Sunday, February 08, 2009

Gutenberg Goes Digital - Bibliophile vs Technophile?

I'm a book person. Anyone who knows me can attest to that fact. The mere thought of throwing out a book launches a full-body tic. I blogged about this point some months ago when I reflected on weeding library books.

This came into even sharper focus in recent weeks when we undertook the monumental task of thoroughly cleaning out the attic, the basement, and certain other rooms in our house. Junk was hauled away by the truckload. My family seemed to think that some of my books, numbering well into four figures, should be included. Can you imagine?

I'm sure my family, all of whom are also avid readers, will be unhappy to have it publicly exposed that they would favor throwing out books. I am sure there is a Seven Steps program for those who have this disorder and I am confident that with competent counseling this can be worked through.

But I had to mention this in order to set the stage for admitting that I, a lover of books to the point one might call extreme, am also a lover of the Amazon Kindle, a reading device that has a screen, a keyboard, and some kind of electronic "ink" that displays books in a digital format.
This device became suddenly popular last fall when Oprah endorsed it and distributed the product to her studio audience. Despite a somewhat bloated $350+ price tag, Amazon ran out of the Kindle before Christmas, creating a demand that was notable, although certainly not by Nintendo Wii standards.

The word on the Net is that Amazon will be announcing a new version of the Kindle this week. This has generated quite a surge of interest among those who are early adopters--the tech savvy crowd who don't mind trying out gadgets before they've become widely accepted. In my case I had not really been longing for a Kindle, but had expressed a passing interest based on what I read about it. My wife surprised me by making the Kindle a delightfully unexpected birthday gift.

My purpose in writing this post is to reflect on how this new technology has impacted my love of books and reading. I am not trying to be a shill for Amazon (Sony has a competitive product) nor to explain the various features. Let me try to describe it in one inadequate sentence -- The Amazon Kindle is an e-book reader, sized similarly to a trade paperback, that wirelessly downloads books, magazines, newspapers and other content and permits them to be read on a high resolution screen and navigated by use of clickable buttons and limited text entry.

For more information in addition to the Amazon link above I recommend Kindle Nation, a webpage by Stephen Windwalker who has been a generous, creative, and objective analyst and promoter of the new technology. Those links provide numerous gateways to other sites and resources related to the Kindle.

One morning I had an experience that forcefully illustrated for me the value of a Kindle. I was watching the Today Show and in particular an interview with Dexter Filkins, author of The Forever War, an important new book about the war culture in which we live. As I listened I thought to myself that I really need to order that book or go to B&N and buy it. Then suddenly I thought a new thought. I picked up my Kindle, clicked a few buttons, and literally within 60 seconds that entire book was on my lap. My Amazon account was charged $9.99, substantially less than Amazon's discounted cost of the hardback volume. I was reading chapter one of the book before Matt Lauer finished his interview with the author.

I'm a mood reader and as a result always have several books going at the same time. Maybe I fancy a mystery and later a biography. Perhaps a book of essays appeals to me and then something on current events. I used to travel a great deal and frequently pondered how many books to put in my bag so that I could nourish my fickle reading habits without breaking my back as I drug the carry-on through airports. Problem solved -- the Kindle holds about 200 books with no additional weight. Even I have to admit that will do.

I don't know where all this will go. I still love the heft of a book in my hands. I like to visually see where I am in a book, something that is difficult with e-books. Cover art doesn't go away with Kindle but it is far less appealing in the black and white graphics or woodcuts that are used in the reader. There is admittedly something of a sensory loss, but then a lot of people would look derisively at me should they find that books have that kind of effect on me.

But here's one thing for sure. I will never have to take any more static from my family about refusing to throw out books. No longer will I have to submit to ridicule for wanting to keep my books on the shelf even if I know I will never read any of them again. Or even for the first time.

Hah! Hah! Fooled them, eh?

Wait a minute! That Kindle was an unexpected and surprising gift from my wife. You don't suppose...????