20 November 2007
E-book the letter
Amazon has introduced a new $400 ebook reader, aggressively named the Kindle. (So funny, of course, to bring the idea of burning together with the idea of books.) The Kindle is called a “wireless reading device”: I don’t know about you, but I’ve been able to read without needing wires since I was very small. Anyway, we gadgetophiles must bravely acknowledge that the Kindle is certain to fail, since (among other reasons) it is stupidly expensive and relies, as John Gruber points out, on a proprietary file format with insane restrictions on use.
But please don’t imagine that I’m one of those muttering diehards who exhibit an irrational fetish for the book-as-object. Instead, in the hope of hastening the exciting ebook revolution, I here propose a minimal list of features that any really successful ebook device must eventually have. Feature parity with physical books, after all, is surely a reasonable baseline demand. So here is what the electronic book of the future will be like.
1 It will have an inexhaustible source of energy and never need recharging.
2 It will have resolution as good as print. (No, Amazon, really as good as print.)
3 It will be able to survive coffee and wine spills, days of intense sunlight, dropping in the ocean, light charring, and falling completely into two or more pieces, while still remaining perfectly readable afterwards.
4 It will allow me to scribble notes and/or doodles in the margins, with my choice of mechanical pencil or fine Muji fibre-tip pen (black). (Note, typing in the margins with a crappy thumb keyboard is not an acceptable alternative.)
5 It will allow me to riffle through it and thus get a quick, intuitive look at the book’s argumentative or narrative structure.
6 It will allow me to tear off the corner of a page to write down my phone number (or someone else’s).
7 It will display to other people in coffee shops and on public transport the title of what I am reading, so as to advertise my erudition or quirky sense of humour.
8 It will be physically handsome, not drop-dead fugly. (Note to Amazon: for pity’s sake, next time, head-hunt people from Sony or Apple.)
9 Indeed, the books on it will still be designed, by typesetters and graphic artists, so as to feed our aesthetic pleasure.
10 I will still be able to lend or give books to friends, or swap books in and out of the honour library of much-read novels in a Mediterranean seaside bar.
11 I will be able to use the ebook as a reliable flat surface for rolling cigarettes or other leaf-based refreshments, without worrying about debris shorting the motherboard.
12 When I receive the updated edition of the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, I will be able to press the previous edition into service as a stand for the left-hand music speaker on my desk.
13 The ebook will function, morever, as both bug-crusher and discretionary hat. Placed on my face, it will make a soft roof against the sun on the beach.
14 I will still be able to hurl a fatuous tome such as Jeff Gomez’s Print Is Dead across the room without thereby destroying my ability to read any other books.
There. Only 14 features to go before we can all abandon paper. Not too much to ask, is it?
But the digerati don’t get it and don’t like it and that creates a compelling investment opportunity to buy Amazon shares now. The stock market doesn’t appreciate this game changer. Kindle will be the iPod of books — you read it here first.
Ah, the iPod of books. Indeed. How many times have you been sitting on a train or at a café table with a book, and wished to high heaven that instead of a single measly book, you had a playlist — perhaps comprising 2 pages of Schopenhauer, 3 pages of Dan Brown, a paragraph of Cormac McCarthy, a scene of Pinter, and a single brilliantly chosen sentence of Martin Amis?
Yes, me too.