Friday, May 8, 2009

Amazon's Kindle: A Scholarly Mash-Up

This is the first in a series of posts concerning the Amazon Kindle, presented as a mash-up of various news sources compiled from the web. While links will be presented to demonstrate where content has been culled from, and thus cited, quotation marks will seldom be used.

A friend is in the process of moving to a new apartment, which means we just finished boxing up and shipping his entire book collection. This was a lot of boxes. I'm the kind of person who likes to travel light, so it's at moments like this that I really see the value in the so-called e-book revolution that's apparently heading o
ur way. If the e-book revolution means I can enjoy these same objet's d'art in a virtual form about 600 pounds lighter, I'm for that.’s Kindle is a software and hardware platform for reading electronic books. Three hardware devices, known as ‘Kindle,’ ‘Kindle 2,’ and newly announced ‘Kindle D
X,’ support this platform, as does an Apple’s iPhone application called ‘Kindle for iPhone.’ The first device was released in the United States in November of 2007. While Amazon has declined to release sales figures, estimates are that the company sold 500,000 of the devices last year.

Amazon's early data suggest that Kindle users buy significantly more books than they did before owning the device, and it's not hard to understand why: the bookstore is now following you around wherever you go. A friend mentions a book in passing, and instead of jotting down a reminder to pick it up next time you're at Barnes & Noble, you take out the Kindle and -- voilĂ ! -- you own it.

An impulsive purchase of a novel or nonfiction book has another element to it, though -- one that may not be as welcomed by authors. Specifically: if I was in the middle of another book, in a matter of seconds, I can leave it for one of its competitors. The jump could be triggered by something in the book I was originally reading: a direct quote or reference to another work, or some more indirect suggestion in the text.

In other words, an infinite bookstore at your fingertips is great news for book sales, and may be great news for the dissemination of knowledge, but not necessarily so great for that most finite of 21st-century resources: attention.

Because they have been largely walled off from the world of hypertext, print books have remained a kind of game preserve for the endangered species of linear, deep-focus reading. Online, you can click happily from blog post to email thread to an online magazine like Slate -- sampling, commenting and forwarding as you go. But when you sit down with an old-fashioned book in your hand, the medium works naturally against such distractions; it compels you to follow the thread, to stay engaged with a single narrative or argument. This is perhaps one reason that it doesn’t seem too many people are reading the long form journalism on sites run by The New Republic or Harper's, for example.

The Kindle in its current incarnation maintains some of that emphasis on linear focus; it has no dedicated client for email or texting, and its Web browser is buried in a subfolder for "experimental" projects. But Amazon has already released a version of the Kindle software for reading its e-books on an iPhone, which is much more conducive to all manner of distraction. No doubt future iterations of the Kindle and other e-book readers will make it just as easy to jump online to check your 401(k) performance as it is now to buy a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

As a result, many fear that one of the great joys of book reading -- the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author's ideas -- will be compromised. We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there.

Further posts will focus on the evolution of books when the primary form of reading is via an electronic reader, the dissemination of magazines and newspapers, the future of the device and possible competitors, as well as a new trend to try and sell college textbooks on Kindles this fall. Please let me know what you think.

This project was originally conceived as a long form essay that would mash-up over a dozen sources with minimal editing into one sustained argument. Halfway through the effort, I realized the irony of discussing a device that could be complicated by the short attention span of today’s users in a very long essay that would be disseminated over the web. I then chose to cut a thousand words and translate the overall argument into several smaller and easier to state pieces that could be comfortably submitted on my blog, a forum where readers are already familiar with my style of writing and where I am confident in my ability to communicate.

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