The Kindle: Books Don’t Need Saving

by John McGrath on November 19, 2007

Todaythe tech and book blogs are all buzzing about the Kindle, Amazon’s attempt at an ereader. The tech blog reports are in-depth to the point of exhaustion, a bit hyperbolic, and overall what you’d expect. They’ve done this before.

That’s not so much the case for the book people, and there’s a whiff of desperation to the coverage, as if the Kindle is a deus ex machina that will help them maintain relevance.
Earth to publishing industry: people like books, and you’re doing just fine. You are not in the same sinking boat as the newspaper people, so chill out. Yes, some kinds of books aren’t so useful anymore (who under the age of 30 still uses a printed dictionary? The online options are superior in every way). But for the reading of long-form narrative, the best option is, and will remain for some time, a book.
For that to change, somebody, probably Apple, is going to have to come up with a far better device than the Kindle. Because I’m lazy, I’m just going to quote the obnoxious comment I left on the OUPblog:
“The older book demographic won’t buy [the Kindle] because they’re not gadget people, and young readers (yes, young people do read books) won’t because it’s fugly, and they’re already lugging around an iPod, smartphone, and laptop. On top of those devices, the Kindle is a redundant piece of crap.

Once again it’s going to be left to Apple to get this right. Schnittman is correct that any media device has to be networked, and have easy access to an enormous reservoir of content. But it has to be beautiful, or at least attractive, and it has do more than one thing. The iPhone is beautiful and multifunctional, for the same price as a Kindle. Speaking of price, who in their right mind is going to pay $14/month for the New York Times, in this emasculated, black and white, linkless form? Or $2/month for a bunch of otherwise free blogs? If they get 17 subscriptions, I’ll be shocked.

The Kindle is going to go down like the Lusitania.”

reesetee November 20, 2007 at 8:15 am

Hear, hear! Books don’t need saving. Ask the 5,274 on my shelves. ;-)

tree November 20, 2007 at 12:22 pm

“(who under the age of 30 still uses a printed dictionary? The online options are superior in every way)”

I do. And I beg most strenuously to differ that the online versions are superior in every way. There are many words in my OED that are not in any of the online dictionaries I consult (including the built-in OED on my computer). They also lack much of the historical or out-of-date usage that’s often useful or simply interesting. And no online dictionary can compare to the feel of a really big dictionary in your lap.

John McGrath November 20, 2007 at 12:45 pm

I was being a bit hyperbolic — my beat up first edition of Webster’s Second has pride of place in my office, and I still use it from time to time. I agree, it’s an aesthetic pleasure.

But like most people who work with words, I spend all day in front of a computer, and it’s just much faster and easier to look things up online. And 99.9% of the time, the answer is right there. For every word I look up on paper, I look up 100 online, at least.

Which I think is typical, and something the OUP needs to take note of. It’s a massive strategic error on their part to not make all words in the OED available to everyone. That could still leave room for premium content, but we should be able to get a basic definition from them for every word in their database, for free. I know they license their content all over the place, but that’s not enough. They have an amazing resource, which they’re training people to not use.

Erin November 21, 2007 at 12:09 pm

tree, the built-in dictionary on your computer is almost certainly NOT the OED, but the New Oxford American Dictionary, if you’re using OS X.

The online OED probably has several HUNDRED, if not more than a thousand words not in your print OED. And you can search it on axes other than A-Z.

Son of Groucho November 24, 2007 at 4:20 am

You are probably right that Apple, with their genius for creating excellent human-machine interfaces, will create the best version of an electronic text reader. However, even as a gadget freak, I cannot imagine ever wanting to read a novel on any sort of electronic device. There is just something about a proper book in this context that, I suggest, will ensure their indefinite existence.

Love the new look of Errata, BTW, I really don’t know how you find the time to do all this stuff! The content of the blog is great too.

John McGrath November 24, 2007 at 11:46 pm

Thanks SoG! The trick is, I’m not actually one person. “John” consists of teams in Bangalore, Montevideo, and Vladivostok.

Son of Groucho November 25, 2007 at 8:49 am

Ah, it all falls into place now!

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