The Future of Reading

“There’s 550 years of technological development in the book, and it’s all designed to work with the four to five inches from the front of the eye to the part of the brain that does the processing [of the symbols on the page],” says Hill, a boisterous man who wears a kilt to a seafood restaurant in Seattle where he stages an impromptu lecture on his theory. “This is a high-resolution scanning machine,” he says, pointing to the front of his head. “It scans five targets a second, and moves between targets in only 20 milliseconds. And it does this repeatedly for hours and hours and hours.” He outlines the centuries-long process of optimizing the book to accommodate this physiological marvel: the form factor, leading, fonts, justification … “We have to take the same care for the screen as we’ve taken for print.”

Hill insists—not surprisingly, considering his employer—that the ideal reading technology is not necessarily a dedicated e-reading device, but the screens we currently use, optimized for that function. (He’s read six volumes of Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” on a Dell Pocket PC.) “The Internet Explorer is not a browser—it’s a reader,” he says. “People spend about 20 percent of the time browsing for information and 80 percent reading or consuming it. The transition has already happened. And we haven’t noticed.”

But even Hill acknowledges that reading on a televisionlike screen a desktop away is not the ideal experience. Over the centuries, the sweet spot has been identified: something you hold in your hand, something you can curl up with in bed. Devices like the Kindle, with its 167 dot-per-inch E Ink display, with type set in a serif font called Caecilia, can subsume consciousness in the same way a physical book does. It can take you down the rabbit hole.

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Though the Kindle is at heart a reading machine made by a bookseller—and works most impressively when you are buying a book or reading it—it is also something more: a perpetually connected Internet device. A few twitches of the fingers and that zoned-in connection between your mind and an author’s machinations can be interrupted—or enhanced—by an avalanche of data. Therein lies the disruptive nature of the Amazon Kindle. It’s the first “always-on” book.

What kinds of things will happen when books are persistently connected, and more-evolved successors of the Kindle become commonplace? First of all, it could transform the discovery process for readers. “The problem with books isn’t print or writing,” says Chris Anderson, author of “The Long Tail.” “It’s that not enough people are reading.” (A 2004 National Endowment for the Arts study reported that only 57 percent of adults read a book—any book—in a year. That was down from 61 percent a decade ago.) His hope is that connected books will either link to other books or allow communities of readers to suggest undiscovered gems.

The connectivity also affects the publishing business model, giving some hope to an industry that slogs along with single-digit revenue growth while videogame revenues are skyrocketing. “Stuff doesn’t need to go out of print,” says Bezos. “It could shorten publishing cycles.” And it could alter pricing. Readers have long complained that new books cost too much; the $9.99 charge for new releases and best sellers is Amazon’s answer. (You can also get classics for a song: I downloaded “Bleak House” for $1.99.) Bezos explains that it’s only fair to charge less for e-books because you can’t give them as gifts, and due to restrictive antipiracy software, you can’t lend them out or resell them. (Libraries, though, have developed lending procedures for previous versions of e-books—like the tape in “Mission: Impossible,” they evaporate after the loan period—and Bezos says that he’s open to the idea of eventually doing that with the Kindle.)

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