I’m not going to say much about Kindle — as an iPhone owner, I find both the device and the service colossally dumb.

But the breathless excitement over the supposed “death of the book” is even more preposterous than Amazon’s little white elephant, especially to book lovers like my wife and me. For us, books, periodicals, and printed matter of all sorts comprise, quite literally, the very structure of both our intellectual and physical worlds. Books surround us. Our loft is subdivided into rooms using bookshelves. Every surface has a stack of hardbacks, paperbacks, and magazines on it. We both grew up surrounded by the printed word — looking at them, feeling them, smelling them — and we intend for our family to continue in that tradition.

Books are the building blocks of libraries, and our libraries reflect who we are. John Gruber’s critique of Kindle as a profound rip-off for true book lovers is spot on:

So the Kindle proposition is this: You pay for downloadable books that can’t be printed, can’t be shared, and can’t be displayed on any device other than Amazon’s own $400 reader — and whether they’re readable at all in the future is solely at Amazon’s discretion. That’s no way to build a library.

Here’s a far better idea, one that book lovers who also happen to be technophiles would love: Bundle print and digital copies of books together for the same price, perhaps as a very small cost increase (say 5%) to the basic print price. You can think of it as a free digital backup copy, or as a digital reference edition. Other advantages include:

  • Scholars, journalists, and reviewers can use the digital copy for searches, citations, quotations, and literary analysis.
  • References to external sources can be clickable URLs.
  • Since so many digital book owners print them out, the bundling will inevitably save a few trees.
  • Having a digital copy precludes the need to print an index in the physical book. There’s no need to even construct one in the first place — let users simply search it digitally.
  • While I still think DRM is evil, it wouldn’t be quite so onerous as long as a physical copy was in my permanent posession.

John Gruber includes this fabulous Emerson quote in his review:

If you would know how a man treats his wife and his children, see how he treats his books.

Many of the core lifestyle and business ideas behind Kindle are, frankly, an affront to what I love about books. What is most surprising is seeing Amazon — of all companies! — treating book lovers in this way. This is not innovative thinking at all.


20 responses to “Kindle Review in the Form of a Photo Collage”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree. A home without stacks and shelves of books seems naked to me, as if it were missing some essential ingredient of homeyness. I can do without stacks of CDs or DVDs, but replacing the book with something largely intangible is entirely different.

  2. A copy of The Elements of Typographic Style on the desk and a Riverside Shakespeare within reach. My kind of people.

  3. I just don’t see book lovers, who I assume the intended audience is, spending $400 on a device to let them then buy books when they could just, say, buy $400 worth of books.

    It’s a solution in search of a problem.

  4. @Brendan Cullen: Good point, and I agree. The Kindle doesn’t even come close to “paying for itself” until you read 20+ books (assuming you save about $20 per book compared to buying the printed edition, you’d have to buy 20 books before you save $400). Few people read 20+ books per year, and in one year this thing will be obsolete.

    As for the “solution in search of a problem” part, well, I don’t have a problem with that, per se. That impetus, in addition to real necessity, is often the mother of invention. The other mother of invention, if you will. The problem is the ambition crosses over into hubris — Kindle claims to be a solution, but, at least for now, it’s really more of a toy.

    The Kindle device is, I suspect, being purchased by gadget geeks who buy everything anyway, people who have enough expendable income to test drive everything under the sun. Probably a high number of them are gadget bloggers and journalists or reviewers. You could release a $400 handheld digital plumb bob to tell you which way is up and the same people would snap that up, too (there’s a lot of overlap, I’m afraid, with OLPC buyers). It’s the “floor” of the gadget business, a minimum guaranteed sales. But are they book lovers, readers — i.e., the people who will form the mass audience for ebooks in the future? I don’t see it.

    I see the Kindle as a public beta kind of product, actually, one whose biggest benefit to Amazon is to educate the company about the potential future market’s buying and usage habits (I saw someone a few weeks ago on the subway using Sony’s ebook reader, and I assumed it was a prototype). This is why it’s so weird that Amazon released it with such fanfare — I would have been a little more subtle about it, I think, and kept the price a hell of a lot lower (like $50), or even released it for free to buyers of large numbers of books from Amazon.

