Last fall, midway through an interview with Oprah, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos claimed that his team had designed a device so much like a book that users would forget that they were reading with an expensive piece of electronics.
I didn’t believe him.
Then, late one night, I was reading on my ten-day-old Kindle while brushing my teeth. I was midway through a crucial point in a story when, just as Bezos had said, I got wrapped up in the world created on the screen. Without thinking, I sat my toothbrush on the counter and tried to turn a physical page — which didn’t exist.
I only paused for a moment to consider the significance of what had happened, but before I hit the next page button, I was a believer in this machine.
In 1631, John Winthrop the Younger crossed the Atlantic to make his home in the New World, and among his supplies on an overfull ship, he packed “a barrell of bookes.” That initial collection Winthrop couldn’t do without grew and flowered in Massachusetts, and when he died, his personal library consisted of more than 1,000 volumes. At the time, it was perhaps the greatest collection of knowledge on the American continent.
With the new Kindle 2 — unveiled this month — I can now carry a personal library of 1,500 books in my pocket, and that is fundamentally changing the nature of what, and how, I read.
Amazon offers more than 230,000 cheap, Kindle-ready books through its online store. Through the Internet at large, I have access to thousands of classics that I can download for free. What used to be a difficult calculation of what I wanted to read, balanced against the cost of a new book and the available shelf space in my apartment, has become a far more simple equation.
When I began to buy more books online (for reasons of economy and convenience), I gave up the experience of browsing and sampling that comes from visiting a library or a store. With the Kindle, that’s no longer the case. Now I download digital samples of every book that perks my interest, and keep them as long as I want for free.
For the first 20 years of my life as a reader, I focused on one book at a time, pushing myself to finish the last chapter before starting something new. With the Kindle, I’ll keep a novel going, even as I read a new biography, and if my mood changes, I’ve always got a selection of unread books waiting for my attention. It often takes me longer to finish an individual volume, but because I’m reading so many things in tandem, my overall pace remains consistent.
I still buy physical books, but I do so primarily as a collector, rather than as a reader. I’m now more comfortable spending $100 on a signed first edition of White Teeth knowing that it only cost me $10 to read this year’s Newbery Award winner. I find myself cherishing all the books that line the shelves in my apartment, because a small part of me knows each one I bring home might be my last.
Apple introduced the iPod on October 23, 2001, and its success has transformed the physical album into a relative artifact. The power of capacity, the freedom that comes with a nearly infinite choice of songs, has trumped every argument about the inherent superiority of a non-digital format.
Readers everywhere are about to face a choice about whether to opt for the same convenience when it comes to print. It’s a decision I’ve already made.