E-books made their debut about a decade ago, with confident predictions that paper pages would soon be considered quaint. Imagine a device called a "reader," about the size of a Danielle Steele novel, which could hold up to 20 volumes. The text was downloaded from the publisher to a personal computer, and then to the reading device, where one could adjust the font size and glare to one's individual need or taste. The industry was abuzz: No less a luminary than Stephen King published an e-novel, to great fanfare. "In 10 years," I heard one e-publisher say, while hoisting a traditional volume, "what need will anyone have for this?"
Hubris has its cost, and e-publishing lost that round. And the next, and the next, as the future never did seem to arrive. Last year's Sony Reader debuted in time for Christmas (how many debuts did that make?) and failed to revolutionize the reading habits of America. Book lovers just love books-their feel, their smell, their appearance on the shelf in spiny rows-and most fell in love at an early age. How can a black plastic box replace those hours of sitting on a parent's lap, turning the pages of Goodnight Moon? Besides, the two-step download was awkward and screen-reading was hard on the eyes.
But that was before Amazon.com introduced its Kindle reader. Imagine a device smaller than a James Patterson paperback, with free wireless access, which can hold about 200 volumes directly downloadable from the Kindle store at less than half the cover price. Included are the New Oxford English Dictionary, electronic access to Wikipedia, and a keyboard for searching text and making notes in the margins. The screen glare is gone, replaced by "electronic paper" technology that's easy on the eyes. And Amazon.com-a bookseller, after all-boasts four times the number of titles that Sony did: about 90,000 so far, plus several top newspapers, magazines, and blogs.
Complaints from users are mostly related to design flaws, such as large buttons on the side that are too easy to push, making for accidental page turns. Still, the Kindle page at Amazon.com glows with warm reviews from authors and readers alike, and even book lovers are curling up with a Kindle now and then for the sake of convenience. Design errors can be easily corrected, and once they are, the perfect e-book technology may have finally arrived.
Ironically, though, the perfect time may have already passed. The real problem is that the number of readers-the organic kind, not the electronic-declines every year. According to a report released last November by the National Endowment for the Arts, fewer adults read for pleasure. And reading comprehension scores continue to fall among students, especially (and disturbingly) in high school.
Some academics at top universities have disputed that finding: What about all the time spent on the internet these days? Isn't much of it taken up with processing words, both reading and responding? Yes, but the quick skim, gut reaction, and rapid reply that forms most internet communication is not the same process as absorbing and chewing over the ideas in a book-or even the plot turns in a story.
Universal literacy is an accomplishment that only became possible with the invention of the printing press, and was only achieved within the last 200 years. Technology marches on, and the irreversible trend is toward the visual, not the verbal. The Kindle Reader looks cutting-edge, but it's still words on a page. It can't enhance or improve upon a skill that the consumer must bring to it-and fewer consumers are willing to develop that skill.
More critically for Amazon.com, indifferent readers aren't likely to shell out $400 for a device that doesn't even display animated color graphics. The high demand that usually lowers prices for laptops, iPods, and Blu-rays may not materialize this time-sad to think of Kindle on the shelf beside Milton and Montesquieu, a few years hence, placidly collecting dust.
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