The Future of Reading

Specifically, it’s an extension of the familiar Amazon store (where, of course, Kindles will be sold). Amazon has designed the Kindle to operate totally independent of a computer: you can use it to go to the store, browse for books, check out your personalized recommendations, and read reader reviews and post new ones, tapping out the words on a thumb-friendly keyboard. Buying a book with a Kindle is a one-touch process. And once you buy, the Kindle does its neatest trick: it downloads the book and installs it in your library, ready to be devoured. “The vision is that you should be able to get any book—not just any book in print, but any book that’s ever been in print—on this device in less than a minute,” says Bezos.

Amazon has worked hard to get publishers to step up efforts to release digital versions of new books and backlists, and more than 88,000 will be on sale at the Kindle store on launch. (Though Bezos won’t get terribly specific, Amazon itself is also involved in scanning books, many of which it captured as part of its groundbreaking Search Inside the Book program. But most are done by the publishers themselves, at a cost of about $200 for each book converted to digital. New titles routinely go through the process, but many backlist titles are still waiting. “It’s a real chokepoint,” says Penguin CEO David Shanks.) Amazon prices Kindle editions of New York Times best sellers and new releases in hardback at $9.99. The first chapter of almost any book is available as a free sample.

The Kindle is not just for books. Via the Amazon store, you can subscribe to newspapers (the Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Le Monde) and magazines (The Atlantic). When issues go to press, the virtual publications are automatically beamed into your Kindle. (It’s much closer to a virtual newsboy tossing the publication on your doorstep than accessing the contents a piece at a time on the Web.) You can also subscribe to selected blogs, which cost either 99 cents or $1.99 a month per blog.

In addition, the Kindle can venture out on the Web itself—to look up things in Wikipedia, search via Google or follow links from blogs and other Web pages. You can jot down a gloss on the page of the book you’re reading, or capture passages with an electronic version of a highlight pen. And if you or a friend sends a word document or PDF file to your private Kindle e-mail address, it appears in your Kindle library, just as a book does. Though Bezos is reluctant to make the comparison, Amazon believes it has created the iPod of reading.

The Kindle, shipping as you read this, costs $399. When Bezos announces that price at the launch this week, he will probably get the same raised-eyebrow reaction Steve Jobs got in October 2001, when he announced that Apple would charge that same price for its pocket-size digital music player. No way around it: it’s pricey. But if all goes well for Amazon, several years from now we’ll see revamped Kindles, equipped with color screens and other features, selling for much less. And physical bookstores, like the shuttered Tower Records of today, will be lonelier places, as digital reading thrusts us into an exciting—and jarring—post-Gutenberg era.

Will the Kindle and its kin really take on a technology that’s shone for centuries and is considered the bedrock of our civilization? The death of the book—or, more broadly, the death of print—has been bandied about for well over a decade now. Sven Birkerts, in “The Gutenberg Elegies” (1994), took a peek at the future and concluded, “What the writer writes, how he writes and gets edited, printed and sold, and then read—all the old assumptions are under siege.” Such pronouncements were invariably answered with protestations from hard-liners who insisted that nothing could supplant those seemingly perfect objects that perch on our night tables and furnish our rooms. Computers may have taken over every other stage of the process—the tools of research, composition and production—but that final mile of the process, where the reader mind-melds with the author in an exquisite asynchronous tango, would always be sacrosanct, said the holdouts. In 1994, for instance, fiction writer Annie Proulx was quoted as saying, “Nobody is going to sit down and read a novel on a twitchy little screen. Ever.”

 

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