The Future of Reading

Ezra Klein discusses Amazon's Kindle in print and video

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.

Using the Kindle is somewhat less transformative. These days, everything from your keychain to your coffee mug boasts online access, and the Kindle is no different. It uses Sprint’s national wireless network and lets you link into Amazon, where you can browse, preview, and purchase books, magazines, and other types of content (the Kindle also has a beta version of a Web browser, but for now, it’s quite bad). Blogs cost up to $1.99 a month to subscribe to, which is a rip-off given that they’re free through your computer, but most books are only $9.99, a fair discount off what you’d pay for a hardback. It’s not just that the technology is cool, however. The Kindle is credible. As a product of Amazon, it’s intertwined with the world’s largest online bookstore, legitimized by the one company that can lay some claim to having already changed the way we use, or at least acquire, books. The real question, though, is what took so long? Though Amazon has transformed the way we purchase content, its business model has always contained a crucial inefficiency: Amazon gives you unlimited, free, instant access to text about books, so long as you read it on your computer screen. Then, when you’re ready, they’ll also sell you some text, only it won’t be unlimited or instant. Instead, it will be printed on mashed-up tree, put in a box, and sent across the country to you. What’s in that box is simply more text, no different from what you read on your computer, save for the wasteful, inefficient, and costly method of production. For all that we rebel against the idea, examined rationally, the death of the book would be no surprise.

I’m not sure exactly what I expected from my month with the Kindle. Maybe for some inquisitive older gentleman, possibly wearing wire glasses and a tweed blazer, to sidle up and say, “Excuse me, I hate to bother you while you’re reading, but do you really think that can replace the book?” Or possibly for a librarian to berate me. In any case, it didn’t happen. In fact, nobody noticed at all. Though reading the Kindle felt like a courageous betrayal of every word written since the moment papyrus gave way to paper, it turns out that looking at words on tiny screens in public places is far too common to attract attention. Indeed, the only person who demonstrated a heightened awareness of nearby reading habits was me. Suddenly everyone seemed to be staring at a laptop or scrolling through a BlackBerry or searching for songs on an iPod or texting on a flip phone. The Kindle is far less the start of a revolution than the codification of one. It’s a declaration of war long after most of the contested lands have been conquered.

Pessimists have been predicting the death of books for what seems like forever. In 1894, Scribner’s Magazine published an article lamenting their destruction at the hands of audio. “Printing,” the author wailed,

which Rivarol so judiciously called the artillery of thought, and of which Luther said that it is the last and best gift by which God advances the things of the Gospel—printing, which has changed the destiny of Europe, and which, especially during the last two centuries, has governed opinion through the book, the pamphlet, and the newspaper—printing, which since 1436 has reigned despotically over the mind of man, is, in my opinion, threatened with death by the various devices for registering sound which have lately been invented, and which little by little will go on to perfection.

One hundred and fourteen years later, printing is still around. But it did not win the battle against audio. Rather, the two entered into comfortable coexistence. Turned out that there were some things audio was simply better for. Reading a transcript of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! wouldn’t quite mimic the experience of listening to the quiz show while you putter about on the weekend. Similarly, reading is hard to do in the car, and you can’t call in to a book. But audio didn’t win out, either. Reading is much faster than listening. The average adult reads at around two hundred to four hundred words per minute, but is only comfortable listening to words at about half that rate. Long documents are better read than heard. Same goes for complicated works like, say, the NEA report. You can’t mark up a broadcast, or ask the radio to repeat the last paragraph.

Put another way, content is king. It will seek out the vehicle best suited to its absorption or enjoyment. Sometimes, it will occupy multiple mediums at the same time, in order to appeal to the largest audience (think of how books live happily alongside audio books, and then are turned into movies). But the endless discussion as to whether books are dead tends to conflate “books” with “text,” and thereby obscures far more than it illuminates. Books will not die, after all, unless we want them dead. They have survived the advent of radio, television, the Internet, and Nintendo. Rather, they will be challenged once again, and books’ content will find new ways to express itself more effectively.

