Kindle: This book will change your life
To believe the hype, Amazon's e-reader will transform the face of publishing – and it's not even on sale in Britain yet. So what does the future of reading look like? Michael Bywater is engrossed
Tuesday 02 June 2009
I have seen the future and you can't have it. Ha ha. I've got one and you haven't. Nur-nur-ni-nur-nur. "Early adopters", we're called in the business. Or at least in the marketing side of the business. Engineers call us "beta-testers" since the bugs, glitches, inadequacies and cock-ups we find (having paid for the privilege) are incorporated into subsequent versions of whatever it may be, so the later adopters are happy.
And on the street, they call us "suckers".
Which is not to say that the next new thing actually sucks. The next new thing rarely sucks. It's generally just a bit... sucky. A bit of a suckster.
The first mobile phones were sucksters.
The first Apple Mac: now there was a suckster; brilliant computer, revolutionary design, glamorous interface, couldn't do any work on it. Now people compete for who had the first one in the country. Stephen Fry says he did. Douglas Adams said, no, he did. Heaven knows the truth; all I know is that I was the first person in Britain to be given one personally by Steve Jobs. Nur-nur etc., da capo ad nauseam.
The first digital cameras were exceedingly sucky. The first iPod was a bit sucky. The first laptops were really, really sucky unless you had a lap like a gorilla and a handy AC power supply. Hell, the first cars were sucky, and the first coracle (and all coracles since), and certainly the first horse, which sucked full-on, being the size of a large rat with the intelligence of a coracle.
But this... I realise I have not told you what this is. This is because what it is is not nearly so important for us early adopters/beta-testers/suckers as how new it is. It's enough that I've got one and you haven't. What do you want? Blood? Details?
Fair enough. This is the product that is going to change the game. It is possibly the saviour of publishing, and probably the great, literally white, hope of the newspaper industry. It is the environmentally friendly answer to the book: no trees were harmed in the making of this product. It's everything you ever wanted to know, tucked in a pocket of your modish canvas-and-distressed-leather Ally Capellino messenger bag. It is the MP3 player of literacy, the reading dude's EyePod.
It is the Amazon Kindle.
And when I say I've got one and you haven't, what I really mean is I have borrowed one and neither you nor I can actually have one because it's American. It's an American e-reader. It's quite nice, but also extremely -- no, utterly -- American.
It will store thousands of books. It will download your daily newspaper, daily. If your neurochemistry goes awry on the bus and you suddenly decide that you just have to have the new Dan Brown, why!, you can have it at the one-click™ of a credit card, within a matter of seconds, downloaded wirelessly.
If you are American, with an address in America and an American bank account with an American bank and an American credit card billed to your American address in American dollars, it's yours for the asking. Otherwise, forget it.
That having been established – and, boy, has it been established, as witness the thousands of Europeans on the internet complaining that they can't have one, as well as the thousands of Americans trying to come up with increasingly baroque solutions to using their Kindles on vacation in Yurp – I have managed, thanks to a friend in LA, to get one, and get some "books" downloaded onto it, and get it sent to England, with a covering note saying "Here's your Kindle you LEFT BEHIND by MISTAKE when you came to STAY. At MY HOUSE. In AMERICA."
Quite unnecessary, of course. All he had to do was write "Value: $0.00" on the label, which is precisely what it's worth, outside America.
But it arrived, and I brought it out to an appropriate Greek island to give it a whirl. This particular Greek island was appropriate, being one of those islands which... well; think of Faliraki. It's not like that. This island is full of people on creative writing courses, music courses, painting courses, walking tours and, quite possibly, Inner Goddess symposia.
In this climate, the Kindle, I reckoned, would give me reason to feel superior from the check-in desk at Gatwick onward. For these are the people you see paying their excess baggage charges because their huge suitcases contain: 1 Tilley hat; 1 pair khaki shorts; 1 toothbrush; and 83 books. When they go down to the octopus-haunted, pebbly fastness of Monodendri Beach, they carry four books each: one they're reading, one in case they finish the one they're reading, one in case they don't like the one they've brought in case they finish the one they are reading, and one in case the other three fall into the sea and purloined by octopi.
