I can't get through the whole thing, so I usually concentrate on the short essays of "The Talk of the Town" (gotta read that!), browse "The Critics" (about the latest in theater, books, movies and sometimes music), and always skip poetry and fiction (sorry, I've got better sources for the latter and I don't care too much for the former). The "Reporting&Essays" section is the real tough nut to crack: the articles there are very long and in-depth, and usually only one of the 4-5 published in each issue really grabs me.
This week it was an essay penned by Nicholson Baker, about the Kindle,the Amazon e-book device that readers of this blog know very well I absolutely love. Ok, I was bracing myself for an irritating experience, as surely an essayist for the New Yorker would be too sophisticated not to complain about the Kindle.
I was not disappointed. Baker does give the reader a good description of how the e-ink technology works, and some background on how the idea of it (and therefore of the Kindle, the Sony Reader and several other e-reading devices) came about.
But he immediately started complaining about problems that are, frankly, quite obvious even to aficionados such as myself. Oh, there are no color pictures, because the Kindle2 only manages 16 shades of gray (an improvement over the Kindle1, with four shades). Oh, there are "only" 300,000 titles available! And he starts listing a number of must-read books that cannot (currently) be found on the Kindle catalog. Oh, the resolution of the images is not up to print standards (duh!). Oh, there are occasional missing articles from e-versions of the New York Times! (The other thing you simply have to read if you live in New York.) Oh, there are no page numbers, replaced instead by "locations" (really, what's the difference?). And so on and so forth.
Now, let's imagine for a moment that we are back in the 15th century, to be precise just shortly after 1439, when Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg invented movable type printing. I can only imagine the complaints that Baker would have uttered in the local paper (which was, of course, copied by hand from the original dictation). What? Only one title on the catalog? (The Bible.) Oh, and the fonts are sooo boring compared to handwriting. And no colors! And the quality of the drawings, simply unacceptable. This movable type printing thing will never ever replace the amanuenses, it will simply die as yet another "modern invention" and things will keep being just the same as they have been throughout what they at the time didn't yet call the Middle Ages.
All right, let us be serious for a moment. Of course the current iteration of e-ink has limitations (but they are working on sharpening the definition and adding color). Of course the Kindle itself can be improved in a variety of ways, from its ergonomics to its resolution to its background (which is gray rather than white like in a real book). And yes we need more titles, both in the books department and for magazines and newspapers.
Most importantly, there is quite a bit to complain about regarding Amazon's policies and business strategies, including the fact that one cannot share books with other people, or resell them, not to mention the recent incident about the recall of the Kindle edition of - of all titles! - Orwell's "1984,"which showed Amazon's disturbing ability to simply erase your content remotely.
But it is hard not to think that Mr. Baker is taking his readers for a ride and can't possibly be serious about his evaluation of the Kindle. He actually strongly advises people to read books on an iTouch or iPhone, rather than on the K2. I happen to own an iPhone (of course), and yes I do have the Kindle free app for it, and yes I occasionally read books on the tiny backlit (but high-res and in color!) screen. So I can compare the two experiences, and the K2 beats the iP hands down as a dedicated reading device. As Amazon's Jeff Bezos put it, "We think reading is an important enough activity that it deserves a purpose-built device." Indeed.
A more reasoned position to take is that the current woes of the Kindle and similar tools will be fixed in the usual manner, by a mixture of competition from other companies (the New Yorker article lists seven other e-devices on the market now) and of legislation passed because of increasing pressure from consumer protection organizations. That's the way new technologies are introduced and quickly evolve or go extinct.
But the Kindle, and more broadly e-reading, is the best bet for the future of both the book and the newspaper industries. People read more books when they own a Kindle (that's been my experience, as well as the experience of countless other users who commented on both the K1 and K2). And people's interest in newspapers and magazines just might be rekindled, so to speak, if they were available instantaneously and without having to kill trees (I am paying for K2 subscriptions to the New York Times, though it's available for free online, and the Huffington Post blog conglomerate, partly because they both update themselves automatically several times a day and I can read them at home, on the subway or at the restaurant).
So, give it some time, Mr. Baker, and get back to us in a few years.
Oh, and of course, the irony of my own experience of reading Baker's article is that I was doing it, needless to say, on the Kindle.