This past week, I got a Kindle. I have not been so changed by a reading experience since Stephen King’s Needful Things, which was the book that made me realize I wanted to tell stories. It’s the sort of genius-level device that demonstrates the fact that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Truly wonderful.
And my, how it changes things.
I’d long considered getting a digital reading device. I always love when people note how they don’t want to read on a screen, if only because the only place I’ve seen people say that is online, on sites where they’ve been doing exactly that. I was never really able to start writing until I replaced my mother’s Smith and Corona electric typewriter for a custom-built desktop, so I’ve never really known writing except as on a screen. I’ve heard guys like Elmore Leonard and James Patterson write longhand using pencils. I can’t imagine anything more primitive.
To be technical for just a second, that first desktop computer had a 1mHz processor, 16 megabytes of RAM, and one gigabyte of internal memory. It came fully loaded with Windows 95 and Corel’s WordPerfect.
Perspective: my current phone is a Samsung Vibrant. It has a one gigahertz hummingbird processor, 512 megs of RAM, and eight gigs of storage, expandable via microSD cards to nearly fifty right now. It came fully loaded with Google’s Android operating system (Android 2.1, or Éclair), as well as Amazon’s Kindle app. Not to mention a full copy of Avatar designed to show off its pretty, pretty SuperAMOLED screen (that’s Super Active Matrix Organic Light-Emitting Diode). I’m using this phone after an upgrade from an iPhone I jailbroke and unlocked to run on T-Mobile’s network; it had full access to all the media and apps developers could make for Apple.
Our phones are basically more advanced than anything that has flown to the moon or actually dropped an atomic bomb. My iPhone could fart in hundreds of languages.
When Apple announced the iPad in January, finally ending years of rumors and speculation, many people, myself included, joked that it was merely a big what-I-already-had-in-my-pocket (not to mention that it sounded more like a feminine hygiene product than a technological innovation). The iPad is little more than a large version of an iPod Touch, but saying that tends to neglect the degree to which the iPod Touch truly is revolutionary, as products go. Handling an iPad, using one, is a purely magical experience. It’s like picking up a screen, but with depth.
That’s the first thing I noticed when I handled the iPad. So thin but still dense. Design so triumphant it’s invisible. “Slide to Unlock”? The very first thing an iPad requests you do is stroke it, like a pet.
It changes the way you interact with much of the Internet. You could fire up Safari, but why do that when Twitter and Facebook and the New York Times all have their own dedicated apps? Its big, color screen looks great, and it’s so responsive to every touch it feels like it’s reading your mind, like it knows, to allude to Stephen King, what you need. What you desire.
The first thing I did, of course, was load my own site. I love the idea of millions of iPad users accidentally stumbling across my own little corner of the Internet, and I wanted to see how it would look when they did. Most of them, judging by my site’s stats, aren’t, of course, but it could happen. And it will look nice when they do.
The second site I visited was here. Which looks great except for the Flash bit of the homepage. But hey, content first, and Lord knows we’ve got great content out the wazoo. It’s one of the great things about being part of this site.
One of the major talking points concerning the iPad’s launch was the iBookstore. Which five out of the six publishers were totally on board with and got credit for (the sixth made the mistake of talking to the media about the iPad the day before the launch). Agency model, new pricing, ten bucks per book. It’s not a bad interface, complete with virtual covers on virtual shelves and page-flipping animations.
Thing is, at $500, it’s rather expensive, and that’s the WiFi only 16GB model. If you want always-on connectivity or more storage (for movies and music and apps), you’ll need to spend more.
To compare the iPad to the Kindle or nook is basically to compare Apple to Amazon; it’s not quite a comparison that works because the devices don’t really do the same thing. The iPad is not a digital reading device so much as a portable computer that happens to support digital reading apps—to the extent that Kindle and nook apps are even available for it.
Kindle’s been ludicrously smart about that. It has an app available for basically any platform, including PC, Mac, iOS, Android, and even BlackBerry. All have different levels of functionality and intuitiveness. I didn’t really start using the Kindle app until I got my phone, and then I started to take advantage of the ease with which I could download samples. It’s a great system, and any book I purchase via any platform is available on all others; if I buy a book on my Kindle, I can still read it on my phone or my computer. I can’t, on the other hand, read it on someone else’s device, or share my books with others, a fact a lot of people have lamented but I don’t mind so much because generally, I’ve rarely lent books to friends so much as given them away never to see them again (the books. Not the friends. Though sometimes them, too).
As an app, Kindle is terrific, but I’d avoided purchasing the device because . . . well, because they were so damned ugly. I mean, the first-generation Kindle looked like the designer of it actively disliked readers; the second iteration was better, but not by much. This latest, though, is stylish and slim, with a little five-way button instead of a jog-dial. It’s nicely laid out and feels fantastic in the hand. I like the keyboard on it; it’s much better than the too-small capacitive touchscreen the nook only barely implements (and certainly not well).
Then again, the Nook II might well be even better, and with a better price. Which isn’t to say current prices are bad; one of the reasons I went with the Kindle over the iPad was that, for half the price of the latter, I got my Kindle, a lighted case, and so far, close to 40 books.
I’ve now owned my Kindle for a week. I fear raving about it too much and devolving into useless hyperbole, but I can’t help it: I don’t remember the last time I felt this excited about reading and writing, and it’s mostly thanks to this little device.
