Dec 21

What exactly are we Kindling?

Posted by A Writer

I'll fully admit that I think technology is cool.  I grew up at a time when computers were just entering the mainstream consciousness and video games were becoming, for better or worse, a part of every child's early upbringing.  (Yes, parents, even the ones who "weren't allowed."  Unless you lived in a cave or you're Amish, (and how are you reading this if either is true?) your kids had friends, and they played video games, because their parents were cooler than you…at least according to your kids.  Don't fret, though…you could have been these parents.  And your kids did love you, even if they thought you were dorks.)  So on its face I ought to be pretty pumped up about the Amazon Kindle, the new E-book reader which has taken the publishing world by storm–well, at least according to Amazon.  Thus far they've rolled out pretty much every celebrity author they can find to wax poetic about the device.  "It's astonishingly easy to use," raves Neil Gaiman; "It really is intuitive."  (I wish he had used it to download and read the real Beowulf again before giving us his version, but oh well.)  "…[I]t's actually clearer, easier on the eye than the printed word," gushes Moneyball author Michael Lewis.  And in case you don't think there's enough gravitas from the endorsement pile, I give you this: "It's lighter, I can carry it, and I can have more [books] at my disposal."  That's from Toni Morrison.  That's right, Pulitzer Prize winning, Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison.

Hah.  There's your freaking gravitas.

Yes, listen to Amazon and the ever-optimistic Jeff Bezos and you'd think you've got one hell of a revolution on your hands.  And it does have a lot going for it.  By all accounts it has overcome one of the major issues with E-book devices thus far, which is that it uses a technology that makes reading the Kindle screen resemble the experience of reading a standard book (it still looks a little computer-y to me, to be honest, but I haven't held one in my hands yet and so can't fairly judge).  Even more significant, its Wi-Fi service is entirely free and works anywhere inside the U.S., so you can download any book available through Amazon  (which is a lot of them, and Amazon has picked up the pace of digitizing currently existing editions big time) and be ready to read within seconds…to say nothing of, oh, reading a blog or two.  If you've got a Kindle you can try it right now–just go to and *ow!*  Fine, fine…jeez, you try a little shameless self-promotion…  And a downloaded book of this kind is a fraction of the cost of a print edition.  You can even browse the web, checking out those places which involve writers talking about their craft and other such interesting topics, like the Rewriting of Reality, say… *ducks*.  

For writers, of course, the Kindle is even more of a revelation.  Think of the possibilities of a device which can get your work to anyone at any time, seamlessly linked from other sources and other content and immediately accessible.  You do an interview on NPR, someone hears it on their way to the airport, and by final boarding call the person is reading your book…and if she likes it, downloading other books of yours when she lands, or E-mailing a link to the book to her friend.  In a way it's a far superior version of hypertext, that early 90s phenomenon which was supposed to revolutionize the way we read and interacted with the written word.  That didn't happen, in part because of the lack of mobility (a nice feature of books is that you can take them with you, of course); but with the Kindle, that isn't a problem, and combined with its "real text" technology it seems to have solved all the problems.  Publishers, for their part, would love to get out of the pricey paper business if they could–less storage space, less physical production cost, no shipping costs.  With that kind of low overhead the publisher could even afford to take a chance on the more edgy, riskier authors–hell, it might even get video gamers interested in reading again if it's cool enough.  The publisher wins, the writer wins, the reader wins.  Even the trees win.  We all win.  Everyone go get a Kindle.     

Except, well, it's not quite that simple, you see.  For all of Amazon's self-fawning (and don't get me wrong…I like Amazon a good deal.  I just wish they weren't quite so cult-ish about themselves sometimes.), the opinions outside of their benign influence have been considerably more mixed.  The reviews have mostly been of the "good start, get back to me when you finish version 2.0" variety thus far, but even the most fanboyish (I'm officially entering that in the "Word of the Year" competition, by the way–if "w00t" can win, anything is possible) commentators have acknowledged that this isn't quite the greatest thing since sliced bread.  For one thing, it's really expensive.  $399 is a hell of a lot to pay for something which isn't a laptop; you could find the latter at the same price, and could do a lot more with it.  And that relates to the second problem: for those who love the all-in-one stuff (I like my combination PDA/phone/camera/dishwasher, personally), this isn't your cup of tea–you could theoretically E-mail with it, but the interface is slow and ultimately you're working around what the device was intended to do.  No audio file support, no PDF support, no photo viewer, etc., etc.–this is an E-book reader, period. 

Now, as defenders will immediately point out (and have, often irritatingly), that's all this was intended to do–if you want a laptop, get a laptop.  It's a fair argument, but one which won't wash so long as you can carry a laptop and a couple of books onto a plane and be perfectly happy.  What the successful E-book reader needs to do is somehow make the experience of reading on a screen replace the experience of reading on a page, or at least supplant it enough that in combination with its other features–convenient, cheaper in the long run to buy books, much more portable, better for the environment, etc.–it becomes worth buying.  The Kindle doesn't do that.  It's fine to build a mousetrap which is safe, economical and convenient, but people don't start beating that path to your door until it becomes a better mousetrap…because the original model works pretty well to begin with.  And the more you make the E-book reader "just like a book," the less all the arguments about how it bridges the digital divide and gets video game aficionados interested in reading again apply.  

The bottom line is that the Kindle is a step forward, because it's opened up a discussion which realistically considers the possibility of a functioning and viable E-book reader.  That's a good thing, because we need as many models of book delivery as possible.  But it hasn't replaced the iPhone as the coolest thing (have at it, fanboys!) yet, and more to the point, what you are reading will remain critically important.  A crappy book is crappy whether you read it on a stone tablet or have it beamed into your brain.  But hey, if you get a Kindle for Christmas and can't stop playing with it for weeks afterwards, let me know.  Far be it from me to get in the way of Toni Morrison…or her gravitas.