The Victorian iPod

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon

The Kindle, Amazon’s ubiquitously hyped new e-reader, is (depending on which Web boards you frequent) either the future vessel of all human consciousness—soon to be implanted in the abdomens of newborns everywhere—or an insanely high-end plastic antique. It operates on the principle that all reading, whether you’re a fifteenth-century monk grappling with a three-foot-tall gilded-calfskin edition of Chaucer or a businesswoman flipping through Nora Roberts on a plane, boils down to a little frame of attention hovering a few inches in front of your eyes: a mystical zone that for 500 or so years has been the sweet spot of civilized consciousness. Amazon’s version of this zone is a gray, five-inch-tall screen that can instantly summon (via its own free wireless cell signal) novels and newspapers and magazines and display them in a stunningly sharp, print-mimicking technology called E-Ink—all without ever coming within spitting distance of a computer. Based on the size of its promotional campaign, the company clearly expects its new device to be a once-in-a-generation Gangbusters Phenomenon. But so far, the reception has been mixed. Although the Kindle’s first shipment reportedly sold out in just five and a half hours, its customer-approval rating seems stranded at a lackluster three stars. (Some online commenters have speculated that Amazon may have whipped up the illusion of a pre-holiday frenzy by deliberate understocking.)

I finally, ambivalently, got my hands on a Kindle last week. In person, it’s almost touchingly first generation. It seems destined to occupy the far-left square on some future evolutionary chart of e-readers. The screen is framed by a retro assemblage of white buttons; you turn pages by pressing big clicky bars running up either side of the screen. (These can make it hard to pick up the thing without accidentally skipping ahead three or four pages.) Overall, it looks like the unloved remnant of one of those wild nights back in 1987, when an Etch-a-Sketch drank too much Bartles & Jaymes and ended up locked in a three-way with a graphing calculator and a credit-card swiper. The screen thwarts all our 21st-century instincts: It doesn’t respond to touch and can’t handle motion or color. Even basic newspaper images look like photocopies of mimeographs. The Web interface is almost unusably primitive. Like a technician lasering smoke and grit off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it strips sites like Slate (to which you can subscribe for a few dollars a month) down to plain, earnest columns of text. It restores the New York Times ($13.99 a month) to its old austerity—that proud phase of the Gray Lady’s life before the Internet and USA Today forced her to slim down and don the drag makeup of color photos and graphs.

The Kindle is compact and light, exactly the size of my Modern Library edition of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I used it to read hundreds of pages on the train, in coffee shops, standing at urinals, and while brushing my teeth. Before long, it had displaced my meat-fork thermometer as my favorite gadget. I read the Sunday Times in bed, the Irish Times on the subway, and Le Monde at my desk. (From a dead stop, the Kindle calls up the Times in roughly fifteen seconds; my laptop takes closer to five minutes.) I tried the proverbial “curling up” on my non-digital couch with a new novel, Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork, as well as a couple of stodgy classics, Crime and Punishment and Heart of Darkness—and found myself swept away, just like old times. I highlighted passages and typed notes in the margins with its pygmy keyboard. I found the screen to be gentle, stable, and glare-resistant—beams of sunlight that would turn my laptop screen opaque only made it clearer. Its controls are magically intuitive; within a few minutes, the experience of reading totally overpowers the experience of clicking, and soon the clicking just about disappears.

In the current ecosystem of American gadgetry—in which predatory herds of omnivorous iBeasts devour ever greater zones of our attention—the Kindle’s devotion to text feels practically medieval. It’s not clear yet whether this musty innovation is naïve or brilliant. It’s the spiritual antithesis of the iPhone, and the rare piece of technology that seems to encourage, rather than sabotage, the contemplative life. It’s like an iPod for Victorians. They should make it out of wood paneling instead of white plastic.

In fact, I’m already nostalgic for the Kindle. This kind of pure textual devotion can’t possibly survive: Future versions, if they exist (Web rumors suggest that it might soon be swallowed whole by a mythical iTablet) will inevitably make concessions to our appetite for distraction—we’ll be able to check our e-mail, watch YouTube, and track scores on ESPN. It will probably evolve, like Amazon itself, from a book-delivery system to a multimedia emporium.

The beauty of a book, however, is that it’s marvelously nonintegrated—the great ones stand outside of busy consumer cycles of tweaking and upgrading. (If only Crime and Punishment had more features!) Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has called books “the last bastion of analog.” It’d be miraculous if they could stay that way, even in digital form.

The Victorian iPod