That’s a lie. I know the last time I was this excited. It was the week Harper Collins published Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I’d corresponded with Neil via a website called the Well for several months prior to that week, and so, when I went to see him read, first opening for the Magnetic Fields at the Bottom Line in downtown Manhattan and then two days later at the Barnes & Noble at the World Trade Center, I was positively giddy. The night I shook his hand, I went into utter fanboy catatonia and found myself quite literally unable to speak, much less introduce myself.
It was a feeling akin to finishing Needful Things.
I don’t want to put this thing down. I’m currently reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. Up next is Five Quarts, by Bill Hayes. Then maybe Ivanhoe. Maybe some Shakespeare.
It’s not just the reading experience. It’s not just the excitement.
It’s the possibility.
It may be an experience unique to readers who are also writers. I’m not sure. All I know is, suddenly, everything’s different.
Pundits and professionals have been talking about, and arguing against, the so-called death of traditional publishing for ages. People whisper about the ways the publishing industry is changing, about the implications for newspapers and magazines and books.
Thing is, you pick up a Kindle (or an iPad. To some degree, even a nook. Those are really the big three in terms of digital reading [and here I’d like to point out that doing so does not require one to sign a pledge that one may never again pick up a printed book. It’s not a binary choice]), and you realize it’s all wrong.
Publishing is never going to die. It’s not going to go anywhere. Publishing is just the creation and dissemination of information, and if nothing else, it’s simply got an entirely new medium for doing so. If publishing is changing it’s doing so because new devices are allowing new experiences of information; what’s the difference between an essay and a short story and a novel when you read them all on an iPad? Length, of course, but yesterday, reading was a different experience. The New York Times was a giant piece of matte paper you had to fold awkwardly to read on a subway; Vanity Fair was glossier and smaller with better pictures; books had no pictures but, at least as paperbacks, were easier to carry even though they had a hell of a lot more words.
Those distinctions are gone when they’re all apps. I read the most recent issue of The Atlantic (in which B.R. Myers becomes the first reviewer I’ve seen to criticize Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom) on my Kindle. I’ll be the first to admit it wasn’t as intuitive as opening a magazine, and it probably needs a better navigation interface, but the content? The story? Awesome.
I imagine it’s like what people felt the first time they handled a printed book when previously they’d only seen illuminated manuscripts hand-calligraphed by dedicated monks. Imagine the newness of something like typography when all anyone knew was spidery cursive? Imagine the sudden appearance of cheap books when many people had never even seen paper before? Which is why this seems like it’s publishing 3.0: publishing 2.0 came and went when Gutenberg introduced his magical press.
Perhaps not so ironically, many of the anxious articles I read about the “tenuous” future of publishing consider it mainly from what publishing has only recently become over the past three decades or so. In a little less than thirty years, Barnes & Noble grew from a single store (in 1971) to the corporate behemoth it was just a few years ago. I say just a few years ago because anyone following publishing news lately knows that its future is untenable (one of the major reasons I went with a Kindle over the nook; Barnes & Noble’s management listed the company for sale just about a month ago). Nowadays, you walk into a Barnes & Noble and notice a few things, the most notable of which is that many of the tables for new releases and best-sellers that used to greet customers as soon as they walked in the door are gone, replaced by a shrine to the nook.
Nowadays, though, who walks into a Barnes & Noble, anyway?
I only partly joke, there. I used to be the guy who’d buy 100 books per year. I’d stop by the local Barnes & Noble every day I got paid and drop money on new magazines, paperbacks, and bargain hardcovers long remaindered. I’d go to author signings to get Nick Hornby’s scribble on High Fidelity. My copy of American Gods was the first one Neil signed on his tour.
At some point, though, I became the guy who bought lots of books for a penny on Amazon’s Marketplace. And last week, I became the guy who thinks six or seven bucks is the perfect price to pay for a Kindle book.
At some point, I feel like I became the reader publishers started to ignore in favor of selling more books to people who only read a couple per year. At some point, when the shelves became glutted by series and tie-ins and toys, I became a reader who had to move farther and farther from a shelf to find a story I’d really want to read.
At some point, I became a reader who began to wonder if publishers were really less scared about the death of the industry and more scared they wouldn’t find some way to profit from other people’s work. Because at some point, I realized that the Internet was only going to increase the vast amount of work published overall, and while corporate publishing houses had once claimed they kept some gates or other, they had long ago thrown those gates open to failed vice-presidential candidates, comedians better known for their appearance than their humor, and bad actors.
Which is funny, in a way, because I’ve voiced that complaint before, and I think a lot of people dismiss it as one of a bitter writer resentful about publishing contracts. That’s probably easier than acknowledging it might be the complaint of a frustrated reader demanding, even pleading for, better stories.
I did the same thing when I got my hands on my Kindle.
I also picked up some Nervous Breakdown books.
I really hope Duke’s Subversia will be Kindle compatible. Bet it’d look great. The Kindle’s sharing function (I already tweeted and Facebooked a brilliant passage from The Magicians) seems to suit the comment-ready essays Duke’s (in)famous for here.
In late November, I’m going to publish my own debut novel, Meets Girl, on the Kindle. I’m going to serialize the first half of it on my site.
I can’t decide whether I’m more excited about Kindle as a reader or as a writer, but I sort of think that’s phenomenal. In an age of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and book blogging, people are unfortunately prefixing the word “self” to publishing, which is really just redundant. Every essay, every Tweet, every comment, every video is a culture of people publishing our ideas, and that’s really sort of genius.
Marshall McLuhan noted that the medium is the message. Nowadays, with Ashton Kutcher beating CNN to a million followers, the messenger is the medium is the message, because we all have one to share.