When online super-retailer Amazon.com first released its Kindle e-reader in the fall of 2007, David Pogue, the influential New York Times tech columnist, exclaimed that the gadget's "instant wireless gratification" was "intoxicating." At The Wall Street Journal, Walt Mossberg proclaimed, "I love the shopping and downloading experience." Wired named it one of its top 10 devices of the year, calling the Kindle's E Ink screen "fabulous."
But for all the hype, the first generation Kindle wasn't much of a product. It displayed every book in the exact same bland gray font on a screen the color of pea soup. Images, presented in jagged grayscale, were more reminiscent of a monochrome computer monitor from the 1980s than a modern LCD display. The books, locked in a proprietary format, weren't transferable. The keyboard was awkwardly constructed, making note-taking incredibly frustrating. Advancing to the next digital "page" caused the display to flutter and flicker, as if it were struggling to remember what came next. Some early testers reported that the device would occasionally crash entirely.
And at $400, the Kindle aimed to replace comparatively inexpensive stacks of bound paper with a fragile, expensive piece of hardware. Was it even possible to read it in the bathtub? When The New York Times Magazine posed that question, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos responded that he simply stuffs his reader into a one-gallon Ziploc bag, claiming, implausibly, that "it's much better than a physical book, because obviously if you put your physical book in a Ziploc bag you can't turn the pages."
Fragile, slow-witted, dull-green screens trapped inside Ziploc bags? Skeptics could be forgiven for scratching their heads at the idea, put forth by Steven Levy in a Newsweek cover story, that this somehow represented "the future of reading."
Yet the devices flew off the virtual shelves. Amazon was tight-lipped about sales figures, but by May 2008 estimates circulated that Amazon was selling as many as 80,000 of the devices each month. The faster, thinner second generation has proven just as much of a hit, with Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg writing that he believed it offered "a fundamentally better experience" than traditional ink and paper. After ditching its old library, one private academy in Massachusetts decided to install a $500,000 digital learning center—book-free, but with $10,000 worth of Kindles and other e-readers.
Kindles and other e-readers are imperfect devices, but there's no denying they have touched a consumer nerve. Unlike the iPod, the portable music device to which they are often compared, the e-readers we've seen so far aren't so much a revolution as the proof of concept for one that may eventually happen. The true value of e-readers isn't what they're doing now so much as how they've opened up the public imagination to rethinking the way we read.
It's easy to forget, but the printed book is simply another technology, one that represented a superior process and experience than the laboriously copied documents it replaced. Prior to Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, pages had to be duplicated individually by hand, making any full-length work a highly valued item: A single book could be worth as much as an entire farm or vineyard. In the five centuries since it emerged, the printed text has been the dominant reading tech.
It too was initially imperfect. Elaborate illustrations had to be tossed aside, as did many of the personal flourishes that scribes put on their works. But the advantages of mass production won out and quickly made printed books a fixture of middle-class life. These days it's a cliché to say that the printed book's ability to store and transmit information cheaply changed the world. But the cliché is true.
Now an array of e-readers and similar devices are positioned to once again change the way text is stored, transmitted, and read. Don't like the faded lettering sported by current models? Color E Ink is on the way, and Apple's recently announced tablet, the iPad, promises a larger, full-color screen designed for reading graphically intense pages such as comic books and glossy magazines. Other manufacturers are promising their own innovations: texts free of copy protection, simpler Web browsing, thinner screens, interfaces designed for technical reading—even flexible hardware. In other words, they're offering the promise of a world in which e-readers might actually be worthy successors to the book.
But that's exactly what has some critics worried. Could digital reading prove a threat to the sacred domain of the printed page? Could books lose their permanence, their authority? Nicholas Carr, a tech-world chin stroker noted for worrying that easy Google searches could make people intellectually lazy, has warned that as books undergo an electronic transition, Internet-supplied text updates will render all writing—and thus all history—"provisional." If a text can be secretly changed at any time, and scrubbed of embarrassing episodes, will written records remain trustworthy?
In a Fall 2008 essay for the conservative cultural journal The New Atlantis, Christine Rosen frets that the broader transition to onscreen reading will transform the solitary, focused act of drinking in a text into an act of dominance. "Instead of submitting to an author, you become the master," she writes. Her worry is that the greater control offered by digital print encourages searching, skimming, and browsing, putting readers —not writers covertly changing their work—in charge.
Both Carr and Rosen are right about one thing: The changeover to digital reading brings challenges and changes, requiring a reconsideration of what books are and what they're supposed to do. That doesn't mean the shift won't be worth it. The change will also bring innovations impossible on Gutenberg's printed page, from text mixed with multimedia to components that allow readers to interact with the author and fellow consumers.
In an 1815 letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson declared, "I cannot live without books." Who's to say that 100—or even 50—years from now, another American president won't say the same about his flexible, lightning fast, always connected, shatter-proof, full-color, endlessly charged e-reader? Maybe he'll even be able to read it in the bathtub.
Peter Suderman (email@example.com) is a reason associate editor.