Yesterday morning, the Kindle sounded like a pretty appealing proposition to me. I was between books, and before heading out the door, I was choosing between a pair of novels. The prospect of lugging around Denis Johnson’s 600-plus-page meditation on the Vietnam War, Tree of Smoke, was pretty unappealing, though. So, strictly on the merit of weight, I went with the slimmer—and, I have to presume, funnier—The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy’s comic 1958 novel about an American ingénue in Paris. Amazon’s new e-book doohickey would’ve rendered such decisions unnecessary—I could’ve had both, and dozens more, in a nifty 10.2-ounce device.
Of course, the thing is riddled with problems—Valleywag has a nice chart detailing the benefits of the old-fashioned paper book, and Fake Steve Jobs gets off a good joke here that points to the inherent clunkiness of the Kindle system. Both pretty successfully deflate Steven Levy’s boosterism of the Kindle in Newsweek—the device traps you into a proprietary system, doesn’t have much in the way of selection, and suggests that you start paying for blogs. At its worst, Levy’s article unthinkingly embraces Amazon’s corporate line. “You can also get classics for a song,” he writes. “I downloaded Bleak House for $1.99.” Uh, you can get it for free.
A big problem with the Kindle, for me, is that you can’t write in the thing, at least not without using what appears to be a clunky note-making system. At least half the books I read are review copies—publishers, will you be making ARCs available via Kindle?—and I tend to read with a pen or pencil in hand, ready to scribble notes (much like this guy does, though he does it a whole lot more intelligently). My biggest concern is technological, though. I suspect that in time Amazon will use its wireless delivery system to push advertising to me while I’m reading, much like Word’s annoying paper clip. (“I see you’re reading Marley & Me. Would you like to learn about Amazon’s deals on pet-care books and handkerchiefs?”) Access to books in the future is another worry. Amazon promises that the texts will always be available to me through its Web site, but as technology and corporate fortunes change, I suspect that getting hold of a Kindle book I bought five years from now will be something of a headache. Think of the e-mails you wrote ten years ago—how easily can you get hold of them?
None of these complaints, though, make Tree of Smoke one ounce lighter, so I can see myself eventually investing in some kind of e-reader device. I’m enough of a luddite, though, to not want a book only in a digital format. So here’s the deal, Mr. Bezos: I’m willing to pay a modest premium—say, a buck or two—to, on occasion, own a digital version in addition to a hard copy of a book or newspaper subscription I’ve purchased online. How much I’ll pay is a function of how much flexibility you’ll give me with the digital version—if I can move it to my hard drive, say. (Nuts to magazines on a Kindle—magazines are pleasure vehicles, and I want the glossy pages and slick design.) This may be appealing to people who need big books but don’t want to lug them around all the time—students and business folk, mainly—who also stand to gain a great deal from keyword-searching functionality. Maybe that won’t bring in the numbers of readers Amazon hopes for. But I can’t imagine the system it launched yesterday will prove any more successful.