The New York Times took lots of column inches several weeks ago to note that there's been a decline in test scores among students and that it's been linked to a drop in the amount of time young people spend reading. No real news there. But what was fascinating about the announcement was that, at the moment it was being made, that week's copy of Newsweek (Nov. 26) appeared featuring Amazon founder Jeff Bezos on the cover with a headline announcing that "Books Aren't Dead. (They're Just Going Digital.)"
Not only that. The subhead said that, "five centuries after Gutenberg," Bezos was betting "that the future of reading" was going to be "just a click away." Is anybody out there listening to one another?
Books, no doubt, have been very, very good to Jeff Bezos. Once he created the "better bookstore" that's now Amazon, he was rewarded with billionaire status, Newsweek reporter Steven Levy wrote. But this pioneering entrepreneur also understands that, despite his deep and abiding love of books, "the surge of technology will engulf all media."
"Books are the last bastion of analog," Bezos told Levy. "Music and video have been digital for a long time, and short-form reading has been digitized, beginning with the early Web. But long-form reading really hasn't."
Bezos is hoping that will all change, and soon. The Newsweek story heralded the appearance of his next big idea, the Amazon Kindle, "an electronic device that he hopes will leapfrog over previous attempts at e-readers and become the turning point in a transformation toward Book 2.0. That's shorthand for a revolution (already in progress) that will change the way readers read, writers write and publishers publish. The Kindle represents a milestone in a time of transition, when a challenged publishing industry is competing with television, Guitar Hero and time burned on the BlackBerry; literary critics are bemoaning a possible demise of print culture; and Norman Mailer's recent death underlined the dearth of novelists who cast giant shadows. On the other hand, there are vibrant pockets of book-lovers on the Internet who are waiting for a chance to refurbish the dusty halls of literacy."
Bezos told Levy just what his reading device would do: To be a success, he surmised, it had to be more booklike and less like a gizmo. "Therefore the Kindle (named to evoke the crackling ignition of knowledge) has the dimensions of a paperback ... . It weighs but 10.3 ounces, and unlike a laptop computer does not run or make intrusive beeps. A readingdevice must be sharp and durable, Bezos says, and with the use of E Link, a breakthrough technology of several years ago that mimes the clarity of a printed book, the Kindle's six-inch screen posts readable pages. The battery has to last for a while, he adds, since there's nothing sadder than a book you can't read because of electile dysfunction."
Next week, some of the reviews that greeted the Kindle, including Levy's critique.