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Kindle: A New Horseless Carriage? An Assessment

Gregory E. Reynolds

Kindle Wireless Reading Device (6 inch display with free 3-G wireless) by Amazon. Seattle, Wash.: Amazon, 2010, $259.00 ($189.00 as of June; with only Wi-Fi wireless, $139.00).

Kindle is a new "horseless carriage"—a "paperless book." Of course, "horseless carriage" is what the first automobiles were called. This is what Marshall McLuhan called looking in the rearview mirror. Such naming of new inventions is partly due to technological naïveté, but it is also a way of easing people into accepting new technologies, the effects of which make some people apprehensive and others enthusiastic. But nobody knows what lies ahead. The automobile, as is now obvious, was much more than a horseless carriage. As the good natured Eugene—salesman of early automobiles—admitted as he was challenged by the skeptical young George in Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons,

"I'm not sure he's wrong about automobiles," he said. "With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization—that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men's souls. I am not sure. But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us expect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men's minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles; just how, though, I could hardly guess. But you can't have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that the spiritual alteration will be bad for us. Perhaps, ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn't be able to defend the gasoline engine, but would have to agree with him that automobiles had no business to be invented."[1]

The effect of Kindle and its e-reader counterparts on the world is certainly not of the same magnitude as the automobile. Nor should we necessarily think that the automobile had no business being invented. The broader phenomenon of digital screen reading, however, is a matter of great moment for us all. Just as the automobile has altered our perception of space and time, so screen reading alters those same perceptions. Moreover, such technological changes alter the very structure of society.

The Kindle represents a small part of this technological transformation. I can carry around 1,500 books in this small Kindle (3,500 on the larger). It may mean that my library and study are obsolete and should be replaced by a "media room." The change initiated by the ease with which so many words can be transported is similar to the change from clay tablets to papyri in the ancient world, or manuscripts to printed books in the Gutenberg era. The range and importance of these effects will be much easier to discern a hundred years from now. In the meantime I offer the following observations on this particular e-reader.

A Brief History

Kindle First Generation was released only in the United States on November 19, 2007. It featured a 6 inch (diagonal) 4-level grayscale display and retailed for $399.00. Amazon subsequently lowered the price to $359.00. The 250 MB of internal memory could hold approximately 200 non-illustrated titles.

On February 23, 2009, Amazon launched the Kindle 2. It featured several improvements, such as a 16-level grayscale display, longer battery life, 20 percent faster page-refreshing, a text-to-speech option to read the text aloud, overall thickness reduction from 0.8 to 0.36 inches, and an enlarged internal memory (2 GB, of which 1.4 GB was user-accessible).

On May 6, 2009, Amazon announced the Kindle DX, which retailed for $489.00. The second generation now retails for $379.00. The DX is the first Kindle model with an accelerometer, automatically rotating pages between landscape and portrait orientations if the device is turned on its side, unless automatic rotation is disabled by the user. (In the Kindle under review one must choose this rotation from a menu.) It is slightly over 1⁄3 inch thick, has a 4 GB (3.3 GB user-accessible) storage capacity, holding approximately 3500 non-illustrated e-books, a 9.7 inch (diagonal) display with 1200 x 824 pixel resolution, and a battery life of up to one week while using wireless or two weeks offline (the same as the Kindle being reviewed).

In 2010 the latest generation of the 6 inch screen—simply called "Kindle" (the model I am reviewing)—was selling for $269.00. In June the price was reduced to $189.00 in order to compete with the comparable Barnes & Noble Nook and the Sony Reader PE, each selling for $149.00. This indicates the rapidly growing popularity of e-readers, and is just the beginning of the development of this new reading format. The Kindle under review is sure to become a technological fossil shortly, so I will not focus so much on its technical aspects. That's the obvious part. I would like, rather, to consider the experience of reading on such a device as compared to that most stupendous of all inventions: the codex (pages bound together in a cover), as well as the new iPad.

Amazon has pioneered a brilliant business venture with the introduction of the Kindle e-reader. With over 620,000 titles (this will have grown by the time you read this), the Kindle store contains the largest selection of the books people want to read in e-book format at considerably less cost than their printed version (from $9.99). Along with today's bestsellers, the Kindle store offers thousands of free popular classics, making over 1.8 million free, pre-1923, out-of-copyright titles from other websites available. The Kindle store is readily accessible on the Kindle, or via the owner's computer. "Shop in Kindle Store" is the second item on the menu after "Turn Wireless off/on." The convenience of book buying makes this a very powerful commercial endeavor. "Get Books in as Little as 60 Seconds." But, how does it compare to the book?

