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Kindle and the Form of the Book

The blogosphere is all het up with talk of Kindle, Amazon’s new e-reader, and most of what I’m reading, in the design and tech blogs, is not positive.

What I find most interesting is all the hype around Kindle, as if e-readers are new. Like, does it really warrant the cover on Newsweek? (And, hey, look familiar?)

I’ve been working near “e-books” for nearly 15 years. In 1994, when I joined the Voyager Company, they had “Expanded Books,” a line of electronic books on floppy disks. They were remarkably well suited to reading on the initial Mac laptops, particularly the PowerBook 100. We had stories of people curling up to their laptops in bed. The Expanded Books also included much of what makes “e”-reading worthwhile — searchable text, bookmarks, annotations, etc.

In the early days of this blog, I wrote a lot about the form of the book. On September 14, 1999, I wrote a long-ish passage on what makes a book a book (before I had permalinks). An excerpt:

Just what makes a book a book? It’s not its form–magazines and other periodicals often match a book’s physical properties, but would never be labelled “book.” And electronic books, which have no physical form beyond the device through which they’re viewed, still qualify as books.

Is it the content? To some extent. Unlike a magazine, a book’s content has an aura of permanence and timelessness, and delves into more involved thoughts.

Still, though, the form is important, and electronic books highlight this. I could take the exact same content, and present it either in a form like a Voyager Expanded Book, or in a single long scrolling Web page. The latter would not be called a book. The notion of page-turning is essential to the category of book, again, even if that page-turning is only being done metaphorically on a computer screen.

So, a book, at it’s core, is an object containing content of permanence presented in a page-turning medium.

And there’s this passage from John Updike’s review of the book The Book on the Bookshelf:

Our notion of a book is of a physical object, precious even if no longer hand-copied on sheepskin by carrel-bound monks, which we can hold, enter at random, shelve for future references and enjoy as a palpable piece of our environment, a material souvenir of the immaterial experience it gave us. That books endure suggests that we endure…

Materiality is central to our relationship with books. And I think this gives a clue as to why Kindle (nor any e-book reader) will never resonate the way iPod has. We’ve been able to move from analog to digital to and from atoms to bits with music because music is ephemeral, and because we don’t lust over the plastic discs (we might lust over their covers/jackets, but that’s a different manner). Whereas people *lust* over their books, smell, hug, annotate, manipulate, and that’s key to the “book experience.”

What I find my dispiriting about the discussion around Kindle is the focus on books. The Newsweek articles spends the bulk of it’s time talking about what it means to read books on a screen, though it mentions

“The Kindle is not just for books. Via the Amazon store, you can subscribe to newspapers (the Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Le Monde) and magazines (The Atlantic). When issues go to press, the virtual publications are automatically beamed into your Kindle. (It’s much closer to a virtual newsboy tossing the publication on your doorstep than accessing the contents a piece at a time on the Web.) You can also subscribe to selected blogs, which cost either 99 cents or $1.99 a month per blog.”

I find the promise of that far more intriguing. For many, if most people, books require some degree of permanence. Newspapers, magazines, and blogs do not. If you think of the world of documents, books comprise a very tiny portion of that, but such readers could really change our relationship with those documents.

I’m also excited about the opportunities that such readers have for hypertext (no e-book reader matches the hypertext capabilities of the original Voyager Expanded Books), and comics (easily portable infinite canvas!).

  1. Peter, I think you’re spot on with regard to newspapers and magazines. To me that’s the real interesting innovation here.

    I love reading the paper, but I hate getting the paper. What an enormous waste of resources to get yesterday’s news. With the Kindle I wake up in the morning and the pixels are waiting for me.

    This morning was my first morning with the Kindle. I read more of the NYT and WSJ than I have in years.

  2. The difference between the Newsweek covers is that in 2004 ipod was already the biggest consumer electronics thing since dvds. And if Jobs has hairy knuckles like Bezos, they photoshopped them out.

  3. I wanted to try to disagree, but I went through your whole post and couldn’t find anything that could be called a falsifiable statement. “Kindle will never resonate the way iPod has” is not one.

    Neither of us was around during the heyday of vinyl, but I imagine that’s how far back you have to go if you want to draw a comparison with music. I’m under the impression that people lusted over the records in their record collection, and the idea of ephemerally storing their music in cyberspace was just as distant as our notions of storing books there.

    I’d make you a bet that within our natural lifetime, we undergo whatever conversion upon which you’re calling bullshit — but I can’t find a way to quantify it.

    So I’m wondering if you can make a falsifiable statement. For example, are you saying that in every given future generation, more people will collect prose (permanent content involving page-turning?) in current book format than will collect it in some renewable generic-viewer format? I’d so take that bet.

  4. I haven’t commented upon Kindle so far because when I first glimpsed its mention on Amazon my eyes immediately darted elsewhere. Nothing against the process, per se, just something obviously not for me.

    Trav is right about one thing, I am one of those people who still lust over vinyl — the sound of vinyl, that is. Old records are not things to touch and fondle, they are to be handle carefully and listened to only. As any audophile can tell you today, digital sound quality and sensory experience does not match that of 33 and 1/3 rpms. My older 78s don’t sound quite so good any more, but I admit that I do lust even more for their rare and beautiful musical arrangements.

    I definitely recommend you not take Trav up on his bet. As the qualities and sensibilites of life continue to deteriorate (if you haven’t noticed that yet, it’s only a matter of time – that I will make book on), the increasingly digitalized and desensitized consumers of the future will still be happy, as well they should since they can only be what they are, with whatever remarkable new device they are handed. Despite whatever the loss of qualities and values they never know anyway.

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  • adaptive path » blog » Peter Merholz » Fire up the Kindle! July 17, 2008

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