Sunday, August 2, 2009

Annals of Reading > A New Page > Can The Kindle Really Improve On The Book?

Nicholson Baker / The New Yorker / August 3 2009

I ordered a Kindle 2 from Amazon. How could I not? There were banner ads for it all over the Web. Whenever I went to the Amazon Web site, I was urged to buy one. “Say Hello to Kindle 2,” it said, in tall letters on the main page. If I looked up a particular writer on Amazon—Mary Higgins Clark, say—and then reached the page for her knuckle-gnawer of a novel “Moonlight Becomes You,” the top line on the page said, “ ‘Moonlight Becomes You’ and over 270,000 other books are available for Amazon Kindle—Amazon’s new wireless reading device. Learn more.” Below the picture of Clark’s physical paperback ($7.99) was another teaser: “Start reading ‘Moonlight Becomes You’ on your Kindle in under a minute. Don’t have a Kindle? Get yours here.” If I went to the Kindle page for the digital download of “Moonlight Becomes You” ($6.39), it wouldn’t offer me a link back to the print version. I was being steered.


Everybody was saying that the new Kindle was terribly important—that it was an alpenhorn blast of post-Gutenbergian revalorization. In the Wall Street Journal, the cultural critic Steven Johnson wrote that he’d been alone one day in a restaurant in Austin, Texas, when he was seized by the urge to read a novel. Within minutes, thanks to Kindle’s free 3G hookup with Sprint wireless—they call it Whispernet—he was well into Chapter 1 of Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty” ($9.99 for the e-book, $10.20 for the paperback). Writing and publishing, he believed, would never be the same. In Newsweek, Jacob Weisberg, the editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, confided that for weeks he’d been doing all his recreational reading on the Kindle 2, and he claimed that it offered a “fundamentally better experience” than inked paper did. “Jeff Bezos”—Amazon’s founder and C.E.O.—“has built a machine that marks a cultural revolution,” Weisberg said. “Printed books, the most important artifacts of human civilization, are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence.”

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