Kindle Is Like a Book

Everything about this device is designed to say "this is a new kind of book." At the outset in the personal greeting to "Gregory," Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, promotes this idea by stating that he hopes

you'll quickly forget you're reading on an advanced wireless device and instead be transported into that mental realm readers love, where the outside world dissolves, leaving only the author's stories, words, and ideas.[2]

Why try to imitate a book? Simple—when we think of serious reading we think of books, that is codices—that paginated device that made manuscripts remarkably more accessible, especially after the book-multiplying invention of the moveable-type printing press. Book lovers regularly express this when we register disgust at the thought of curling up in a comfortable chair to read a text on a computer, even if it's a laptop.

How then does Kindle attempt to be like a book—a paperless book? And does it succeed? It weighs about the same as a 250 page paperback (10.2 ounces). Marketing appeals to a literate crowd. Attractive ads with the flavor—the elegant simplicity and sophistication—of Apple and Bose have been skillfully calculated. Only three items come in the box: the device, a cord, and a nicely designed starter manual. Pictures in sleep mode are all images of high literature, mostly photographic or artistic portraits of famous authors. Amazon knows its audience.

My main concern prior to buying the Kindle was the problem every computer user encounters regularly—distraction: check the weather, the stock market, the news, or email. I was surprised to discover that the Kindle is very unlike my computer in several important ways. The AT&T wireless 3G network, "Whispernet" for Kindle, may be turned off easily. Since battery life is enhanced by this move, the reader is motivated to stay disconnected, and thus does not have the sense of being on the Internet. The major reason for turning on the wireless connection is to download a book, periodical, or newspaper, or to seek text-related information. Furthermore, there is essentially only one thing on the screen at a time, a page of text, a black and white picture, or a menu (of which there are very few). I found myself able to focus on reading a lengthy text without distraction.

The little Kindle screen focuses the reader on the words. Kindle is a smooth and solid little device with buttons well placed so as not to be easily pushed inadvertently. Because of the flatness of the buttons and keyboard, one does not have a strong sense of using a computer. So the distraction factor is not what I would have expected. Since periodic content is downloaded daily, usually in the morning, the frugal and focused person will turn off the wireless as soon as the download is complete. I found myself rarely wishing to go on the Internet for information about something in the text I was reading, even though that is possible. The dictionary—which every reader needs close at hand—is located at the bottom of the page.

The black and white (gray) screen has a retro effect, hearkening back to the black and white televisions I was raised with, perhaps almost like a daguerreotype photograph. Its low definition diminishes its screen-like qualities. Even when one goes to the Kindle Store, the visual experience is very unlike an Internet commercial site on a computer. It is in black and white and very simple. E-readers that offer a more web-like experience will consequently be more like a computer than a book. Finally, the E-ink technology makes the screen almost page-like since it is not backlit and may be read in sunlight, just like a book. But, alas, it is not a book.

Kindle Is Unlike a Book

Just as horseback riding can never be replaced by automobiles, so electronic reading devices can never replace the experience of reading a book in codex form—the form it has taken for half a millennium.

The slight glare of the screen of the Kindle, similar to that of a glossy magazine, is probably necessary for the durability of the polymer surface, but there's no escaping the feeling and sound of plastic. Real books don't click. I can imagine a room full of Kindle readers sounding like the random bleeps at the grocery store cash registers. I suppose then that the best books read on the Kindle would be referred to as real page clickers. The page-turning click is an ever present reminder that one is holding a device, not an artifact with a history—provenance—and a unique presence. When I finished my first e-book, I was faced with the question of where to put it. It lacks the physical presence of a book. It is a nearly disembodied experience, like the Internet in particular and computing in general. Kindle is to books what an iPod is to music. The physical presence of books is more like the presence of a trio or an orchestra.

In the end, the horseless carriage and the e-reader differ in one crucial respect. The horseless carriage was happy to do away with the horse, whereas the e-reader wishes at all costs to be like the book. At least Kindle does not capitulate to the ersatz flummery of the iPad's iBooks application by attempting to simulate page turning. Not yet, that is.

