Op-Ed: A 'Kindle Society' Can Be Literate On this week's opinion page, Jacob Weinberg, editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, focuses on the new Kindle device. He asks: "Why should a civilization that reads electronically be any less literate than one that harvests trees to do so?"
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Op-Ed: A 'Kindle Society' Can Be Literate

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Op-Ed: A 'Kindle Society' Can Be Literate

Op-Ed: A 'Kindle Society' Can Be Literate

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So maybe you've seen someone gazing intently at a small, white plastic rectangle about the size of a steno pad. You have likely had a Kindle encounter. The Kindle is a wireless reading device with a laptop-like screen, some toggle buttons, and it can store hundreds of books and articles, or subscriptions to newspapers, and even blogs. For Kindle lovers, it is a convenient way to take their whole library on the go. For others, it marks the death of literature as we know it. Well, you know, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration.

We do want to hear from you on this topic. Do we need physical, printed books or can we just go electronic? Our number here in Washington, 1-800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you could join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jacob Weisberg spends a lot of time with books. In addition to being the editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, he's also a book reviewer, and he loves the Kindle - his op-ed for Slate called "Book End: How The Kindle Will Change The World." And he joins us from his office in New York. Hi, Jacob.

Mr. JACOB WEISBERG (Editor-in-Chief, Slate Group): Hi, Alison. Thanks for having me on.

STEWART: Sure. So I'm going to throw your own words back at you right now. You wrote, why should a civilization that reads electronically be any less literate than one that harvests trees to do so? So, Jacob, do we need books, physical books, in order to be literate?

Mr. WEISBERG: I was going say, what an outrageous thing to say. Who wrote that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEISBERG: I love books. I'm a book collector. I grew up at a house full of books. I have a house full of books. I'm not looking to have books out of my life. I'm thinking about what is the best way to consume literature, the kinds of reading I do. And I think the Kindle 2, the new version of it, is the breakthrough device.

I've been trying every ebook and reader for the past 10 years. The first ones came out about 10 years ago. And they all had problems that were large enough that you - I didn't really want to read whole books on them, a novel or novel-length, non-fiction book. That includes the Kindle 1, by the way, which I thought was very clunky, sort of ungainly device that you wouldn't have wanted to be seen with in the subway, at least I wouldn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEISBERG: The Kindle 2 is that breakthrough. It may not be quite the iPod of reading, that is a device that's going to change everybody's habits overnight, but I think it marks the transition. It is the moment when someone like me who's been wanting something like this says, this is it. This works. And I am now going to do probably as much of my reading on it as I do in books, and magazines and newspapers.

STEWART: All right. We should point out you don't work for Amazon that sells to Kindle in any way, right?

Mr. WEISBERG: Absolutely not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Okay. Because I am going to ask you to tell me what you think is great about - explain some of the features about the Kindle that you, particularly as someone who is a bibliophile, really like.

Mr. WEISBERG: The most important thing is the basic user interface, what you're holding, and how well it represents the content of the book and how well you can navigate it. So it's got a great high contrast display. You can read it in bright sunlight. And, of course, it can hold a pretty much infinite quantity. I think you can hold 1,500 books, which is about as many as I'm planning to take on my next vacation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEISBERG: But perhaps the biggest breakthrough is how well their new wireless download works. So what it means is they have their own wireless network. They call it Whisper Sync. And it means wherever you are, at least in the United States, and it's worked just about everywhere I've tried it, you can buy a book from Amazon. And most new books cost 9.99, which is less than they cost in hardback form. And you can get it in about 30 seconds.

So if you're having a conversation with someone at a bar and they say, boy, I'm reading this book, it's fantastic, you should read it, instead of making a mental note to go buy it later, you can - if you have your Kindle with you, you just go to the - you go to the Amazon's Kindle store. And with one-click ordering, you've got it immediately. And you can be reading it on the subway on the way home. That works fantastically well. There are things that it doesn't do well, by the way. The - it has…

STEWART: It's not fun to curl up with in bed at night, I mean, how do you get warm next to that plastic square?

Mr. WEISBERG: Well, it's cozy enough for me. I mean, you know, it's, you know, books - hardback books in bed actually have always been a little bit awkward from my point of view. The, you know, they're kind of heavy on your chest. And, actually, they have this thing that's sort of lighter, I think it's great for reading in bed. It's not so good for reading in the dark. It doesn't have a back light or any built-in lighting.

And I think that's a disadvantage because one of the reasons you use a device like this is to be able to read comfortably in situations when reading would otherwise be uncomfortable. So, if you have a significant other who - that likes the light off when they're asleep, and you want to be reading when they're asleep, a backlit device is ideal. This still needs, you know, an itty-bitty book light or a natural reading light.

STEWART: All right. We're going to continue our conversation, but we do want to bring in Patricia from Oklahoma City. Hi, Patricia.

PATRICIA (Caller): Hi.

STEWART: So, I'm guessing that you're not really buying that this is a way that kids should read books.

PATRICIA: Not for children. I mean, I think you need, you know, you've got the wonderful pocket pop-up books. And they need that tactile simulation. They need their parents to sit and read to them, show them the pictures. They need all that.

