Slate editor Jacob Weisberg tries the Kindle and thinks it will mark a historic shift in print culture.
Like the Rocket e-book of 1999 (524 titles available!), it will surely draw chuckles a decade hence for its black-and-white display, its lack of built-in lighting, and the robotic intonation of the text-to-voice feature. But however the technology and marketplace evolve, Jeff Bezos has built a machine that marks a cultural revolution. The Kindle 2 signals that after a happy, 550-year union, reading and printing are getting separated. It tells us that printed books, the most important artifacts of human civilization, are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence.
And even from the vantage of where the technology is right now, Weisberg likes the Kindle reading experience better than the traditional ink-based paper experience. He also thinks that the old-style book may become a boutique product, something one creates as art and design (like William Blake used to do with his poetry books):
[F]or the past few weeks, I’ve done most of my recreational reading on the Kindle—David Grann’s adventure yarn The Lost City of Z, Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, Slate, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, and the New York Times—and can honestly say I prefer it to inked paper. It provides a fundamentally better experience—and will surely produce a radically better one with coming iterations.
The notion that physical books are ending their lifecycle is upsetting to people who hold them to be synonymous with literature and terrifying to those who make their living within the existing structures of publishing. As an editor and a lover of books, I sympathize. But why should a civilization that reads electronically be any less literate than one that harvests trees to do so? And why should a transition away from the printed page lessen our appreciation and love for printed books? Hardbacks these days are disposable vessels, printed on ever crappier paper with bindings that skew and crack. In a world where we do most of our serious reading on screens, books may again thrive as expressions of craft and design. Their decline as useful objects may allow them to flourish as design objects.