As you can see from this past Friday's "unboxing" video, I received for review a Kindle ebook from Amazon. In that video (and its accompanying blog post), I had some initial thoughts on the Kindle and now that a full weekend has passed I have a lot more to say. For those of you who have managed to get your hands on one (amazingly, Amazon is already sold out of the $399 device), you will notice the following dictionary-esque definition definition printed on the inside cover of the Kindle's packaging.
In the Berlind household, the Kindle inspired a lot of discussion. My wife has a voracious appetite for books about raising children. I honestly think she has ordered and read every one that's in print from Amazon.com. She often has three or four books "going" at any given point in time. In this respect, the idea of an ebook like the Kindle is perfect for her. Just the thought of being able to carry so many books in her purse without having to actually carry so many books made her giggle with delight.
One point; ebooks aren't new. There are other ebook technologies from companies like Sony and Adobe. But Amazon has far deeper and longstanding business relationships with book publishers than does anybody I can think of in the book publishing industry and personally, I think this gives the Kindle a huge advantage over everything that came before it to become a near defacto standard for the market. That's both good and bad. It's good because it's about time that some company is able to bring an ebook to the market that will get accepted by the masses. It's bad because right now, it's not clear just how much Amazon will open the platform up over time. For example, as a Kindle owner, will I be able to buy ebooks from other merchants or open ebooks that are formatted differently? For good reasons, librarians have serious issues with proprietary ebook technologies. The whole point of a library is public access to books. The Kindle helps open the same debate about books that the OpenDocument Format raised about the government's public documents: should the public be required to have a certain technology to access a book or a document?
Anyway, what better way to test the Kindle than to hand it to someone with an appetite for books like my wife. In one or more separate blog posts, I'll write about our findings. But before I get started on those (and going back to the librarian issue), I want to focus on the one "finding" that led us to a really interesting conversation about the public's access to books and ideas.
Although Ray Bradbury vehemently denied it, many people believe that the classic book Fahrenheit 451 is about government censorship through book burning. The book's title represents the temperature at which paper burns.
When my wife first giggled at the idea of being able to carry so many books in her purse without having to physically carry so many books, it lead to one of those green conversations and how good for Mother Earth a successful ebook entry into the marketplace might be. Think of all the trees that could be saved.
But that led me to another thought. Might a successful ebook be the first step towards a world where many if not all new books are never printed on paper? Why not? Right? Well, today, the "why not" is that not all books are well-suited to something like the Kindle. For one, any book that relies on color to get its message across (biology textbooks, guides to gardening, children's books, coffee table books, etc.) would be ill-suited to the Kindle which can't support color. But we'll get there. Along the way, there may very well be some books that never come out on paper just the same way so many ideas, articles, and stories are already told on exclusively in bits (on the Web).
While reading the first book she purchased through the Kindle (Hidden Messages: What Our Words and Actions Are Really Telling Our Children), my wife mentioned how she could see the Kindle as a replacement for paperbacks, but not hard cover books. Her reasoning was that there's something about the experience of holding a hard cover book in your hands and reading it that can't be reproduced with a paperback or an eBook. It probably has to do with the publisher's choice of paper stock, but I agree; hard cover books are cozy. Paperbacks are less so and the Kindle is not even close.
Books, particularly hard cover books, have another thing going for them: permanence. Yes, they can be burned. But one thought I had, in the context of how Earth-friendly ebooks are, is that it would take a really really long time before some government could deprive its people of thoughts and ideas through burning books. To burn them all, the government would first have to find them all. The minute any citizenry, even a fictitious one, gets hip to the idea that their government is attempting to rid the culture of information not under its control, that citizenry moves to preserve that information. From the Wikipedia's entry on Farenheit 451:
.....Beatty says that all firemen are bound to steal a book at one time or another and that they can turn it in or burn it within 24 hours. Montag argues with his wife over the book, showing his growing disgust for her and for his society. It is soon revealed that Montag has hidden dozens of books in the house, and he tries to memorize them so their contents can be preserved,...
Perhaps you can already anticipate where I'm going with this. What if some of those books or all of them were only available in digital form and tied to some sort of digital rights management system (a form of which is undoubtedly running as a part of Amazon's Kindle infrastructure). Instead of hunting down all the books, the censor would need little more than a mouse click. And for good measure, maybe the censor might destroy the public networking infrastructure. Fahrenheit 1981.4 is the temperature at which copper melts.
Not that I think the world would ever get there, but suddenly, the same technology that holds promise to ease many burdens including those on Mother Earth is also the technology that lowers the barrier to censorship. Conversely, once books are digitized into bits, it's easier for those bits to sneak into highly censored societies.
That is is just one conversation that the Kindle inspired over the weekend. Feel free to jump in with your comments below.