I bought my husband an eReader for Christmas. Being avid readers, we were both a bit skeptical: could it really be as gratifying as a book? As nice to curl up with? Will we still have the same feeling of disconnectedness when we're camping by a lake, far from our computers, our cell signals and our wired lives?
As it turns out, the eReader is performing pretty well. Computer screens show an image by shining light from behind the screen, but on eReaders the light bounces off the screen, which has several advantages: it's how an actual book works, you can read it in bright sunlight, you can leave a page open forever and the battery will never go dead, and it's much easier on the eyes.
It offers obvious space-saving advantages in our campervan, as well as money-saving advantages (in New Zealand, ebooks run at about 1/3 the cost of physical). So, all in all, a success. And we're clearly not alone in our assessment of this device category; on December 27, the Kindle overtook the final "Harry Potter" installment as Amazon's best-selling product ever.
But there is something missing. The purveyors of eReaders have forgotten an essential element: specifically, that books are social objects, that a successful replacement of a physical book will not only look and feel like a real book, but will allow you to lend it to your friends, to swap it out at an honesty library, or to donate it to your local community center.
Take my book club. Rather than have all the attendees read the same book and then discuss, we all just read whatever we feel like, then bring the books together, review what we've read, and share them around. Or take BookCrossing, a community of nearly one million readers who freely "catch and release" books in the wild, allowing the tomes to roam the world unhindered.
There is a social dynamic at play in these interactions that should be fostered, not silenced. BookCrossing's About Us page quotes Henry Miller: "A book is not only a friend, it makes friends for you. When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on you are enriched threefold."
Jeff Bezos, I hope you are listening, because I'm not suggesting that the Kindle can never replace books; I'm offering you an opportunity to take your current commanding lead of the eReader market and blow it out of the water, totally changing how the world interacts with the written word. Here's what you need to do:
We are born to share books, to show off our taste in literature and to cross-pollinate ideas with like-minded thinkers. Enable us to do so, Jeff Bezos, and you will rule the reading world.
Meanwhile, dear reader, if you're looking for a good book, here are two of my faves: in the intellectual betterment category, "Nudge," by Sunstein and Thaler; in the outstanding fiction category, "Set This House In Order," by Matt Ruff.
I'm looking forward to your comments here and on Twitter (@kcolbin), responding to this column as well as offering your own book recommendations!