And there I'd be, with my featherweight Kindle containing thousands of books, sailing through check-in with my modish canvas-and-distressed-leather Ally Capellino messenger bag containing my MacBook Air and thousands of pre-Kindled books, strolling breezily down to the beach with thousands of books, and generally putting on the literary dog like nobody's business.
Until the freak tidal wave, or the capsized boat, or the kleptobibliast cephalopod; and there go thousands of books, down into the briny at one fell swoop.
The idea is, it goes without saying, remarkable; the concept brilliant, but venerable. Douglas Adams essentially came up with it in the Hitchhiker's Guide, a portable compendium of screen-readable information startlingly like the Kindle, except with a little more intelligence built in.
The Kindle may not have a "Don't Panic" button but, even so, it's a fine panic-preventer for those moments when the other guy is running late, the flight is indefinitely delayed, the Tube has ground to a halt or any of those other annoyances from which only something to read can save us. No more realising you've forgotten to buy your Independent when the train stops unwontedly, two hundred yards short of Adlestrop. No more hunting through the League of Friends' second-hand bookstall when your aged father's clinic appointment is backed up to last Thursday. Wherever there's a Whispernet (™, or possibly ®) signal, there is Amazon, beckoning hypnotically like a Reeperbahn harlot, ready to enfold you in its ample bandwidth. You want it, you got it.
But only if you're an American. In America. Elsewhere, there ain't no Whispernet.
You might as well ask "Why Whispernet? What sort of disordered imagination came up with that name, and how did it get past the management committee, and what does that say about what they think we're like?" Why, is what Amazon aren't saying. Its British PR people say there are no plans to launch it in Europe. They don't get involved with the Kindle. The US end don't talk to them about it.
Is it because of the fragmented and internecine EU mobile wireless network? Is it something to do with Digital Rights Management? Do they just not care that we stood by them in their disastrous adventure in Iraq? Nor has the US "media relations" office much to say. Ring the number and you get an answering machine, on which an astonishingly cross woman who clearly blames you for everything tells you to "please leave your name your number your email your specific deadline and the nature of your call".
Seasoned journalists are used to this sort of thing (unlike "citizen journalists" who are all we're going to have left after Web 2.0 has obliterated the mainstream media; they don't even know how to ring the Press Office). What seasoned journalists do is: we lie about the specific deadline, so that they can't work out when it's too late to get back to you.
And get back they did. Moments after the deadline I'd lied about, an email came through:
"Thank you for your interest in Amazon Kindle. Kindle is only available in the US. We know that Kindle is something our international customers want and we look forward to serving them but have nothing to announce at this time."
Okay. Gotcha. None the wiser. Perhaps it's an automated machine. Perhaps there's nobody there. Perhaps it's all just Jeff Bezos, marooned in a vast warehouse with only beeping pick-'n'-pack robots for company.
So we're on our own. In more ways than one.
One way we're on our own is that, without the near-instantaneous wireless downloads of Whispernet, the Kindle is essentially gelded. The promise is any book you want (as long as the publishers have digitised it and Amazon stocks it), delivered wirelessly as you sip your skinny latte in the dappled sunlight of Shmentral Park. But cross the Homeland borders and Kindle is starved of its airwaves, just a static compendium of pre-stored texts with no chance of that all-important impulse purchase.
Or almost starved. There is a way around it. Sort of. You could get an American, in America, with an American bank and a blah blah blah to buy you one and send it over.
You could buy Amazon gift certificates (which for some reason – undoubtedly a loophole they will soon close – turn you into an honourary American) and use them to by Kindle e-books. You could download those on the internet, into your computer, then transfer then from your computer via the one sort of USB cable you undoubtedly don't have (so, like, order one from Amazon, shlemiel) into your Kindle. And there are undoubtedly those who will do precisely that.
Reading – actually hoovering up the text from the page – on the Kindle is an oddly ambiguous experience and one that raises more questions about how and why we read than we have room to answer here.