Toward that end, using the Kindle is a sharp reminder of the limitations of printed text. Take a basic example: the size and font of a book. It makes perfect sense that large books have small text with dense letter spacing. Reducing the relative space needed for each word reduces the total pages required to house them. Large books are unwieldy, not to mention resource-intensive, and so, at a certain point, text is shrunk to keep total size in check. Small text is still hard to read, however. With the Kindle, text is manipulable. Long books no longer require a magnifying glass to read or a wagon to tote. Better yet, text can be changed to fit mood and moment. At night, I found myself increasing the size to rest my eyes. During the day, I shrunk it to pack in the content.

That advantage leads into many more. Unlike printed text, electronic text is not static, and its location is not fixed. For certain types of reading, this is a critical difference. Take two examples. Among the titles I downloaded on the Kindle were David Frum’s Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again and Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Brooks’s book is a cheeky alternative history that looks back on the fictional zombie wars that nearly wiped out humankind. David Frum’s outing is an aggressive synthesis of public-opinion data and recent political history meant to prove that the contemporary Republican Party is deeply adrift and headed for irrelevance unless it reforms itself. Both are books, of course, and both are comprised of text, but that vastly overstates their similarities. They’re better understood as radically different types of content that seek to do entirely different things, and so are suited to different mediums.

Brooks’s book attempts to entertain. Presuming the content is up to the task (and it is; zombie wars are funnier than one might imagine), it merely requires a readable method of presentation. The Kindle, here, is no better than the traditional book, and is in fact a bit worse. The Kindle’s screen, though a remarkably impressive technology, is a soft gray, and lacks the contrast of a book’s sharp, white pages. Moreover, there’s an added risk to using the Kindle: if you drop a book, it doesn’t break. If you drop your Kindle, your heart catches in your throat till you examine the damage. If you drop it in the bathtub, you’re out $400. The reading experience—in this case, enjoyment—would be better served by investing in a comfortable chair.

Frum’s book attempts to inform, and that’s an altogether different mission, one that traditional text is poorly suited to carry out. In a slightly more perfect world, the process of reading would be closer to the process of recording: we would scan words, and they would be retained, with perfect fidelity, in our neural pathways. The information would all be categorized, stored, and made available for future mental searches. A book would be virtually disposable, rendered utterly unnecessary after the first read. Sadly, our brains are more sieve than supercomputer. They absorb text much like the old child’s trick of pressing putty against newsprint: the information is initially imprinted with perfect clarity, then rapidly begins to fade, till only the faintest outline remains. There are the rare exceptions—my high school reading of The Grapes of Wrath still colors my understanding of power relations in a capitalist system—but they are too rare, and frankly, I sometimes wish I still had my notes on Steinbeck.

Still, hope springs eternal, and many of us pack our books away, filling spare rooms with bookshelves and attics with old titles. Those books hold what our minds cannot, and we hope that having read them once, we will be able to quickly rediscover their secrets if and when the need arises. To help us in this quest, we have margins. It is here that most of us make our stand against time’s inevitable fade to black. Notes, exclamation points, stars, doodles, complicated systems of acronyms and symbols—all serve as maps to intellectual lands we once traversed and may someday revisit. But they are spotty guides. Sometimes, the directions are illegible. Other times, we find that we forgot to mark a particular road or byway because we didn’t realize it was important. And without any real way of pinpointing our position, the search through this hazy mess of chicken scratch can be only marginally more efficient than rereading the book itself.

Compared to this, electronic text is a GPS system. You tell it where you want to go, it finds the route. The whole book is searchable. So, for that matter, are your notes, which can all be stored. Favored passages can be clipped and saved in a separate file to facilitate more rapid review. When text ceases to be fixed, when margins swell to an infinite expanse, when every word can be sorted and searched, the failings of our brains are hardly noticeable. Your bookshelf becomes your mind’s external hard drive. It’s a shiny new e-brain, a Google that searches your personal intellectual universe.

