For the better part of the past two years, I've resisted the temptation to run out and buy a Kindle. (Well, OK, I wouldn't have to "run out" to do it, nor could I; as far as I can tell, the Kindle can only be ordered on Amazon. But whatever, it's still an appropriate figure of speech.) The Kindle just seems made for me. I love books and I love to read, and I'm also a ridiculously huge fan of electronic publishing of all kinds, and (especially) of the idea of carrying a library worth of books with me wherever I go, because hey, you never know when you might want to read any one of them. (This also explains why my iPod touch overfloweth with just-in-case music.) The Kindle seems like it should be the best of both worlds: it's all there but the actual page-turning.
But still, I've resisted. I suppose I've been waiting for a sign, or at the very least for a definitive review of the Kindle — something other than the lap-doggish panting that was all I'd seen thus far. And in the space of the past two weeks, I've had both.
First, the sign: some of you may have heard that recently, Amazon not-so-quietly removed a couple of e-books from some of its customers' Kindle devices. For those looking to catch up, here's David Pogue's NYT blog post and a follow-up NYT technology article; I've been following Peter Kafka's continuing MediaMemo coverage on All Things Digital (here, here, here, and here); see also this section of the Kindle's Wikipedia entry.
A quick summary: a publisher had made Kindle-ready versions of George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm available on the Kindle Store, and after some copies were sold it was discovered that the publisher didn't have the rights to (those versions of) those books; Amazon responded by remotely deleting the copies that had been sold and refunding the purchase price to the relevant customers, in apparent violation of the Kindle's terms of service:
Upon your payment of the applicable fees set by Amazon, Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Device or as authorized by Amazon as part of the Service and solely for your personal, non-commercial use.
Some significant issues that have come up as a result of this action: some customers had annotated their Kindle copies of the books and have lost their annotations along with the books; Amazon (represented by CEO Jeff Bezos) has apologized for its actions and has promised not to remove content from customers' Kindles in the future "in these circumstances", but is being coy about the circumstances under which they may still take such action; customers wonder whether the text of their purchased content may be (silently) changed; and so forth. The irony of the situation has of course not gone unnoticed: the identity of the author and the books involved is just too good to pass up comment on. There are many, many references to "Big Brother" and to "the memory hole" of 1984; the aforementioned NYT technology article explains the latter reference right off the bat (but then ends with the claim that "[o]n the Internet, of course, there is no such thing as a memory hole" — excuse me, but Russ Kick begs to differ).
Second, the review: still following Peter Kafka's MediaMemo, I found out yesterday that the Kindle has just been reviewed in the New Yorker. And it's a pretty damning review, from start to finish, sometimes with faint praise and sometimes with sharp kicks to the knee caps. In my favorite section of the review, the reviewer (Nicholson Baker) indulges in just a little bit of bibliomysticism, which I will here define as the belief that the printed-on-paper word is somehow endowed with power that cannot be replicated otherwise. (See this note.)
The problem was not that the screen was in black-and-white; if it had really been black-and-white, that would have been fine. The problem was that the screen was gray. And it wasn’t just gray; it was a greenish, sickly gray. A postmortem gray. The resizable typeface, Monotype Caecilia, appeared as a darker gray. Dark gray on paler greenish gray was the palette of the Amazon Kindle.
This was what they were calling e-paper? This four-by-five window onto an overcast afternoon? Where was paper white, or paper cream? Forget RGB or CMYK. Where were sharp black letters laid out like lacquered chopsticks on a clean tablecloth?
[T]he wasp passage in "Do Insects Think?" just wasn't the same in Kindle gray. I did an experiment. I found the Common Reader reprint edition of [Robert Benchley's] "Love Conquers All" and read the very same wasp passage. I laughed: ha-ha. Then I went back to the Kindle 2 and read the wasp passage again. No laugh. Of course, by then I'd read the passage three times, and it wasn't that funny anymore. But the point is that it wasn't funny the first time I came to it, when it was enscreened on the Kindle. Monotype Caecilia was grim and Calvinist; it had a way of reducing everything to arbitrary heaps of words.
I recommend reading the review — the critique of the Kindle is substantive, with the bibliomysticism served up as additional entertainment. Needless to say at this point, I'm not buying a Kindle anytime soon. I'd rather do as Baker suggests and read books on my iPod touch for now (yes, there's still room for some books even with all the music), and eventually on the much-rumored iTablet.
Note: My grad school buddy Ed Keer liked to say that bibliomysticism is responsible for the knee-jerk judgment that the book must always be better than the movie. I thought Ed had coined the term, but a Google search for it turns up (just) these two hits, from 1971 and 1987, respectively:
We cannot, as professional librarians, retreat into biblio-mysticism and ignore information storage media of a non-book nature.
Topics cover […] the challenge of the information society (including the charge that librarians who limit themselves to the book are "bibliomystics") […]