First ambiguity is that the text is there, but the typography is not only bad; as an art-form, which typography is, it's non-existent on Kindle. Every book, from Chaucer to Malcolm Gladwell, is in the same font. The experience is oddly disturbing. Is that delusional?
Not according to Miranda Bolter, award-winning graphic designer with London firm The Partners. "No. Typography not only helps you read, it sort of shows you how a particular text should be read. It's weird to offer just one font, and a dull one at that." What is it? "It's called Caecilia. Remember the name. It's going to be as famous as, God help us, Ariel, Verdana and Times New Roman."
"I thought at first," she adds, "that maybe the people who buy these things aren't really interested in the physical experience of reading, but then I thought, no; if that was the case, they'd be buying audio books on their iPods. They must still enjoy reading. But the Kindle isn't enjoyable. It's very flat and one-dimensional. It's not that there's no expertise in digital design; in the latest Design Week survey, digital is bigger than print, branding, pretty well all of them put together. So I don't get it. It's as though they've just thrown away 500 years' worth of experience."
But do people actually notice typography? "Not as such. I think they'll feel the difference rather than see it. Only a typographer will see the difference. I mean, why can't choose your font when you download something, for example? How hard can that be?" Or better still, have a professional graphic designer do it for you...
On the other hand, the paper-and-ink analogue, the Kindle's screen, is just fine for text. The E-Ink technology, developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, means that anywhere you can read print on paper, you can read the Kindle. (And anywhere you'd need a reading light on a book, you'll need one for your Kindle.)
But, for me at least, and after reading a mere 15 or so books on the thing, I find Victor Nell's idea of "ludic reading" – where the physical text vanishes and the reader's construction of what lies behind the text takes over – not quite attainable. The Kindle never entirely disappears.
Part of that is the typographical dreariness of the thing. Part of it, too, is the sheer mechanics of the Kindle. There's no give in its hard shell; turning a page requires clicking a button, at which point the text briefly inverts before being replaced with the next page. There's no sense of where you are in the book (there's a 'progress bar' but it's not the same as the physical balance of the read and unread pages of a book in your hands). It's impossible to flip back and forward to remind yourself of an earlier episode or to check a footnote.
And, of course, there is absolutely no texture.
We inhabit a world seen through glass. The flat screen increasingly, almost overwhelmingly, mediates between us and our experience. We work, correspond, research, stroll, conduct our affairs, do our banking, play games and watch television and movies on the computer screen. Seamen navigate by onscreen charts with radar overlays; pilots by the monitors of the "glass cockpit" which only tells them what they need to know, and decides what that is. When we drive, our maps are on the GPS screen. What remains of the once dynamic record sleeve art is downloaded onto the tiny iPod screen. Even surgeons (apart from the one actually peering down the endoscope) participate in operations by staring at a screen.
And now the book. Yes, the book is an odd, superficially outmoded industrial or pre-industrial product made of chopped trees and minced rags and suspensions of dirt in oil, of glue and (if you're lucky) cloth; distributed in lorries and on planes and the baskets of postmen's bicycles. Agents, editors, publishers, designers, printers, warehousers, distributors, hauliers, retailers: all take their cut. In a world where we ship information in electrons, not atoms, such a peculiar way of putting out a product which is, arguably, nothing but information is at first sight odd indeed. If we were starting from scratch, now, who but a madman could come up with it?
Or is an example of Pencil Theory? This says that if the wood-and-graphite pencil with a rubber on the end had been invented after the PC, the world would be aghast, clamouring for them.
And if the book were invented after the Kindle... it would be a revolution.
Books are commensal: you can share them with friends, lend them, give them, store them where and how you like. Books have smell, texture, physicality. Books advertise who you are (or who you'd like to be; I speak as one who, as a teenager, would sit mournfully at parties with a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther, hoping a beautiful girl would come over and say "You look interesting; would you like to go out with me?").
