Amazon’s Kindle is due out tomorrow, and Steven Levy has a long and thoughtful article in Newsweek about the device, entitled The Future of Reading. It summarizes the device’s attributes nicely, but the best part of the article is the account of Steve’s conversations with Jeff Bezos and others who are trying to build devices that emulate and extend the best features of the book. My favorite part was this one:
Bezos understands that for all of its attributes, if one aspect of the physical book is not adequately duplicated, the entire effort will be for naught. “The key feature of a book is that it disappears,” he says.
While those who take fetishlike pleasure in physical books may resist the notion, that vanishing act is what makes electronic reading devices into viable competitors to the printed page: a subsuming connection to the author that is really the basis of our book passion. “I’ve actually asked myself, ‘Why do I love these physical objects?’ ” says Bezos. ” ‘Why do I love the smell of glue and ink?’ The answer is that I associate that smell with all those worlds I have been transported to. What we love is the words and ideas.”
Long before there was cyberspace, books led us to a magical nether-zone. “Books are all the dreams we would most like to have, and like dreams they have the power to change consciousness,” wrote Victor Nell in a 1988 tome called “Lost in a Book.” Nell coined a name for that trancelike state that heavy readers enter when consuming books for pleasure—”ludic reading” (from the Latin ludo, meaning “I play”). Annie Proulx’s claim was that an electronic device would never create that hypnotic state. But technologists are disproving that.
I’m rooting for Jeff and the Kindle. I’m not sure that he’s going to win his bet that people will use a single-purpose device rather than reading on a multi-function device like the iPhone and its successors. But I’m also not sure he needs to. Even if some other device becomes the reader of choice, Amazon will still become one of the leading sources of the books that feed it. All Amazon needs to do here is move the industry forward, and I think that’s already been accomplished.