Kindle Controversy: eBooks in Transition

Last week, in a New Yorker piece called "A New Page," print conservationist Nicholas Baker's objected strenuously and eloquently to the Kindle eReader. In the main, he doesn't disagree that the era of the eBook is coming, and even confesses to having read an eBook or two. He simply doesn't like Kindles. Since I'm not a shareholder, I don't find this especially offensive. Baker's objections can be accessed here.

For convenience' sake, they can be summed up in a few bullets:

  • The Kindle is ugly; (Kindle 2 is better but still ugly; and Kindle DX is gross).
  • It's cumbersome both in size and operation
  • It's screen is not as good as an LCD
  • There are other, better options especially the iPhone as a device and Stanza as an eReading application
  • Much like a single, disposable paperback, Kindle eBook files cannot be shared. Book and device are welded together.

Nonetheless, Kindles are still selling like hotcakes. There's a good reason for this as British photographer Mark Power told Mr. Baker in a live chat on the website of the New Yorker magazine (which is archived here).

Mark Power: In general I agree with his [Baker's] observations about the Kindle, which I have owned for about a year. The one aspect I think Baker overlooks in his assessment was the pioneer spirit which keeps some Kindle owners like me going despite its obvious limitations. My grandfather once told me about the perils of owning an automobile in its earliest days. Unpaved roads were rife with potholes, cars required hand cranking to start, you could expect a flat every five miles or so, and the machines were quite dangerous as they could be coaxed into going over 30 miles an hour.

But, said Grandfather, we put up with it because we could see the car was the future. One day the roads would be smooth as silk and the manufacturers would gladly guarantee a car to be repair-free for 100,000 miles. He neglected to add that the car would also choke the life out of our cities, but even grandfathers can't be expected to know everything. So it's sense of the future that allows us to tolerate the Kindle's limitations. That same spirit kept early computer users going despite the tiny screen, green letters and MS-Dos -- we could sense Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were beavering away in some dark garage and things would soon be better.

Or perhaps much, much worse but as we found out with the car there's no turning back.

After this piece and its chat appeared on the New Yorker site, Mr. Baker and his opinions about the Kindle were featured on the Brian Lehrer show. You can find and listen to that interview and the phoned in comments (mainly by Kindle owners) here.

I'm putting all this stuff up, so that people can access it easily. I think this controversy about the most popular eReader will clarify the issues surrounding the digital transition that's happening to old print technology. According to the publishing industry, 50% of all books in the world will be sold in eFormat by 2013. This fall, 60% of all American freshman college texts are available in Kindle format. Many people want to know more about the changes that are taking place, but don't know where to begin.

Begin here.

Even though I don't agree with what he says, I enjoyed Mr. Baker's take on the new medium. I found Double Fold, his 2001 book about the need to preserve physical copies of old newspapers really provocative. Baker thinks and writes well, and it was an inspired choice by the New Yorker to ask Mr. Baker to write about Kindles.

It's an especially good idea to test the depth of the Kindle's popularity this week, following Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' apology for deleting George Orwell's books Animal Farm and 1984 from Kindles that had previously downloaded free, but pirated editions of these books from Amazon. The New Yorker seems to be asking if the high-handed arbitrariness of withdrawing these copies from circulation without notifying their owners impacted the popularity of Kindle sales?

Well, apparently not. Highly literate people still champion this reader even though they appear well aware of its limitations. There don't seem to be any dissenting voices except Mr. Bakers, and his brand of dissent is highly informative.

Personally, I wish the New Yorker had asked Baker to write about eBooks in general since it is a very large and complicated field about which (I'm sure) he has many interesting things to say...

I'm going to hope that that will be a later chapter in a future work.