How many romances have been started when A noticed, across a coffee-shop, what B was reading and said "How are you enjoying it?" Can't do that with a Kindle; the question "What are you reading on that thing?" is just that bit too invasive. Similarly, how many catastrophes have been averted when Girl, 24 notices that Boy, 26, though tall dark and – damn him – handsome, is reading the Daily Mail?
You can have your paper downloaded every day (if you are American etc etc) but a sizeable part of the fun vanishes when nobody else can tell what you're reading.
You can hurl a book across a room. You can read it in the bath without fear. You can remove pages if they offend you. You can make marginalia, very different from the Kindle's annotation feature. You can have a dozen books open at once on your desk. You can continue the list yourself; it's a long one.
What you can't do with books is the computer stuff. You can't gather all your annotations in one place. You can't select a passage you want to record, and transfer it and its source to your computer with - I counted - three clicks of the mouse. You can't search for words or phrases across your entire library. You can't adjust the type size as the light or your eyesight grows dim. And, if you're a publisher, you can't control the digital rights. Which last is, like the great majority of swords, double-edged. Once someone has bought a book, it's theirs. Once someone has downloaded an e-text, it's not really theirs; the seller, controls how they get it and what they can do with it. I can't give you my copy of David Mamet's Bambi vs. Godzilla. I can't even lend it to you. It's not mine; in the true sense of the word, it "belongs" to my Kindle. I am merely, if you like, its curator. The relationship between me and my books has been changed forever.
After relatively brief acquaintance, and the gratifying envy and fascination ("I didn't know you could get these in Europe." "You can't.") of my temporary fellow-islanders, two things seem clear. First, the Kindle is not a replacement for books; nor, indeed, is it a replacement for libraries, though the idea of 10,000 people all "borrowing" the same book, and no fear of its being recalled halfway through, is beguiling.
Nor is the analogy with the iPod and its cousins – which have so overthrown the foolish, ossified, uncomprehending record industry – accurate, not least because there's no way you can get the books you already own onto your Kindle. CDs? No problem. Rip 'em to iTunes and away you go. China Miéville's The Scar? Sorry; you'll have to buy it again. And if it's not available on Amazon Kindle Store, tough. Outta luck. Too bad, pal.
It may well, however, be the saviour of the newspaper industry; or at least that portion of it which deserves to be saved.
I'd like to say the Indy looks just fine on the Kindle, but I can't. It, as well as The Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, had been mysteriously transferred to The Archive somewhere in their transatlantic journey and I couldn't get them out again. ("Whispernet is not available").
Perhaps I'm not even my own librarian; perhaps I'm just a reader. A nuisance. Someone who interrupts the smooth running of things.
Were I in America... why, there would be my morning paper, delivered closer (and earlier) to my hand and more reliably than any all-American kid on a Schwinn bicycle could hurl it. Rupert Murdoch may be moving towards "paid content" but whenever I click a link on the Internet and find I have to pay $2 to read on, I read off. Subscribing, though: that's a different matter. Bring on the virtual paper-boy.
And whatever we may think of Amazon, it unarguably has tremendous power residing in its databases. Targeted advertising in quality newspapers could reverse the trend which has seen carnage in the US regional newspaper industry and belts tightened to the very last notch here. Tell me what you read and I'll tell you what you'll buy. And Amazon already knows.
But now imagine a duplex Whispernet – one which sent data upstream as well as down – and you can see the possibilities. The System could know what you're reading and how long you're dwelling on it. Reading about the new Porsche? Here comes a dealer ad. Poring over trolls and orcs? We'll sell you an anorak. The possibilities are marvellous. Some of them, too, are surveillant and invasive. And almost all of them will require a re-think of the various models in the publishing industry.
Some of the possibilities will even, in the wilder imaginings of people like technophiliac author Kevin Kelly, change the relationship between author and reader. He imagines what appears to be a miraculous Book of Books, with the "author" as one voice among many, the readers ripping and burning and scratching and sampling to make multiple super-texts of endless mutability and fluidity. Anyone who has read the drivel of "Web 2.0" – the Twitters, the Amazon readers' "reviews" and the witless sub-literate ranting of the various versions of Have Your Say – can see all too clearly that Kelly is probably magnificently crackers and it'll be interesting to see what happens to the first copyright-busting K. Kelly mash-up...
