In 2008, not too long after writing a column about the Kindle reading device for EW, my agent, Ralph Vicinanza, suggested I write something for Amazon. They were going to introduce a new version of the Kindle, he said, and asked if I might like to write an original story to be published exclusively in that format. I said I’d consider it, and did just that on several of my daily three-mile walks when I do my best thinking.
I decided I would like to write a story for the Kindle, but only if I could do one about the Kindle. Gadgets fascinate me, particularly if I can think of a way they might get weird. I had previously written about homicidal cars, sinister computers, and brain-destroying mobile phones; at the time the Amazon request came in, I’d been playing with an idea about a guy who starts getting e-mails from the dead. The story I wrote, ”Ur,” was about an e-reader that can access books and newspapers from alternate worlds. I realized I might get trashed in some of the literary blogs, where I would be accused of shilling for Jeff Bezos & Co., but that didn’t bother me much; in my career, I have been trashed by experts, and I’m still standing.
All of this happened before Barnes & Noble started selling the Nook reader and Steve Jobs — to considerable fanfare — introduced the iPad, surely one of modern consumerdom’s stupider geek-me-with-a-spoon names. (I would have called it the iDo, but Mr. Jobs didn’t ask me.) It was also before the inoffensive little e-book reader — a perfectly logical outgrowth of the Internet age — grew into something that now seems to threaten publishers, bookstores, and even the authors themselves. And before Amazon and Wal-Mart got into a seriocomic price war that sent the prices of last year’s best-sellers (on paper as well as in e-book versions) plummeting. At one point, you could buy the Kindle edition of Under the Dome for eight bucks, less than half the list price of the forthcoming paperback edition. What’s up with that?
Maybe instead of ”Ur,” I should have written a story called ”The Monster That Ate the Book Biz” — but would Amazon have wanted that one? Probably not.
I have no plans to get an iPad. I know it will do more things than my Kindle, but I don’t want more things. If I want other stuff — movies, TV shows, weather forecasts, the forthcoming Josh Ritter album — I have my Mac. When it comes to reading, the Kindle supplies everything I want, thanks. I can order the latest Michael Connelly out of thin air, carry it in my jacket pocket, and make the type as big as I want. After all that, should I insist it sing, dance, and give me GPS coordinates to the nearest Waffle House? Comrade Stevie says nyet.
But my e-reader will never completely replace my books. Footnotes are difficult to access on the Kindle (oh, there’s a way, but it’s counterintuitive). The black-and-white covers are blah. Worst of all, holograph materials are all but indecipherable. I read a Minette Walters mystery recently on my Kindle. Several handwritten letters were an integral part of the plot, and I hadn’t the slightest idea of what they said, even when I held the damn screen an inch from my nose. Of course, a color Kindle is rumored to be in the works, the iPad will feature color from the jump, and I’m sure I could have read those incriminating letters on the new and larger Kindle DX.
The real problem with e-readers, and what may save the embattled publishing industry, is simple consumer resistance. There are lots of advantages to the electronic devices — portability, instant buyer gratification, nice big type for aging eyes like mine — but there’s a troubling lightness to the content as well. A not-thereness. Even formidable works like Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver feel somehow not quite real when read on a screen. I bought a Kindle for everyone in my immediate family, but I’m the only one who uses it regularly. Oh, and something else: If you happen to drop a book into the toilet, you can dry it out. Drop your Kindle into the toilet and maybe it’ll still work.
The title of an Anthony Powell novel may best express my own uneasy mixture of feelings about Amazon’s reader and its Johnny-come-lately competitors. The novel is titled Books Do Furnish a Room. That particular book is not, so far as I can tell, available in a Kindle edition.