    Getting real readers and book lovers to even try something like this is going to take some hard core social engineering and outreach, and $400 is, as you suggest, a huge barrier to that.

  5. I respect your desire to hold on to those stacks of books, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. My personal usage of books is largely as an entertainment medium, not all that different from watching TV and Movies. Music is a little different because it’s mostly used as background noise that I enjoy at a subconscious level. I have to say that just because bound and printed material is a tradition that gives you comfort, doesn’t mean it’s healthy to slip into near hording behavior. When you have to move, how much energy do you expend moving what amounts to heavy dense room dividers? What percentage of books that you own do you reread? For me, reference books that I get the most use out of, should be where I do my work, on the computer. My entertainment is perfectly enjoyable in a transient stored digital format for movies, tv, and music. Why can’t books be used the same way?

    I don’t believe the Kindle is the ultimate answer to the digitization of reading, but it’s a sign of things to come.

    Ultimately what I’m trying to say is that eventually the things you own, end up owning you. I try not to grow so attached to physical stuff like piles of books.

  6. @Tim: What if I told you I owned zero books but I had a couple of huge heavy room dividers, or a single cast-iron sculpture? Would that make a difference?

    Other people own lots of furniture, spare cars, potted plants, aquariums with exotic fish, unused appliances and exercise equipment, paintings and sculptures, guest rooms full of unused bedding, lawn and garden equipment, sporting goods, “good” china and silverware, party clothes, and all manner of stuff that we own but rarely if ever actually use. Some of them are white elephants that hang around our necks like weights, others are treasured items, heirlooms full of meaning and personal value. It’s the latter category that I think gives a home warmth and vitality.

    We do open many of our books all the time, but you’re right that most of them just sit there gathering dust and taking up space. But our thousand pounds of books-we-will-never-read is no more of a burden on us than any thousand pounds of stuff owned by anyone else — in fact, they are very special to us.

    What’s more, a great many of these books were owned by our parents. They inherited them or bought them, read most of them, and then lugged them around for years without ever re-opening them. But guess what? When we got old enough, my wife and I cracked them open and learned things. And we took the books as our own. I have dreams to continue this tradition.

    Books are a special kind of stuff, but even “dumb” stuff like plants or sculptures have a purpose for making life better. Some people like to live with a small amount of stuff in their vicinity, some people like to look around and see things that please them. Aesthetically, I’ve found that homes without stuff often feel empty and soulless. They feel like, and often are, seen by their owners as a temporary place to hang one’s hat between work hours or trips abroad, not as a stable home to live a life in.

    I don’t think it’s a matter of “right” and “wrong” to simply own stuff that you don’t frequently use, unless you’re a hardcore socialist or an ascetic monk. You seem to try to frame it in this way, but my guess is that you’re simply not a book lover, and maybe a bit of an ascetic or a nomad. Which is totally cool, and probably works well for you, but please don’t judge me harshly for my own taste in home decor.

  7. It’s funny, the price tag didn’t bother me that much, but everyone seems to think that’s *way* to expensive. You’d think they would have nailed that with their market research. Which leads me to my next point: what a strange name. What does it mean?

    I had high hope for this. I’m looking for a good book reader for my mother who loves to read, but, day by day, requires larger and larger print. Large print books are in very short supply and something like this that could enlarge the type would be a godsend (as it will for our generation once we’ve worn out our eyes staring at computer monitors day in and day out).

  8. @Christopher
    Generally, you’re right that this is mainly a difference in lifestyle choices, and I like to think I fall into the ascetic/pragmatic category. I have plenty of debris following me around and cluttering up my living space, but I like to sweep it all out regularly, and believe I have no special attachment to most of my “stuff”. I’m sorry if my criticism came off too strongly.

    More relevant to this discussion is the fact that I am not a *book* lover as much as I am a *reading* lover. I think the Kindle is a device targeted primarily at people who love to read, and not people that love their books. I keep thinking of the public library where I devoured books as a child, I never owned very many books until I graduated from college and started buying them for the convenience. If I only can access the books that I read on the kindle for a limited time, I’m OK with that. My children and friends can get the same books I read just as easily if the promise of ebooks that can never go “out of print” is finally realized.