Overall, it would be as idiotic to judge Kindle concept on the current device as to have judged the future of personal computing on the BBC Micro. It's a work in progress, and one with huge potential. Even in its current incarnation, it has that most vital of qualities: it is good enough. For the traveller flying with hand luggage only, for the walker, for the man on the 7:17 from Frant, it will be bliss on a (memory) stick. For anyone who's ever lost a book: why, it's still there, on Amazon, and they know you're entitled to it. Personally, I dread giving mine back. After two short weeks, it's become indispensable, especially when I realise that with my MacBook Air and "my" Kindle, I can have all the books I'm likely to want and all my professional, administrative and literary life, all in two packages lighter and smaller than a paperback novella and a copy of Vogue.
There's one oddity. While reading David Mamet's Bambi vs. Godzilla, I found myself thinking "I really like this. I must buy a copy." In other words, the physical book, not just the e-text. Perhaps publishers could trade on this: if you buy a Kindle text then want the real thing, the money you spent on the e-text is knocked off the price of the book. And if you could somehow prove you already owned the physical book, you could perhaps get the Kindle download for a reduced price...
Such things demand a vast database and tremendous computing power, which is why the Kindle synergy with Amazon is every bit as important as the iPod's synergy with the iTunes Store; and this, for the moment anyway, is one of the things that gives Kindle its potent edge over the worthy but not-quite-there-yet Reader.
So why can't we have it here, even though we're not American? Well. The seasoned journalist also knows that PR people can speak in code. Look caref ully at the email from Amazon. Don't just read it; read it. Perhaps it is saying "We would love to tell you it's coming to Europe but our lawyers have said we can't. Not yet." Perhaps there are things needing to be ironed out. Could be technology, could be copyrights, could be patents; but they are "looking forward" to serving us, just not "at this time."
Here's my guess. Kindle will be in Europe for Christmas, and the paradigm of publishing will be changed forever. How sure am I in my speculation? Hell, I'll open a book on it.
Recommended reading On Michael's Kindle
David Mamet 'Bambi vs. Godzilla'
Malcolm Gladwell 'Outliers'
Julian Hawthorne (Ed.) 'Library of the World's Best Mystery & Detective Stories'
Jared Diamond 'Collapse:
How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed'
Andrew Keen 'The Cult of the Amateur'
Barry Schwartz 'The Paradox of Choice'
Dana Thomas 'Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre'
Homer 'The Odyssey' (trans. Robert Fagles)
Edward Gibbon 'History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'
Raymond Chandler 'The Long Goodbye'
China Miéville 'The Scar'
Charles Dickens 'Collected Works'
Mark Twain 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer'
Samuel Pepys 'The Complete Diaries'
The Washington Post*
* I can see they're there but I can't get at them without Whispernet
† I know there are some in there but without Whispernet I can't even see what they are
Electronic reading: A short history
Arthur C Clarke predicts the development of an electronic "foolscap-sized newspad" in his novel '2001: A Space Odyssey'. The device plugs into Dr. Heywood Floyd's ship to receive the latest reports and newspapers from Earth
Sony develops The Bookman as a literary alternative to its Walkman. The CD-ROM gadget had a small, low resolution screen, and was poorly received.
Softbook Press's Softbook and NuvoMedia's Rocket EBook are the first electronic reader devices created primarily for consumers. Customers download eBooks via each company's online bookstore using dial-up connections.
Sony releases the Librié, the first e-reader to use electronic paper display technology which mimicked the appearance of ink on paper pages.
The Sony Reader, the Kindle's main competitor, is developed from technology used in the Sony Librié and is released for sale in America.
Amazon's Kindle is released in the US and becomes the most successful e-reader to date. Owners can buy eBooks, magazines and newspapers from Amazon.
The Sony Reader PRS-505 is released in the UK in partnership with Waterstones; Nintendo releases 100 Classic Books on its DS console.
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