Friday, February 27, 2009

A book-lover's gadget lust



(you always hurt the one you love)

This evening, over at Rene Tyree's fine Wig-Wags blog, I read a little mini-review of Amazon's new Kindle 2 device, which only cemented my intense interest in one. My wife never reads this blog, so I can casually admit that I have been planning to purchase the Kindle 2 (now priced at $359) since the first announcement, but in good conscience have to pay a couple bills first, like the overdue registration on the family vehicle.

The design looks superb, and it sounds like they've really tweaked the features nicely since the first iteration. Like most people reading this blog, I love the feel of a bookin fact, love to line the walls with thembut I love gadgets, too, and this is a gadget with books inside it. If I may quote Liz Lemon on 30 Rock, "I want to go to there."

I am one of those ridiculous people who frequently carries 2 or 3 books to work and back every day, with another little mini library in the back seatjust in case I have 30 minutes over lunch to read, I want to make sure the right book is on hand. Of course I never read books at lunch time. Ever. Instead, I spend those precious minutes reading print-outs of favorite columnists and blogs. But if it were that convenient to carry 3 or 4 books wherever I went (to say nothing of dozens), I would delve into one with even 10 or 15 minutes to spare.

And there's the beauty of the Kindleyou can have a number of current books at hand, and your full complement of blogs and online newspapers and magazinesall packed into one handy device.

Some have criticized it as another dagger in the heart of the publishing industry (just as Amazon itself is a sword to the neck of independent booksellers). I think there's some truth to that, and it saddens meand alarms me, since I work for a publisherbut, Dylan was right, the times they are a changin'.

The publishing industry, with some exceptions, is in dire straits, and the daily news seems always now to contain one story on the demise of books. Last week, the new issue of Harper's arrived with its cover story on "The Last Book Party, Publishing Drinks to a Life After Death," and a couple days ago the local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, ran a death knell piece entitled "Book publishers, R.I.P.? In this economy, it's tougher than ever to sell books." Yesterday the Chroniclethe 12th most-read paper in the countryannounced that they would cease publication if they could not get major labor concessions, or a buyer. Today, we hear that the Rocky Mountain News is shutting its doors. It's a sad thing to behold.

But the dissemination of information is not dying, it's growing exponentially. The publishing industry is going through a metamorphosis, and nothing is going to stop that. Still, I don't want to read books off an electronic reader at home. I want to read a book. I like the fact that I can conduct searches in the Official Records online, then pull the relevant volume off the shelf to read in a comfortable chair. And though I'm guilty of letting my newspaper subscriptions lapse in favor of free online content on a 20" iMac screen, I still purchase papers on the street, if only to have the sports section while I eat a sandwich.

Books aren't going away anytime soon, but the traditional models for printing and selling them are giving way to something new. The company I work for is among the trailblazers in that brave new world, with innovations like iChaptersthe textbook publishers answer to iTunes. I think some Science Fiction visionaries get it just about right. In "Star Trek, the Next Generation" (since I'm already married, it is safe to make a Star Trek analogy), all manner of data is online and instantly accessible on servers with unlimited space and terminals in every room, but when Captain Picard wants to relax in his quarters with a little Victor Hugo, he pulls a leather-bound volume off the shelf. It might be a print-on-demand leather volume, but there will be always be a model to accommodate printed copies of something you want to read.

The Kindle looks to be perfect for day-to-day outings. Since it also can read to you, we haveas far as I knowthe first scenario in which you could read a chapter of a book during some daily downtime, then have it read aloud to you while you're driving homeas an audiobookthen pick up your reading where you left off when you head off to bed that night. You can switch between print and audiomaintaining a steady progression through the book in your limited free time. Is it just me, or is that a major breakthrough? We have so little time to read these days as it is.

It's ideal for little outings where I find myself with some time to kill, ideal for the train, ideal for airplane tripswhere I could pack books, magazines, and blogs into a single tablet. That will free up space in my carry-on for whatever obscure Civil War book I'm reading, which probably won't be available as a Kindle download.

Funny, I never had the slightest interest in early versions of electronic readers, but this one is cool. Backlighting that gives the appearance of a regular printed page is everything. I see that it already accommodates MP3s, but I hope that it remains a dedicated device for reading (seems inevitable that they'll add email and internet access at some point). Already, Amazon has said they'll have an App for the iPhonealso a neat idea, but I won't read a book off a small screen.

Since "Bibliophiles" is in the title of this blog, I hope you'll forgive this little digression into gadget-lust.


February 27, 2009 addendum to the above posting—Kindle controversy: Civil War Bookshelf made mention of the Author's Guild objections to the Kindle 2, expressed in a Roy Blount, Jr. NYT editorial, and this Business Week rebuttal.

7 comments:

TPS said...

David

A brilliant column. I am looking forward to getting a Kindle, and we have now submitted about one-half of our list at Savas Beatie to Amazon as Kindle books.

However, I believe the Kindle will be GOOD for published books and reading in general. I think it will foster more reading. Many times I have read something online about a book, and have then bought the book. I talked yesterday to a person who downloaded a book into Kindle, read it, and then decided he needed to own a hard copy and so bought one.

The times there are indeed a changing, and Kindle will remake a big section of the publishing world.

Again, great work.

dw said...

Ted,

Good to hear from you, and good to hear you're getting a lot of your list into the Kindle menu.

I think you're right that the Kindle will foster more reading, and maybe even more sales. In any event, the publisher and author are still getting something from sales of the electronic version.

I suspect the parts of the industry that the Kindle might hurt are parts that cannot be saved anyway.

David

dw said...

After posting that last comment, I became aware of the Authors Guild objections to how the Kindle 2 is being marketed (http://tinyurl.com/bduhnu), and an unsympathetic rejoinder in Business Week (http://tinyurl.com/ccok7h).

-dw

Rene Tyree said...

David,
Nicely said all. Enjoyed this.

For the record, I carry multiple books everywhere as well. My husband can attest to the fact that I bring one to the movie theater. So I'm with you brother.

I think you're right on that electronic readers like the Kindle compliment in print books. I will never lose my love for a real book but there are some darn good reasons why the Kindle works for me too.

By the way, you CAN surf the web. Amazon has included what they call a "Basic Browser" in their "Experimental" section. It works well. They've loaded it with bookmarks and you can, of course, add your own. They are very upfront in saying that the browser is best when used with sites that are heavily text-based. The Kindle is not color. That might be nice but they have gone a long way to making the "look" of the type much like a book.

Rene

dw said...

Rene,

Thanks for the note. On second thought, a rudimentary browser does sound like a good idea. Accessing webmail while traveling, and pulling up maps, would be handy -- without having to lug around a laptop every time you go somewhere.

David

elektratig said...

FWIW, this is the most intelligent take on the legality of the text to speech feature that I've seen:
http://volokh.com/posts/1235230368.shtml

Victor said...

Frankly, I love paper books as well as the e-readers. I have Sony, but it's juts as good (if not better than) as the Kindle.

But that's not the point.

As a fellow history buff, I really think it's high time someone assembles a list of "Must Read" Public Domain history books. There are so many out there, but there's virtually no organization to them.

Anyways, the future is ebooks, but I'm still dreaming of having a large private library when I finally find the place I want to settle down.