9.20.18: a rebel alliance of quality content
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the way we read now
amazon's kindle, and the present and future of the digital book.
by sarah ficke (@DameMystery)

On my nineteenth birthday, I fell in love with a book. The moment my fingers touched the supple, green leather cover, worn soft and smooth from age, I knew that I had to own it, so much so that I told my dad that he could send back whatever present he had bought for me because this was it - the only thing I wanted. The content of the book (it happened to be The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas) was almost immaterial. The book itself was my object, and it remains one of my most prized possessions.

I'm telling you this because I want to make it clear that when it comes to books, I am not an objective observer. I am, as my friends will tell you, passionate, acquisitive, inquisitive, opinionated, and stubborn about nearly everything having to do with the written word.

For that reason, the flurry of media attention given to the Amazon Kindle, a new electronic book reader, caught my eye. Reviews of the Kindle (though I won't pretend that I've read every one out there) seem to be coming back positive. The general consensus is that the screen is easy to read, the content delivery system is seamless, the battery life is impressive, the memory is ample, the interface is mostly intuitive, and the additional features, like being able to re-size the text, give flexibility and control to its users.

Amazon has gone to great lengths to get book people on the Kindle's side. If you go to the site you can watch interviews with Toni Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Michael Lewis, and other authors who praise the Kindle's portability and wireless content delivery service. And, as Neil Gaiman remarks, the Kindle allows you to get "on the other side of the text" and become absorbed into the story, to the point where you don't think about the fact that you're reading on a screen.

All of these comments on the Kindle point to two main markets: travelers and researchers. As Daniel Handler (otherwise known as Lemony Snicket) points out in his Amazon interview, the Kindle removes the problem of deciding what books to pack for a trip - you can fit hundreds of books in a device smaller than many hardback novels. At the same time, the built-in dictionary, access to Wikipedia, searchable text, and note-taking functions make it a useful device for researchers, like myself, who need to keep track of what they're reading. Although, how one exports notes into a writer-friendly interface like MS Word or OpenOffice remains unexplained on the Kindle information page.

Omissions, like the one I just noted above, make me wary of the Kindle (more so, since you can only purchase the device on Amazon's store, sight unseen. There's no going to Best Buy to give it a test drive). Its exciting possibilities, like being able to get rid of the stack of 29 books that are currently colonizing the top of my piano, are more than balanced by its limitations. The screen, though it will support illustrations, is only black-and-white. You have to pay a (small) fee to have Amazon transfer documents of your own onto your Kindle, and it won't read PDF files at all. The copy protection, as Steven Levy of Newsweek points out, restricts your use of the Kindle texts to strictly reading. You cannot send them to a friend, resell them, or excerpt sections and export them to another format. There is also no lending feature; all books must be purchased.

Which brings me to the primary limitation of the device: the price. At $399 dollars, the Kindle is out of the reach of most people, especially when you consider that that price only gets you the device, not the content, which ranges from $0.25 for an out-of-copyright edition of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, to $3.99 for the Penguin Classics version of the same book, to $32.36 for the critical study The Postcolonial Jane Austen. Most recent fiction, like The Jane Austen Book Club, clocks in at $9.99 per book.

This pricing structure, and the special Kindle format, set it apart from devices like the iPod, which deliver content (like Mp3s) that can be generated by the user. A few hours of time can transform my cds into a portable, digital format, but no amount of time will convert my library of over 1,000 paper books into something the Kindle can process. Neither can I make use of the thousands of digital texts that are already out there and cost nothing. As a researcher, in order to use this device I'd have to pay, and pay heavily, for books that a little time and energy can get me for free. Books that, in many cases, I have no interest in keeping permanently.

Of course, all of these caveats could be addressed by technological advances that I'm sure will not be long in coming. In my opinion, the question is not whether or not an efficient e-reader will ever appear - even if the Kindle is not it, there will be one some day, when the technology gets cheaper and more flexible, and the format becomes more widely available. The question is, will this e-reader ever completely extinguish the book? If we reach the point where all books can and will be made available, and e-borrowing (rather than buying) is an option, will physical books cease to exist? It is this question that haunts book lovers, like myself, and engenders (occasionally violent) outbursts at innocent technophiles. It is this question that Amazon very carefully did not ask the authors it interviewed for the Kindle site. What kind of an answer would that bring from Gaiman, creator of The Sandman graphic novels? From Lemony Snicket, who arguably profited from the highly-recognizable atmosphere-inducing packaging of his blockbuster series?

It is possible that someday electronic readers will be able to reproduce the highest-quality graphic novels and give each book a distinctive look, like that exploited by Snicket. But to me the electronically-delivered book will always be a second-best option, a robotic rendition of something real.

For instance, an electronic book cannot be signed by the author, an event that transforms a book from a mass-produced object into something unique that you and the author shared.

An electronic book cannot be inscribed:

"To Sarah - Christmas 1982, from Grandma"

"Sarah, Very appropriate reading for a 27 year old, I think. Happy Birthday! Love Marta"

An electronic book cannot be claimed, marked, set apart as yours by a cracked spine, by dog-eared pages, by writing (as I did at the age of 7) "by Sarah Ficke" under the author's name on the title page.