  9. @Tim: Yeah, I didn’t mean to suggest that book lovers and reading lovers were the same thing, either. Lots of folks read voraciously but never own many books — this is why they invented lending libraries! Also, a great number of my books are books full of pictures and images — hardly anything to read at all!

    It would be interesting to know how many reading lovers are not also bibliophiles — that is, how many people like to read but not possess books. I suppose we shall find out soon enough. My Kindle critique is largely focused on those who love both reading and books (although I also think the physical design and business models seem very 1998 to me).

  10. I *don’t* think book lovers are the intended audience for the Kindle.

    People who talk about the comfort and tactility of paper seem to be in a similar space to people who talk about the warmth and richness of vinyl — some people don’t share that fetish, they just love to read. They consume the medium, without feeling the need to curate it as well.

    I have no idea why people are even hinting at the death of the book. Hell, we can’t even kill vinyl records and that’s 4000-odd years a younger technology to paper.

    The bundling idea is great, but I don’t see this happening any time soon unless the thing starts to tank. It doesn’t make sense to the sellers, whose sole hope for DRM e-books is that is spawns double sales of their publishings (Want a paper *and* electronic copy? That’ll be two copies’ worth, please.). I’m sure book lovers who are also technophiles are an extreme minority of the market. 😉

  11. perhaps if Amazon were to make the form factor of the Kindle in the shape of a 2 page fold as opposed to the current tablet, would it then strike your fancy ? or perhaps a circular jog dial for navigation ?

    the only problem with the Kindle is the same one as the iPhone … a single content provider

  12. @Erhan Hosca: How is the iPhone a single content provider?

    @Noah Mittman: I suspect that book lovers are not the target audience, but I contend that such an objective — to create a device and service that even a book lover would love — would be a more innovative and ultimately successful approach to designing a viable ebook platform.

    Erhan’s (presumably facetious) suggestion to make ebooks look more like books focuse on the superficial user experience of reading a paper book. When thinking about what an ebook reading experience should be like, I keep coming back to the iPhone’s tactile page-turning experience — flipping pages by flicking your fingers — and it’s lack of extraneous UI buttons and affordances. The iPhone is more like a real book because it more closely approximates a real book’s essential experience of being a simple and tactile experience. Kindle falls short in these experiential ways (of course, I’ve not used one).

    As an ebook reading experience device, I only see two advantages to Kindle over the iPhone (or any Windows CE phone for that matter), and they both only have to do with the technology of the screen itself: First, the Kindle’s got a bigger screen. That’s nice. Second, the screen uses e-ink, which (I am told) has spiffy resolution and the images do not disappear when you power the device down. Other than those two advantages, Kindle’s got nothing on the iPhone, and in fact falls short in hundreds of other ways. Apple could easily release a new iPhone (or even an iPod Touch) using a larger, e-ink-based screen and make the Kindle look like a first generation Palm Pilot.

  13. I think I need to amend my first comment, saying the Kindle targets “book lovers” is like saying the iPod targets “Vinyl Enthusiasts.” What I meant was more along the lines of “reading lovers.”

    Also, I think it’s more of a *wrong* solution in search of a problem. I’m not against an e-book reader at all.

    I love to read, and while I do also love books at least 70% of my daily reading is done on a screen.

    Ignoring the design and DRM (could go on for ever on these), I agree 100% that the price is just way too high for it to seriously take off. Maybe if it came bundled with some a collection of books or some other “value-add,” it would entice me a bit more.

    So far the best argument I’ve heard for the Kindle is as a reference tool. Like probably every one else I have way more reference books than desk space, and having them all in one searchable device would be downright awesome.

    But, through my employer I also have access to the O’Reilly online bookshelf Safari.

    I can download the chapters I need, as a PDF, copy & paste code samples, print them out, write all over them, highlight the important stuff, pass them around to my coworkers for their opinions, etc.

    If you could combine that idea with the Kindle, that’s where I think the e-book market would take off.

  14. @Chris, Oh absolutely. In many ways, I see this as a repeat of the UMPC vs. iPhone experiences. The technology is *not* good enough to replace books, but they feel compelled to release it, sell it as such, and try to make it do things it’s not quite ready for. The better approach is optimizing and focusing on what the technology can do best today, crafting a simpler-but-complete experience, and creating a platform that — one day in the future — might replace books.

