Amazon Removes Books From Kindle

More people are getting used to reading e-books on devices like the Sony Reader or the Amazon Kindle. Recently Kindle owners who had purchased George Orwell's 1984 or Animal Farm had their books snatched back by Amazon when a rights issue arose. The buyers were credited their $9.99, but such a recall could never have happened with actual books.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This year, a lot of people heading off on vacation are not packing a pile of books in their luggage. Instead, they're tucking away their digital readers in backpacks and purses. More people are getting used to reading e-books on devices like the Sony Reader or the Amazon Kindle. But some recent news about the Kindle made a lot of us wonder about the future of books. So we invited NPR's Lynn Neary to join us this morning.

Lynn, you cover books and publishing for NPR, so do you have a Kindle or an e-book Reader?

LYNN NEARY: Actually, I don't, Linda. In fact, my cubical at NPR and my night table at home are loaded down with good, old-fashioned books because even though I've actually seen the Kindle work and I've talked to a lot of people who love it, I still can't imagine reading some of my favorite novels on the Kindle. What about you?

WERTHEIMER: I love it. It's especially nice for traveling. I really do not leave home without it. But I did have a very peculiar experience with Kindle. I was reading a book and all of a sudden, I was back at the beginning of the book. So I thought I'd punched some button somehow. But no, what I had was a book in two pieces.

Then I thought maybe the second part of the book, if I start reading it, it'll go to the end. So I started doing that and all of a sudden, phwt(ph) - it was gone. That book was just gone - right in front of my face, it was gone.

NEARY: Well, it is weird but as I think you know, you are not alone in discovering that Amazon can take away as quickly as it can deliver on the Kindle. And just recently, Amazon surprised some customers when it deleted George Orwell's "1984" and "Animal Farm" from their Kindles because of copyright issues.

Now Amazon did apologize, but it turns out that it's happened with a few other books before. And all that raises the question: What exactly does it mean to own a book in the digital age? What makes a book a book? Is it a physical object or a matter of the mind?

I talked with a number of e-book converts, like yourself, about this. One of them was Patricia Sullivan, a librarian at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library here in D.C.

Ms. PATRICIA SULLIVAN (Librarian, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library): There's a lot of, oh, I can't believe it. You're a librarian and you're using an e-reader.

NEARY: Now Sullivan owns a Sony Reader. At the moment, it's the Kindle's biggest competitor. She likes the Sony device because she can easily download free books at the D.C. library, and she loves its portability. But sometimes, she says, it's no substitute for the printed page. After a day at work, she's sick of looking at a screen and much prefers to snuggle up with a real book.

Ms. SULLIVAN: It's hard to curl up with your Sony Reader at night, you know, and you won't see an author signing a Sony Reader at a signing. So I don't think books are going to go out of fashion anytime soon. I just think they can co-exist.

Mr. LARRY BOWEN (Administrator, University of Alabama - Tuscaloosa): I curl up with my Kindle all the time.

NEARY: Larry Bowen, an administrator at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, thought that he would miss books when he bought his Kindle, but that hasn't happened. He thinks his transition to digital reading has been eased by his experience with downloading music to his iPhone. When he first got the iPhone, Bowen thought he'd keep playing his albums.

Mr. BOWEN: Absolutely I did, and I don't know exactly when the switch flipped, but now I just can't imagine pulling an album out and actually playing it as an album rather than bringing it up and shuffling or picking out a particular song. And I just can't imagine it anymore.

NEARY: In the same way, Bowen says, reading on his Kindle is completely satisfying. But he does still crave books for another reason.

Mr. BOWEN: I actually still have a weakness for Star Wars books. And I have bought them for years, so I can't stop buying the physical book now. Yet I read it on the Kindle.

NEARY: So for Bowen, books have already become a collector's item. They're objects he cares about, but mainly they sit on his book shelf. As far as Jonathan Gutenberg(ph) is concerned, that's just one more thing to collect dust.

Mr. JONATHAN GUTENBERG (Consultant to media and technology companies): From my perspective, I'm not necessary wed to owning something that has to sit on a shelf.

NEARY: Gutenberg is a consultant to media and technology companies. He reads on his Kindle, his iPhone and his computer.

Mr. GUTENBERG: What makes up a book depends upon the content matter, it depends upon the use, and depends upon the individual and how they perceive it.

NEARY: A book, says Gutenberg, is more than just a physical object.

Mr. GUTENBERG: It's the ability to access the content, the ability to read it wherever I want, and the ability to search it. I mean, I think there's huge value in being able to find things within books in a much easier fashion than you can in a printed book.

NEARY: Graphic designer Robert Fabercant(ph) goes a step further. He doesn't own an e-reader yet, but he is intrigued by them, both as a reader and as a designer. He talks about e-books as metaphors that may or may not need the same features as a traditional book.

Mr. ROBERT FABERCANT (Graphic Designer): Pages, chapters, all those things are very necessary in paper. They're not in an e-book reader.

NEARY: In an e-book, Fabercant says, the page as we know it doesn't have to exist, unless you want it to.

Mr. FABERCANT: One of the challenges for the e-book readers has been to try and represent the page you're on, right, and defining pages that don't match the printed page in terms of the number of characters, trying to sort of show you in some progress bar where you are in the book. I mean, all those things are interesting design problems. And the minute you buy into the metaphor, you have to decide how literally you're going to take those on.

NEARY: Just as electronic readers require new thinking about book design, says Fabercant, so do we have to rethink what it means to own a book because maybe, he says, we don't need to have so many actual books.

Mr. FABERCANT: When I go up to the room in our house - I live in a brownstone in Brooklyn - that has our bookshelves, I stare at a lot of books, right? I think, really, that the number of books I need to own is relatively small to the number of books I want to read.

NEARY: And the question of ownership takes us back to the story that prompted this exploration, the realization that Amazon can take back a book without notice. Librarian Patricia Sullivan says that's likely to make the skeptics hang on more tightly to their traditional books.

Ms. SULLIVAN: It would definitely influence how they think about it because you know, if you can have your books removed, what's the real point?

NEARY: So Linda, I'm curious, after you had your book removed, did you think differently about your Kindle and about books?

WERTHEIMER: I don't think I did. I don't have any particular expectation of privacy.

NEARY: And do you still read both on your e-reader and traditional books?

WERTHEIMER: I do. I read regular books all the time.

NEARY: And do you curl up with your Kindle?

WERTHEIMER: You know, I do and every once in a while, I find myself brushing the top right-hand corner with my hand, like I'm going to turn the page. I'm so into it that it just doesn't register as different from a book.

NEARY: Well, Linda, maybe you're starting to convince me.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much for coming in, Lynn. NPR's Lynn Neary covers books and publishing for NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: Now, in fairness to Amazon, I should say, Steve, just as quickly as the defective book was zapped away, my account was magically credited. So in this brave new digital world, books can appear quickly - and so can money.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

I suppose so, although I'm waiting to find out if "Fahrenheit 451" is hot enough to burn a Kindle. Anyway, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

WERTHEIMER: And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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