More than this, an electronic book cannot speak to us, and we cannot speak through it. The book is a technology, as Amazon's creator Jeff Bezos rightly points out, but it is unique in that it is a technology that has lasted for centuries - and more, if you count handwritten texts. Whereas today, technology becomes obsolete in 3, 5, maybe 10 years. How long before all of the books you purchased on your Kindle become merely artifacts?

I'll admit that I have a personal stake in this. My mother died when I was 16 - too young to care about Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens. But now, when I pick up her copies of Pride and Prejudice, Orlando, A Christmas Carol, and see her underlines, her notes, the sheets of paper she left in between the pages, it's like we're having that conversation that we never had. Likewise, the most precious gift my grandfather ever gave me was a book. An old book, somewhat battered, missing its dust jacket, but including among its pages a letter from my grandfather explaining that the author - Thornton Wilder - had taught him in boarding school, and that my grandfather used to lie awake at night listening to the budding author typing The Bridge of San Luis Rey, his first big hit. It was the same story he told me the first time he pulled a nondescript brown book off of the shelves and said "read this, you'll like it" and I proceeded to read The Woman of Andros from cover to cover in the space of a day. With all of the talk about networking, chat groups, lists and recommendations, will the internet ever be able to reproduce that moment?

And so, I believe in the power of the book. I believe in the sight of a regimented line of spines settled onto a shelf (the same, yet every one so different), the smell of old leather, the smooth texture of a new paperback. As long as the digital book is no more than text rendered into pixels - a two-dimensional echo of what we know can be real - it will never replace the book to me, any more than the convenience of quickly-delivered, microwaveable calories will ever replace a fine meal. As long as it tries, it will fail. Of course, it's possible that today's children, growing up with screens instead of the architecture of spine and covers, won't know or care about the difference, and the joy of reading a book that is unique to itself will be lost to the world.

This is not to say that I don't see a future for the digital book. I do, but only if it becomes something more than text. The benefit of digital media is that you can combine so many different formats of content simultaneously. The first author to create a digital book that fully integrates the available media formats into one targeted experience will be the first true innovator of the book since Johannes Gutenberg. Perhaps you don't know what I mean by that - the language doesn't exist yet to describe what I am imagining. I can only glimpse it, wordless, at the edges of my mind.

Until then, I welcome the Kindle, the Sony Reader, and their competitors, and wish them the kind of success their business models, pricing, and the limitations of today's copyright laws will allow. And, who knows? Maybe someday I'll buy one to take with me on the plane.


Sarah Ficke will make sport for you, and laugh at you in her turn. She has channeled her obsession for books into a career as an English professor.

more about sarah ficke


news that's fit to print?
msn and the age of information
by sarah ficke
topic: tech
published: 4.7.03


sandra thompson
11.30.07 @ 8:42a

As a fellow book addict, I understand your whole premise. I suppose one day I'll be grateful for all the technology but until then I'll just savour my books.

adam kraemer
11.30.07 @ 9:41a

Besides, we wouldn't want the earth to be overrun by trees that would otherwise have been made into p. 32, would we?

The thing is, this technology is not likely to make the actual printed word obsolete. For starters, there are the people who actually like to turn the page, hold the book in their hands, hear the first crack of the spine, etc.

Second, rarely does new technology actually fully replace the old (though there are cases like the 8-track tape). TV didn't mean there was no more radio; the Internet has not bankrupted magazine publishers; laser hair removal did not herald the end of razors and Nair. What it means is that as soon as the price drops (and it will; it always does), we now have a more convenient way to travel with multiple texts, the same way that some cell phones now allow the owner to not have to carry an additional camera, MP3 player, and scheduler, for example.


tracey kelley
11.30.07 @ 1:28p

An electronic book cannot be claimed, marked, set apart as yours by a cracked spine, by dog-eared pages, by writing (as I did at the age of 7) "by Sarah Ficke" under the author's name on the title page.

I can totally see you doing this. :D

I adore this love story about you and books. Beautiful.

I embrace technology, but for me, nothing will ever take the place of the feel of a good book.

lisa r
11.30.07 @ 3:12p

I'm with you, Tracey. Part of the pleasure of reading comes from the ability to choose the most comfortable spot imaginable and settle in for a couple of hours.

As much as I appreciate my computer's usefulness, I don't find reading sitting at my desk comfortable. Nor is it comfortable to sit with a lapful of warm computer if reading with a laptop. You can't scrunch around and get in new positions as the notion strikes, or read laying down, either.

robert melos
12.1.07 @ 12:28a

Speaking from the writer's perspective, one of the reasons I wanted my books published in the first place was to create something lasting, something real, and uniquely me. While my books are available in e-publish form (at a quarter of the price of the paperback versions) it wasn't real to me until I actually held a copy of my novels in my hands.

As a reader I love going to a book store, walking along the aisles of shelves filled with books. The smell of a book store, not the coffee but the actual books, is intoxicating. I love the ability to pick up a book, read the back cover, and then flip open to a random chapter if I feel like it and read a paragraph or two to see if I really want to invest in reading the whole story.

I get the feeling these e-book readers impersonalize the whole process of buying and reading a book. Perhaps these would be better geared toward business and research type work, or scientific research. Like encyclopedias?

sarah ficke
12.4.07 @ 9:54a

I think encyclopedias are definitely better when they're electronic, just because the searching capability is better. Ditto for most other research works.

Adam, you make good points. It does take more to cause a technology replacement than just the appearance of something new.

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