Books aren't going anywhere. I expect it will be some time yet before we have to switch out our bookshelf photo at the top of Omnivoracious for a shelf with only an ebook reader on it. The book, as they are right to say, is a very good machine already.
But a few days ago I got to test drive our new vehicle for the book, the Amazon Kindle, which is available to the general public pretty much at this exact moment. Our digital book team lives in a different world (and a different building) from the regular old book team I work on, so this was the first time I had been able to sit down with our new toy. I even got to take it for the night, kind of like a kid getting to bring the class hamster home. (And like that kid, I'm just glad I was able to bring it back alive.)
I'm not going to go all Mossberg with a full review of the user experience, but I had a few initial impressions of this new kind of reading (to be taken, of course, with one giant grain of salt: I work for the company that made this thing):
- When I'd first heard about what the Kindle would be like, I thought the "killer app" would be its ability, which other readers haven't had, not only to read books but to subscribe to newspapers, magazines, and blogs and have them automatically updated. That's still a cool feature, but on first use it doesn't seem as new as I'd expected, since we're pretty used to reading those things in real time online (although not on the bus, which Kindle lets you do).
- What did seem exciting and new, though, was another feature of the built-in wireless: getting a new book as soon as I decided I wanted it. I skimmed through the available titles, considering Nathan McCall's Them, the book I've been carrying around in my backpack as the next-one-to-read, or Allegra Goodman's Intuition, which a friend just recommended to me last week, but settling on another I ran across: Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red. I hadn't read any of the Nobel winner's novels yet, and it seemed especially appropriate to make my first ebook a tale of a 16th-century illustrator of illuminated manuscripts. So I pressed the order button on the machine, and in the 20 or so seconds it took me to navigate back to the main page listing all the books stored in the reader, My Name Is Red was already there among them, ready to read. I couldn't really care less about next-day delivery for shoes, but this is a service that I could get accustomed to.
- Another surprise: it's relaxing. I don't mind reading a lot of things on my computer (and for better or worse I do it all day), but between the glare of the screen and the tiny humming machine overtones that I only notice by my relief when they disappear, I would never describe it as relaxing. But the Kindle makes no whirr or vibration, and its muted E Ink screen sits there patiently like, well, a book. It doesn't make you feel like you have to operate on machine time to read.
- What was it like to read Pamuk on a machine? What struck me was the way the words float free from the solid, designed book they are usually lodged in. There are no hard-coded pages in the reader, and you can adjust the font size to match your eyesight, so the words are no longer tied to a place and a page. And so while I miss some of the many physical pleasures of a book (which sometimes for me overwhelm the story itself)--the next page held half-turned in your fingers while you finish the one before, the black type set down on the grain of dead wood, the whole permanence of it--there's also a sense that on the machine the words must succeed entirely on their own merits. You're stripped down to the story itself, without many of the background cues that steer your reading of a physical book. (As it turns out, Pamuk's gleefully confident storytelling comes across just fine on this bare stage.) I had the thought that all book reviewers should henceforth do their reading only in this format, to provide for a purer assessment of the writing, but then realized taking away the free (and easily resold) review copies would a) deprive reviewers of a stream of income that probably dwarfs their meager reviewing rates, and b) put the Strand out of business.
- Finally, I should note that I put the Kindle through a bit of a stress test by using it during one of my few uninterrupted reading times: on the elliptical trainer. I'm glad to say I didn't drop it (although I guess from the drop test video on the Kindle page, it wouldn't have been a problem), nor did I drip sweat--er, perspire--on it (you're welcome, Molly), but I can also report that it was a big improvement on a regular book: I didn't have to hold the book open, turning to the next page was much easier, and it held my place automatically when I put it down. (Unfortunately, the Atlantic subscription I downloaded to the Kindle didn't include last month's issue, so I couldn't read that brilliant Walter Kirn article on the horrors of multitasking at the same time I was getting my meager exercise.)
Such was my night with the Kindle. I don't know where (or whether) it will fit into your gadget-filled life, and I'm not sure how it will fit into mine, if I decide to take this hamster home for good sometime. But at the very least, I got to read the first chapters of My Name Is Red, and now I'm going to have to figure a way to borrow this machine back so I can finish the story. --Tom
P.S. I wrote this before I saw Newsweek's gigantic cover story on the Kindle today, so any resemblance between my opening paragraph and Steven Levy's can only be credited to the obviousness of my ideas.