To watch Klein discussing the future of reading, click here.


The title of a 2004 report by the National Endowment for the Arts was “Reading at Risk.” The follow-up, released in November 2007, upped the ante. “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence,” placed the consumption of Moby Dick up there with questions of poverty and health care. Weighty stuff. Around the same time, Newsweek published a cover story entitled “The Future of Reading”—I assumed the gist was along the lines of, “Nobody will be doing any, and the Russians will win.” I was wrong. In an almost uniquely American take on the subject, Newsweek decided to peer past the decline in reading and instead enthuse about the creation of new, expensive technologies that would help us read—namely, Amazon’s Kindle. The newsmag’s decision made a sort of perverse sense. After all, books may be in sharp decline, but compared to, say, 1992, reading on computer screens is way, way up. If you could put books on a computer screen, and maybe connect that to the Internet, you might really have something.

So I consulted my conscience, which is as much gadget-head as bookworm, and quickly came to a decision: I would simultaneously support reading and the introduction of expensive new electronic devices by buying a Kindle and proudly toting it around town for a month. That would give me time to determine whether this really was the future of reading, or whether the nation remained threatened by grave and unnamed consequences.

The Kindle, for those who dodged the hype, is the latest in a long line of handheld, computer-like devices meant to spark the digital-book revolution. It’s a big mission for such a strangely designed little gizmo. The Kindle is bone white (or, perhaps more accurately, iPod white), a bit under eight inches long and a bit over five inches wide. The bottom third houses the world’s most unintuitive keyboard: the letters all jut out at different angles as if the designers had just figured out diagonals but hadn’t quite decided which was their favorite. Running up the right side is a “next page” button, conveniently placed so you accidentally press it whenever you pick the device up.

One look at the screen, though, and you forget that everything around it seems to have been an afterthought. The Kindle uses a technology known as E Ink, which deploys negatively charged black particles and positively charged white particles to create something that looks, and acts, startlingly like paper. There’s no reflection in the sun and no discernible flicker on the screen. Compared to traditional LCD screens, whose light and flicker force your eyes to constantly strain and refocus, this is a profound advance. It’s almost calming to look at. The downside is that the Kindle cannot scroll through a book as you might expect. Rather, it pages through, going momentarily blank as the various particles reshuffle into the next set of words and images. Even so, the collision between the artificial and the organic is remarkable, and almost indescribably strange upon first glance. Imagine turning on your TV only to see the sky—not a broadcast of the sky, but the actual sky, right there where your screen should be—and you’ll have some idea of what it’s like to look at the Kindle for the first time.

Ezra Klein is an associate editor at The American Prospect.