I’m doing my best not to become a Kindle bore. When I catch myself evangelizing to someone who couldn’t care less about the marvels of the 2.0 version of Amazon’s reading machine—I can take a whole library on vacation! Adjust the type size! Peruse the morning paper without getting out of bed!—I pause and remember my boyhood friend Scott H., who loved showing off the capabilities of his state of-the-art stereo but had only four records because he wasn’t really that into music.
So apologies in advance if I’m irksomely enthusiastic about my cool new literature delivery system. Like the early PCs, the Kindle 2 is a primitive tool. Like the Rocket e-book of 1999 (524 titles available!), it will surely draw chuckles a decade hence for its black-and-white display, its lack of built-in lighting, and the robotic intonation of the text-to-voice feature. But however the technology and marketplace evolve, Jeff Bezos has built a machine that marks a cultural revolution. The Kindle 2 signals that after a happy, 550-year union, reading and printing are getting separated. It tells us that printed books, the most important artifacts of human civilization, are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence.
Though the PC and the Internet taught us all to read on screens, they have not actually improved the experience of reading. I remember Bill Gates, in Slate’s Microsoft years, mentioning in an interview that he read our webzine printed out—a tribute that underscored an inherent flaw. For all their advantages in creating and distributing texts, screens have compromised, rather than enhanced, the feeling of being transported into a writer’s imaginative universe. You can’t curl up with a laptop. Until now, Gutenberg’s invention had yet to be surpassed as the best available technology for reading at length or for pleasure.
The Kindle is not better than a printed book in all situations. You wouldn’t want to read an art book, or a picture book to your children on one, or take one into the tub (please). But for the past few weeks, I’ve done most of my recreational reading on the Kindle—David Grann’s adventure yarn The Lost City of Z, Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, Slate, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, and the New York Times—and can honestly say I prefer it to inked paper. It provides a fundamentally better experience—and will surely produce a radically better one with coming iterations.
The notion that physical books are ending their lifecycle is upsetting to people who hold them to be synonymous with literature and terrifying to those who make their living within the existing structures of publishing. As an editor and a lover of books, I sympathize. But why should a civilization that reads electronically be any less literate than one that harvests trees to do so? And why should a transition away from the printed page lessen our appreciation and love for printed books? Hardbacks these days are disposable vessels, printed on ever crappier paper with bindings that skew and crack. In a world where we do most of our serious reading on screens, books may again thrive as expressions of craft and design. Their decline as useful objects may allow them to flourish as design objects.
As to the fate of book publishers, there’s less reason to be optimistic. Amazon, which is selling most new books at a loss to get everyone hooked on the Kindle, will eventually want to make money on them. The publishers will be squeezed at best and disintermediated at worst. Amazon is already publishing Stephen King. In the future, it could become the only publisher a best-selling author needs. In a world without the high fixed costs of printing and distribution, as the distance between writers and their audiences shrinks, what essential service will Random House and Simon & Schuster provide? If the answer is primarily cultural arbitration and editing, the publishing behemoths might dwindle while a much lighter weight model of publishing—clever kids working from coffee shops in Brooklyn—emerges.
What we should worry about is that the system supports the creation of literature, if grudgingly. There’s a risk that what replaces it won’t allow as many writers to make as good a living. But there’s also a chance it could allow more writers to make a better living. For newspaper journalism, the future looks bleak at the moment. As the economic model for daily reporting collapses, we’re losing the support structure for large-scale newsgathering. At the same time, the Internet has radically expanded the potential audience of every journalist while bringing a new freedom to experiment and innovate. When it comes to literature, I’m optimistic that electronic reading will bring more good than harm. New modes of communication will spur new forms while breathing life into old ones. Reading without paper might make literature more urgent and accessible than it was before the technological revolution, just like Gutenberg did.
A version of this article appears in this week’s issue of Newsweek.