Can the Kindle sway a book geek? -- A look at whether Amazon's gadget is a worthy replacement for the morning paper

Can the Kindle sway a book geek?

Looking forward to a two-month stretch of several long business trips and a vacation, I decided to sacrifice myself for the good of our new tech section and tackle a ridiculous challenge: Could I live for that whole time with just a Kindle, Amazon’s electronic-book reader? No books, newspapers, or magazines (save EW, of course!)? The answer seemed obvious: No. I’m a book geek, I’ve read The New York Times every morning since I was 12, and I make my bones editing a magazine.

Two months later, I have to admit that the Kindle is a pleasure, the best tech gadget I’ve laid my hands on since the iPod. It’s so good that I’ve found myself humming a dismal version of an R.E.M. tune: It’s the end of all print as we know it, and I feel fine. Actually, I wouldn’t take things that far. But any device that forces you to start thinking about what a world without books, magazines, and newspapers would actually look like — What will we put on the shelves? Will the magazine racks of the world become (oh, God) kindling? Will my daughter Tal scooter to school down Manhattan streets emptied of newsstands? — must be pretty damn good.

The Kindle is still rare enough that it begs looks and questions in a New York City subway car. So for the uninitiated, let me quickly explain: The Kindle is a white plastic device, measuring 7.5” x 5.3” x 0.7”, with a large e-paper screen and a pretty useless keyboard, simple ”next” and ”previous page” buttons, and a scroll wheel for navigation. You can download books, magazines, newspapers, and blogs through Amazon’s wireless network. The Kindle lets you adjust text size, take notes, click on links within blogs, connect to the Internet, and find definitions via the New Oxford American Dictionary.

That’s the catalog blurb, more or less. The real definition is this: Reading on a Kindle is just as good as reading a physical book — but with extra benefits.

I began my two months with a test I knew the Kindle would fail: Could I possibly fall as deep into a great book on the Kindle as I can with a regular book? To find out, I ordered titles from two of my favorite authors, Richard Price (Lush Life) and Andre Dubus III (The Garden of Last Days). While the Kindle’s light weight was initially disconcerting, I soon found myself clicking through the novels just as automatically as I once turned pages. On a laptop, the quality of the text and the glare of the screen distract from longer reads. The words on the Kindle, however, somehow have the textured feel of a new hardcover.

That said, the Kindle can’t replace books just yet. The Kindle store, your primary source for downloads, is no better stocked with fiction than an average airport bookstore. The prices are good, and you can occasionally nab a cheap, surprising find (the complete poems of John Keats for $3.19!). But there’s no guarantee you’ll find your favorite best-sellers — and good luck trying to find older titles: I found just 19 of the 50 volumes on EW’s list of the top books published since 1983.

The biggest surprise I encountered was in reading some of the newspapers and magazines you can subscribe to (sadly, not EW yet). I now enjoy the Kindle edition of the Times more than the real thing. Yes, I miss the photographs, but honestly (sorry, photo editors!), I don’t miss them that much. Since you navigate by clicking through article headlines and blurbs, reading the Times, Newsweek, or Fortune is like reading a blog, only without the headache of a computer screen. I find myself reading more full-length articles, both mainstream features and off-point surprises, than I ever did with the print versions — the experience is totally different; instead of scanning a newspaper spread or busy magazine pages, your eye is focused only on the list of articles, making it easier to find stories you’re interested in. And finally, the prices are great: My brother-in-law Mark, who lives in Massachusetts, glommed onto my Kindle during vacation, and loved it so much that he figured out the following ploy (in order to convince his wife that he should buy it): He saw the Kindle for $395, found a promotion that cut $100 off the price, then got a Kindle subscription to The New York Times ($168/year) and dumped their home subscription ($697/year). Satiating tech lust has never been so cost-effective!

Actually, thinking of the Kindle as a tech device is all wrong — for one thing, it’s terrible with blogs, since it does a poor, slow job of linking to the Internet from them. The Kindle is really just the next step in reading. For now, it’s a great way to travel with books and newspapers and magazines, and the best example yet of how the worlds of deep reading and digital innovation have begun to happily collide. The next logical step is already under way: Amazon is rumored to be working with many colleges across the country to test a college edition of the Kindle. In this future, when Tal scooters to school, she won’t be swerving around under the weight of a heavy sackful of books on her back. A