Sunday, June 22, 2008's Kindle e-Book Reader

Never mind that its name brings a flaming pile of books to mind. Amazon's $400 e-book reader might not replace the real thing any time soon.

Among my bibliophile friends, however, my first argument against it is not the durable pleasure of opening a paper book and turning its pages. Nor are my reservations my final word: I think e-books could be the best thing to happen to the book industry since the mass market paperback.

But first, a word on the Kindle. You can read its screen in sunlight, and it is easy on the eyes. It has a tiny QWERTY keyboard that allows you to annotate as you read. It stores about two hundred books. Its battery lasts several days. It has a built-in wireless connection that works like a cell phone, allowing you to buy and download Kindle files from, read blogs, and receive the daily newspaper. You can upload Word files. Kindle books are sold in Amazon's proprietary file format and cost $3-$10.

It's a start. As someone who reads a lot for her job, I find it convenient to do my work on a computer screen. My barrier to change is low. In fact, I really like the idea of having an electronic library of my lesser-read volumes, because they weigh a lot less in a cardboard box. But here's my chief beef: I don't like to spend money on books. I borrow them from the library first, and if I think I have learned something worth remembering, I will find a cheap used version in the range of $4-$12. I can't borrow electronic books from the Multnomah County Library, comprehensive though it is.

Amazon's pricing isn't an issue, but the proprietary file format is. I can only acquire books that Amazon has decided are popular enough to convert to a .azw file, or which already exist in a .txt or .pdf file. That rules out a lot of the obscure, hard-to-remember academic texts like Mikail Bakhtin's Dialogic Imagination, which I rarely need to reference but are helpful and venerable titles on my shelf. Finally, Amazon allows you to preview the first chapter of books, but for patient readers like me, I need one or two hundred pages to know if I care about a book or not.

Absent these issues I would love to introduce an e-reader into my reading habits. I would love to download e-books from the library for free, and buy the e-book only if I like it, or buy the hard copy book only if I REALLY like it. In short, to consign all my less-important reading to a paperless existence.

Besides being a boon to the environment, it would be a boon to publishers and authors, too. The cost of producing and distributing an e-book is much lower, theoretically allowing publishers to take more chances on new and experimental novelists, and niche nonfiction authors. Publishers must realize the benefit to their profits, because despite e-books accounting for an abysmally tiny portion of their book catalogs, they are pushing e-books hard. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, was the keynote speaker at this summer's Book Expo conference in LA.

Kindle, however, in its current incarnation, is reminiscent of the Palm Pilot. I bought one in college, and diligently created to-do lists and a monumental address book. My weekly schedule had nary a chink. Last week I was doing some spring cleaning, and in the bottom of a shoebox, next to a half-used bottle of perfume, a hair clip, and some creased photographs, was my Palm Pilot. I'd forgotten I'd ever owned one.