The point was driven home to me while reading William Powers’s brilliant essay “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Why Paper Is Eternal,” which considers the evolution of paper and the way it has subtly shaped not only the way we read, but what we read. “The persistence of paper flies in the face of a widely held popular assumption about technology,” Powers writes, “propagated over the years by breathless futurists and science-fiction writers.” True enough. But it was at about that moment that I realized I was reading “Why Paper Is Eternal” paperlessly, on my computer. I had downloaded it for free, which could be done because there were no shipping or production costs associated with the electronic file, and I decided to read it in my PDF viewer (the wonderful freeware Skim, for those who are interested) so I’d be better able to jot down thoughts and pull quotes. Paper may be eternal, but for some purposes, it’s simply inferior.

Let me be clear: though the Kindle has some advantages over traditional books, for the moment, I’d stick with the low-tech option. The problem is that the Kindle tries to compete too directly with paper. It attempts to electronically mimic the experience of reading a book. But the book is very, very good at providing the experience of reading a book. In this way, the Kindle occasionally comes off as if Ford, failing to make the conceptual leap to the car, had instead built a motorized horse. Sure, there would be some advantages: the robo-steed would never grow tired, and could be outfitted with more plush seating. But horses are pretty good at being horses. And books, like horses, have evolved to maximize their advantages.

The true promise of the Kindle, and its inevitable descendants, is in creating a product that goes where the book cannot. Printed text is fundamentally limited. Once on the page, nothing more can be done with it. With digital text, everything is a draft, to be edited, altered, broadened, remixed, and redirected. As better conveyors of electronic text are developed, the big question is how content itself will change to take advantage of the new opportunities.

Hyperlinking provides a useful example of how this can work. There is nothing simpler or more fundamental to online writing than coding text so that clicking on it directs the reader elsewhere. Previously, text was a closed container, reliant solely on the strength of its prose and the credibility of its author. With links, text is an open conversation. A study can be described, and interested readers can click to access the original paper. A speech can be quoted, even condensed, with the full version available to any who want it. An argument can be summarized, and the reader can click through to see whether the claims are being represented fairly. This feature is already used online, of course, but for all its elegant simplicity and obvious worth, it’s not as widely used as one might expect. Compare text written specifically to be read electronically—like that on blogs or Wikipedia—and text that is intended for printed mediums like newspapers or magazines. The electronic mediums produce writing that is far richer in links and sources, far more directly in dialogue with opposing viewpoints. The very fact of writing for an electronic medium changes the content.

The possibilities are endless, and many are obvious. Currently, authors are hampered by the nature of the publishing process. Books are begun years before their publication date, and finished months before they will ever reach readers. A book on electoral politics may be completed in 2007 and released in early 2008, its continued relevance reliant on nothing more concrete than the author’s vision and the vicissitudes of polls. With electronic text, however, the original “book” could be just the first step in an ongoing relationship between author and reader. In the most simple form, the book could be updated with new chapters and commentary. Corrections could be downloaded automatically, as could new pieces of supporting evidence. Debates could be held with critics, and the transcripts e-mailed out to all who purchased the original title. The book could be released in 2008, and updated through the election and even beyond, the author routinely applying the insights of the original work to the daily news reports.

This could profoundly alter the relationship between authors and their audiences. One of the finest bloggers around is The Atlantic’s Matthew Yglesias, who’s also the author of the new book Heads in the Sand, an examination of the politics of American foreign policy. Currently, his blog is supported by The Atlantic. But what if readers of his book were offered the opportunity to subscribe to his commentary for $5 a year? Imagine that some thirty thousand copies are sold, and half those readers decide to pay for Yglesias’s further thoughts. That’s now a yearly income of $75,000, flowing directly from readers to author, unmediated by ads or institutions.

