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.