The iPad puts tremendous pressure on e-readers to become more computer-like and less book-like. Technology critic Nicholas Carr observes, "To compete with the iPad, the current top-selling e-reader, Amazon's Kindle, will no doubt be adding more bells and whistles to its suddenly tired-seeming interface. Already, Amazon has announced it will be opening an app store for the Kindle later this year." Carr concludes, "Jobs is no dummy. As a text delivery system, the iPad is perfectly suited to readers who don't read anymore."[3] I'm sure he doesn't mean that every iPad user has abandoned substantive reading. But the device itself and the iBooks app are unsuited to serious concentration.

What's So Great about the Book?

Convenience is a two-edged sword. Most people see only the happy efficiency associated with it. But even measured by standards of efficiency, books still come out ahead in many categories.

The Kindle works hard at creating the illusion that it functions well off the grid. It doesn't need to be recharged frequently, so by keeping the graphics very simple and encouraging the reader to stay off the wireless network, the battery lasts for a long time. But at least every two weeks, electricity is required. Nor, as every computer user knows, is it as easy to navigate the pages of a digital text as with a book. Newspaper navigation on the Kindle lacks the ease of its paper counterpart, where one can scan whole pages and return to different articles and sections without buttons and batteries. This is somewhat ironic since, as noted earlier, the layout of the modern newspaper is uniquely electronic in its scattering of context and sequence. Whereas the Kindle is more like the continuous text of early newspapers. Searching may be more efficient, but even that is not always true in the presence of a good index. And the more search capabilities, the more potential for distraction. Page referencing is a related problem for scholarship. In contrast to the PDF format, there is no pagination due to the continuous text, since the type size may be altered by the reader. Also when reading a book it does not take long to realize where you are in relation to the end. Kindle compensates for this by a graphic at the bottom of the page indicating the percentage of the text the reader has completed.

On the matter of speed Allison Flood of the Guardian reported recently: "E-book readers might be heralded as the future of literature but a new report shows that it's still quicker to read the old-fashioned print version of a book." The study by Jacob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group concluded that the book is still a faster read than either the Kindle or the iPad. Nielsen also noted that readers "felt that reading the printed book was more relaxing than using electronic devices."[4] Serious readers have never counted speed to be a virtue.

My inner typographer is pleased with the Kindle's ability to resize type; but the font, PMN Caecilia® Std, which is used in most texts, is boring, although easy on the eyes. The ability to change type size has a downside: fully justified texts often leave large spaces between words, especially in titles. The best texts are justified left only.

The gray background is aesthetically uninteresting, but also easy to read. The efficiency of having the wireless service off in terms of battery life, works against the aesthetic qualities of the book, since that efficiency does not favor illustrations and photographs. All the romance of the book is absent. Kindle is aesthetically prosaic. It has physical weight but lacks gravitas.

For the growing number of people who have never taken the time to read actual books or newspapers, e-readers will be addictive because so convenient—at least apparently convenient—that is, unless compared to the convenience and the delight of the real thing.

But in the end nothing can replace the experience of reading a book. The extent to which the technology of e-books and reading devices becomes a horseless carriage remains to be seen. Only time will tell the difference between the book and these electronic supplanters. Perhaps they will create a yearning for the original—perhaps not.

While the aesthetic of the book may not be equally important to every serious reader, it must, at least subconsciously, play a part in the attraction of reading. Should there come a time in which books of the quality of those produced by Alfred A. Knopf are no longer published, then that will be a time in which I should not wish to live. But my suspicion—and, yes, my hope—is that digital technology will enhance our appreciation for the book, much as it has already enhanced the craft of typography. Kindle and its ilk will never replace the book, because it will ordinarily be owned by book lovers who like its portability and are perhaps tired of taking armloads of newspapers to the trash bin. Thus, portability and the ease of accessing periodical literature will probably be the most appealing aspects of the Kindle for serious readers. And in the spirit of Mark Twain the book insists, "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

Besides, how many more gadgets can we sustain in our lives? Each distracts initially by the time taken to learn how to use the new device or application. Then the multitude of choices this opens to us serves as an endless domain of distraction.