It’s not only the relationship between writer and reader, however, that could deepen in the age of electronic text. Reading, mostly a solitary pursuit, could become a social act. It’s now common for newspapers to host comment sections where readers can weigh in on their articles, and books could do much the same. How much easier a dense work of philosophy would be if we could communicate with others struggling through the same chapters, and even be helped along by the author. Indeed, once we were open to the idea, much of what we do with books could be dragged into the public sphere. Already, a popular application on Facebook, Visual Bookshelf, has roughly thirty thousand daily users. It allows your friends to see what books you’re reading, how you’ve rated them, and any reviews you feel like posting. In turn, you have access to the same information about them. The curmudgeons in the audience may wonder whether we need all that in the public sphere, but they’ve never experienced the thrill of learning that an acquaintance you saw only for the occasional football game in college shares your affection for John Kenneth Galbraith.

Though the kindle could, in theory, support all these uses, it has not been built with them in mind. There is no button with a speech bubble that, once pressed, spirits you instantly to Amazon’s discussion page for your book, or for that particular chapter of your book. There is, as of yet, no effort by Amazon to advantage the Kindle’s offerings by bundling them with supplementary material from the author, or with a compendium of related studies and essays. Even the iTunes Store, Apple’s electronic retailer, bundles extras with its CDs. The comparison with Apple is instructive. At this juncture, Amazon is selling the Kindle much as Apple did the iPod—as a device whose primary advantages over its predecessors are in physical size and electronic storage. In the iPod’s case, that was a true assessment of the situation: the iPod bested the CD player not by allowing you to do more with music, but by allowing you to carry more music in your pocket. In the Kindle’s case, it’s a limiting approach.

Of course, this is the Kindle 1.0. Already, Amazon is showing signs that it means to improve the product. The Kindle has a section full of beta software, including a music player and that lousy Web browser. But those, again, are particularly uninventive advantages—they’re the same standard-issue applications present on cell phones and PDAs. Rather, the Kindle needs to leverage its power in the market—Amazon is a dominant bookseller that moved more than $3.5 billion worth of media (books, music, etc.) in 2006. Authors can’t afford to ignore its market, and so Amazon, alone among large booksellers, has the leverage to convince authors to begin writing at least in part for the electronic text market. If it made a Kindle able to support discussion groups, it could convince authors to participate in them. If it made a Kindle able to support updates, it could convince authors to release supplemental material down the line.

At the end of the day, the true advances won’t come in the Kindle, but in the content. Just as the capabilities of the device will shape what authors decide to do with it, so too will the decisions of authors shape the evolution of the device. The Kindle’s homepage already features videotaped testimonials from such literary luminaries as Toni Morrison, Michael Lewis, James Patterson, and Neil Gaiman. But what the Kindle, and Amazon, need is not their kind words, but more of their written words, composed with an eye toward the possibilities offered by electronic text. Just as the early television shows were really radio programs with moving images, the early electronic books are simply printed text uploaded to a computer. Amazon could use its unique position to change that.

This may, ultimately, prove to be Amazon’s truly crucial role—not driving the future of reading so much as the future of writing. E-reading technology will push forward even without Amazon’s involvement. The Kindle will soon face stiff competition from a bevy of able competitors. Sony already has an E Ink reader on the market, as does iRex Technologies, and the latter allows you to scrawl notes on the screen with an electronic stylus, then upload those notes to your computer. In the next year, Polymer Vision will bring out Readius, a cell phone that includes an E Ink reader with a rollable screen. Amazon, of course, has plenty of resources and by far the best market position. But if the Kindle’s successor or competitors are to succeed, it will be because Amazon used its status as the world’s largest online bookseller to force authors to think seriously about creating content that works better than the book, that goes where the book cannot, that’s interactive and cooperative and open in ways that printed text will never be. 


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

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Ezra Klein is an associate editor at The American Prospect.