked the idea. For those people unfamiliar with the verb "grok," it comes from the Martian language and was introduced to the earth by Robert A. Heinlein in his influential book Stranger in a Strange Land. To grok is to understand something. In Wikipedia we are told that:

The literal meaning of the word grok is "drink", an important focus for a desert planet where water is scarce. Philosophically, the Martians extended its meaning to absorption and blending, where the water becomes a part of you, and you part of the water. Things that once had separate realities become entangled in the same experiences, goals, history and purpose.

It is impossible to grok the Kindle, or the iPhone, or the PDA. Handheld devices are moving very quickly toward bundling every electronic service that we can imagine. But our imagination cannot grasp the place of this ultimate device in our culture. Its future is being written each day in the hands of millions of people, and no one knows where it will end up in the learning process, the entertainment business, the family, or the life of the individual.

Neil Stephenson has tried to imagine it, in his book The Diamond Age. This author, famous for bringing cutting-edge technology into his novels, posits the ultimate book. There is only one, and it incorporates the most advanced "educational" programming of its time. The "book" is in the hands of one little girl. With it, she masters all the known universe.

I shall say no more. Read the book. Available through the Amazon Kindle for $7.96. Or in paperback, used, at Amazon, for as little as $5.56 plus shipping. (Pssst, you could also try your local library.)

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