Finally, there is the subtler matter of cognitive diminution. In this regard Kindle lurks somewhere in the netherworld between the book and the Internet. The first article I read on my new Kindle was Nicholas Carr's "Does the Internet Make You Dumber?"[5] Good question. Ironically the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, harbors similar fears,

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information—and especially of stressful information—is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we're losing that.[6]

For those interested in the comparison between a Kindle and iPad: The iPad is a cross between a laptop and an iPod Touch. With the growing phenomenon of cloud computing (data storage online rather than on the personal computing device), it probably represents a prototype of future computing devices. Perhaps it is a large iPod Touch. But because it is more like a computer with its backlit screen, rather than E-ink, it is not really comparable to the Kindle. The reader is much more "connected" while using the iPad, thus potentially much less able to concentrate on a lengthy and demanding text. As Nichols Carr observes regarding iPad's iBooks application, "The book itself, in this model, becomes an app, a multihypermediated experience to click through rather than a simple sequence of pages to read through."[7]

The more ephemeral, the less substance, or as my mother used to say as she was serving healthy food, "This will stick to your ribs." It used to be that printed periodical literature was considered too ephemeral for serious reading, since such literature is by definition ephemera—used for only a short time. Digital technology, and the iPad in particular, gives new meaning to the quality of ephemeral. The more quickly words pass before us, the less concentration and serious thought they stimulate. The dull aesthetic of Kindle is no match for lots-of-interesting-things-happening-at-once of iPad. Just as the horseless carriage enlarges the landscape, it also diminishes local realities of community and space. So perhaps the real horseless carriage in this arena is the iPad, where most of the attraction is in the gadget and its myriad apps—an invitation to what is external to the user; whereas the book and its near kin, the Kindle, invite the user to the interior life, in which the reader is connected in depth with others in other worlds and in other times and places.

Carr asks the question that his new book, The Shallows, addresses: "What makes a book a book?"[8] This is the most important question of all. The standard answer is the one Carr challenges: a book is just a "delivery system." It doesn't matter whether the message is delivered via a stone tablet or an iPad tablet. This popular pabulum blithely asserts that the forms of things, whether, art, music, or texts, are just a matter of taste or style. Harold Bloom in his brilliant anthology The Best Poems of the English Language laments that "by reprinting only half a dozen poems published after 1923, I have largely evaded our contemporary flight from all standards of aesthetic and cognitive value."[9]

I believe that the serious reader will always opt for books, enjoying e-readers like Kindle for their portability when necessary. The experience of reading books will never be replaced for those who wish to be drawn into the minds and worlds of others.

I can only hope that John Updike is not as prescient as his dying words predict,

A life poured into words—apparent waste
intended to preserve the thing consumed.
For who, in that unthinkable future
when I am dead, will read? The printed page
was just a half-millennium's brief wonder,
Erasmus's and Luther's Gutenberg—
perfected means of propagating truth,
or lies, screw-pressed one folio at a time.[10]

Whatever happens to the book and the reader, however technologies may change, nothing replaces the now-so-threatened reality of personal presence as the most powerful mode of communication, as John so long ago reminds us, "I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face" (3 John 13-14).

A few words of practical advice. If you can live without one, wait until several more newcomers into the market arrive. This promises to bring the price down even further, while hopefully improving Kindle's best features without making it more computer-like. Purchase one of the better covers, since Kindle is easy to drop and the screen is unprotected without a cover.

The best use I have found for the Kindle during my experimental period is for travel. In remote locations you can still get your Wall Street Journal, that is as long as you can access the AT&T 3G network, which is available in almost all parts of the continental US. I wrote part of this review in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. You can't get much more remote than that. Kindle will also lighten the load for air travel.

Endnotes

[1] Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page, 1918), 199-200.

[2] "Welcome Gregory," in Kindle: Books in Sixty Seconds, by Amazon (Seattle, WA: Amazon, 2010), 16.

[3] Blog of Nicholas Carr, "The post-book book" (April 1, 2010), http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2010/04/the_postbook_bo.php.

[4] Allison Flood, "Print v iPads: books win!" (July 10, 2010), http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/08/print-ipad-kindle-books.

[5] The Wall Street Journal (June 5, 2010), "The Saturday Essay," http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704025304575284981644790098.html?KEYWORDS=nicholas+carr

[6] Transcript: Charlie Rose March 6, 2009 interview with Eric Schmidt, Google CEO.

[7] Blog of Nicholas Carr, "The post-book book," (April 1, 2010), http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2010/04/the_postbook_bo.php.

[8] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010).

[9] Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), 13.

[10] John Updike, Endpoint and Other Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 8-12. One of the finest reflections on reading in the electronic environment is Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994).

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2010

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