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.