Will Amazon's Kindle Click With Book Lovers?

Please forgive this indulgence.

I have rarely brought a personal bent to my writings on media because it's not about me; it's about the industry and change. However, the state of the written word in the digital age--when video games, Web chat and cyber surfing take precedence over writing and book reading--is all about our intellectual future. And it is very personal.

As a career writer, graduate student of English literature and a lover of the written word, I am fortunate to make my living doing what I love. There isn't a day I am not humbled by the power of words to enlighten and inspire. I have marveled at the positive results of nightly bedtime reading to my four children, now university honors students and successful professionals. The students I have taught to read beyond the textbook. The readers I have given pause for thought.

So it has been striking to ponder Amazon founding chairman Jeff Bezos' strategy behind the new electronic book reader, Kindle, the same week the National Endowment for the Arts reported an alarming decline in American reading levels and proficiency. The report contends that there is no firm correlation between the shocking decline in reading and the proliferation of digital media. But it does note that the 15- to-24-year-olds who voluntarily spend an average seven to 10 minutes reading daily are the same demographic joined at the hip to cell phones, laptops, video games and other mobile digital devices.



Digital technology has taken the masses further down a troublesome path. It is evident in the relatively low reading scores of many U.S. students; the deteriorating state of newspaper, magazine and book sales; and the quality of language on paper and the Web. The general population is lost without electronic spell and grammar check. Younger generations of schoolchildren don't know what a bound dictionary looks like. Or how to use it.

Digital technology also may help address some of these fundamental problems. Kindle joins an elitist category of electronic readers (from Sony and Apple) that should encourage book consumption, even with a $399 list price and $9.99 fee for each of a maximum 200 books that can be stored on Amazon's servers after being downloaded. Amazon may succeed where others have failed--especially facilitated by a high-speed wireless service from Sprint and a 30-hour charge that are baked into the prices. (So far, Amazon customer reviews for Kindle are barely hitting 3 out of 5.)

If Bezos is concerned about consumers' literate welfare, he might consider making Kindle available at no or low cost in some schools and neighborhoods where they might do the most good. It would constitute the brand of technoliteracy MIT's Nicholas Negroponte is taking to improving global affairs, with the underwritten distribution of the $100 self-powered laptop in underprivileged nations.

Those who follow the market say overall ebook sales (averaging $16 per title) are, at best, 20% of regular book sales. That is dismal, considering that Sony, Apple and a handful of tech-savvy companies have been playing in the space with what generally are considered much cooler digital reading devices. Publishers are distressed about having digitized their works with little return on their investment.

This year's overall retail book sales are slightly lagging 2006--perhaps because one out of every four adults in the U.S. have not read a book the past year, according to an Associates Press/Ipsos poll. The book industry's saving grace this year was the release of the seventh and final Harry Potter book, which spiked overall July book sales, making them the first time in a year to outpace the prior year's results. Even Bezos concedes the landscape is "littered with the bodies of dead ebook readers."

Clearly, Bezos is hoping Kindle will do for e-Books what Apple's iPod has done for digital music, which should top $1.3 billion this year on the way to $3.4 billion in 2012. In an interesting play off of each other's emerging new business models, Amazon earlier this year launched a DRM-free music service to compete with Apple's iTunes, fostering speculation that the companies are headed for a content collision.

It may be relevant that many newspapers and magazines are thriving in the transition to an online existence. With some magazines collapsing their physical publication, and reverting only to a digital product, is it acceptable to suggest that something is better than nothing?

Reading online lacks the commitment of time and attention that are required in pouring over a bound, beautifully illustrated book. It's the difference between zipping through emails and the lost art of formal letter writing. Such is the written legacy of future generations.

It's too soon to know whether the nascent digital age is the written word's salvation or surrender. With the focus online shifting to video, and the emphasis on any written contributions being short and simple, it is difficult to see how interactivity does much more than advocate quick interactive communications and amusement.

Some of that has been reflected in the blog and other online reactions to Kindle: It's clunky, ugly, and nonfunctional, with most written content not provided by the Amazon service. The ability to download and read leading newspapers and some 300 updated blogs for a monthly subscription price gives it a connected BlackBerry feel. The big question is whether Kindle or its e-book reader peers can entice the 60% of U.S. online users hooked on video to sit still long enough to read anything substantial.

Kindle's fundamental purpose is to sell more books on Amazon, although its USB port, six-inch screen and first-generation status mean there are more developments to come. That could be transforming Kindle into an electronic catalog that offers even bigger screen e-commerce and movie-viewing.

"Why are books the last bastion of analog?" Bezos asked during the New York unveiling of Kindle. Maybe the printed word on a dedicated page is the only reverent place in a world of digital buzz that demands a user's complete attention and physical commitment. The raised printed words on a textured page--on which we bare our souls, our dreams and our intellect--cannot be zapped away into cyperspace.

Anything that encourages reading is a good thing. But reading a book requires a different constitution and expectation than the quick-take read fostered by the Internet and digital platforms such as Kindle. Bezos says his goal is "to change the way people read." In fact, e-reading may turn out to be a generational concept that eventually would evolve into something nobler than a profit statement for one of the world's largest online retailers. True, Amazon has nurtured books in its digital bazaar. And, yes, there is a growing interface between authors, their books and the online blogs.

But there are many who cannot imagine themselves curling up with a 10-ounce, electronic ink-and-light-driven reading device of any kind that lacks the timeless touch and emotional bond civilized humans have to bound printed and illustrated paper. You can count me among them.

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