    @Brendan, Yep, that’s what I see the Kindle for. Chip Kidd put it perfectly the other day —

    “The reason the iPod took off is that music was never meant to be a ‘thing’ in the first place. It was born as pure sound, and pure sound is what it has returned to.”

    The power of the Kindle, or any e-book reader IMHO, is to make tangible the information out there that is only virtual and online. If the Kindle had been optimized to be the perfect offline web page browser instead, then we’d have a *real* publishing revolution going on. (And then it would be for newspaper & magazine, not book, publishers.)

  15. I have three needs from books (not from all, but most, and kindle is about quantity): to stick them in my back jean pocket, to take while traveling and to read them in the bath. Kindle could but doesn’t meet any. So I’d rather just read on my palm for awhile longer when I don’t have access to stuff (and yes, I can’t read my palm in the bath either, and it is dangerously expensive to lose while traveling, but it’s not a dedicated reading device, so I’ll forgive a couple more faults for now in exchange for making phone calls on it). The kindle’s too thick, too delicate(looking) too buttony and of course, too expensive. Oh, and too single purpose. Like I need another thing to stick in my purse right now along with the camera, phone, ipod, print out of something I should be reading, notebook, pens, diapers, wipes, change of t-shirt, emergency toys… .

    When it does meet the needs I actually have– giving me a great selection of books (and magazines, websites and newspapers) when I don’t have access to my wall of books and other containers, in a sturdy, small and lightweight form, then it’s interesting. Of course, the next iphone might be the better choice, despite the ongoing bath problem (that is why I subscribe to the new yorker: long steamy baths.)

    As for the name, I assume they wanted it to evoke “kindling your imagination” but mostly it reminds me of “kindling” and thus evoking book burning– not the way to get to lovers of reading and books.

    If I could make a wish, it’d be that every book came with a unique serial number that gave me access to a digitized version. I’m always wanting to quote passages, refer to parts, looking things up in books — especially cookbooks. But I’m sure there is too much fear around pirating to let that ever happen.

  16. @christina

    The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a unique ID that is assigned by agencies in each country that produces books. So your wish just came true – there is a unique ‘serial number’ for each book. Only problem is that each format of the book is considered a unique artifact so the electronic version would have a different ISBN than the original Hardcover or Paperback version of the book. Collating these works and/or dealing with the rights to whom they belong is a whole separate issue, so obtaining and distributing the electronic version of a book with a paper version isn’t as simple as we would hope as consumers of written works.

    Fantastic library. Are you public or private? 😉

    Peeling the onion,

  17. Eric Gauvin Avatar
    Eric Gauvin

    I was just looking at your bookshelves and wondering about the appeal that books have.

    I recently heard a podcast from Open Source ( about a passion for libraries, and they talked about the wonderful experience of browsing and serendipity. In listening to that, I was reminded of another popular kind of “browsing,” and would question and compare the act of browsing on the internet with browsing in the physical world. I spend quite a bit of time in our modest public library and there’s a joy I get from poking around here and there (browsing) that I don’t get from the internet. Of course I love the internet for many reasons too, but I wonder what it is about a pile of books that seems so enthralling.

    Is it the same with an iPod and milk crates full of vinyl?

  18. @Jackie and christina: Using the ISBN to access a digital version seems the right way to do it, although I imagine “unique” numbering would need to go all the way to each *copy* of the book. Perhaps some enterprising pirate will create a site where if you enter a ISBN and promise you own the book, it will let you browse it online.

    And I do lend books, but not always happily.

    @Eric Gauvin: We all browse incessantly on our computers. They call it “surfing”, and while I hate the word surfing for most web usage, it does describe the idle wandering around that characterizes much of web use. I think browsing in stacks of books or crates of vinyl encompasses far more than just checking out the words and products — it is browsing the physical objects, which involves sensual (visual, tactile) pleasures, even smells. It also conjures up nostalgia, I think. And it uses the body in a more holistic way than clicking a mouse does, which is a unique and for most people an inherently pleasant thing to do.

  19. I hate you and you stupid dumb booooooooooooooooooooookkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss