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.