STEWART: All right. Patricia, thank you so much. I was wondering, Jacob, do you miss sort of the tactile part of reading a book?

Mr. WEISBERG: Well, you know, I don't disagree with what Patricia said at all. I don't think for children's book or illustrated books. I mean, the Kindle, for example, doesn't even have a color screen. But in terms of the experience of reading, you could read to your child from a Kindle, if the child is a little older. And I don't think you would have any loss of the experience.

In fact, I grew up in a household where my father read to my brother and I every night. We read more grown-up literature as we got older. And we kept doing that family reading past a point when I think most people stop reading to their children. And I think it's partly because of that experience that I find myself pretty adaptable in terms of my own reading, whether it's reading audio books or whether it's reading something on a Kindle. I first learned to love literature by having it read to me, not by turning the pages myself of a book.

STEWART: And it's funny when we first started talking about this subject, and I read your article, we were debating back and forth whether literature, you need books to be literate, I kept thinking of the movie "Anchorman" with Will Ferrell, where he's an idiot. He's a moron adult and he says, I have many leather-bound books in my apartment, smell the fresh mahogany.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: That just because you have books around you doesn't mean you're going to be literate or smart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEISBERG: Yeah. Well, you know, it's funny, I mean, you always - when you see sales figures and you see the bestseller list, I always find myself wondering, how many books are bought for conversation pieces on the coffee table, as opposed to how many are actually read? And of course, you don't know because all you know is someone buys the book, you don't know who reads it. But nobody is going to buy anything on their Kindle or their ebook reader to impress anybody. You only buy it because you're going to read it. Nobody can see you have it.

STEWART: We're talking with Jacob Weisberg who wrote an op-ed about the virtues of the Kindle over the physical book. We want to go now to David who is joining us from Hot Springs, South Dakota. And, David, when you read a book, what is it you want?

DAVID (Caller): I really enjoy that book in my hands. I've got the whole book in front of me. I've got the words on the page. I can see two pages and not just a little, a micro proportion of it. But what's even more important is that it's so much different than all the other technology that's in my face all day long. I have a computer-based job where I'm staring at a screen all day. And it's such a nice break to pick up an old-fashioned book and turn those pages and see the letters.

And I can disappear into the text rather than worrying about, all right, how am I going to, you know, functionally turn the page and that type of thing, and those electrons burning my retinas.

STEWART: All right. David, thank you so much. Jacob, how long does it take to get used to the fiddling with the - I was going to call it the wheel like on the iPod, but it's a little turning mechanism on the side?

Mr. WEISBERG: It only took me a couple of days. I think I've had the experience with the books I read on the Kindle already of being lost in them, of being absorbed in them in exactly the way the last caller was talking about. Of course, there's no moral superiority as you're reading a book one way or the other. And it's really a question of what people find most comfortable. And the question from the sort of social point of view is this going to cause people to read less? That would be a very bad thing.

I'm hoping - and I think there's a reason to hope - that it won't cause people to read less. In fact, it can even cause people to read more. But, of course, some people aren't going to make this change to electronic reading. And there's no reason why they should feel compelled to.

STEWART: And you think people might read more because of that function you mentioned earlier, I just told you about a great book and now you can buy it right there and then?

Mr. WEISBERG: I think it adds a certain excitement around the distribution and creation of literature. People are fascinated with the economics of publishing right now, partly because it's in crisis.


Mr. WEISBERG: But there is sort of an excitement about it. I don't know how to describe it. I have a 7-year-old son, and he's really excited about me reading on the Kindle. He wants to get books so he can read on the Kindle. As I was saying before, I don't think it's great for children's books, it's not - he probably shouldn't be reading on it now. But I can see him excited about this technology, excited about this device and that this is going to be another way that he's going to consume stories, consume things that he reads in his lifetime. And I think new technologies breed new literary forms, they breed new innovation and they create moments and movements.

STEWART: We've got one of our listeners wrote in, Ryan, seems to agree to you - with you. He said, right, I do not think the Kindle 2 is the death of literature. The Kindle 2 may be convenient, but the aesthetic quality of holding the book and filling the pages will never be replaced. It is similar with the iPod where an avid music collector may love the convenience of an iPod, but they'll never get rid of their vinyl records. We also want to talk Randy who's calling us to from Chippewa Falls. Hi, Randy.

RANDY (Caller): Hello. How are you today?

STEWART: I'm doing well. Are you pro or con Kindle?

RANDY: I'm pro that anybody would have the opportunity to read at anytime. However, I some concerns about having material that's downloaded from the Internet. It kind of reminds me of the animated cartoon or movie "Animal Farm." And whether you would cross out the all animals are created equal, and then they cross it out and they say all animals are created almost equal or something to that effect.

And the government and people already have access to the Internet and can monitor and/or delete material at will. And we already have a hard enough time discerning what is actually, I don't really want to say truthful information that's, you know, presented to us, let alone what's being filtered through another medium that we have no chance at all whatsoever of going and checking the original source versus a hard copy of something.

STEWART: Randy from Chippewa Falls. Thank you.

RANDY: Thank you.

STEWART: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

We're talking with Jacob Weisberg. He wrote an op-ed today about the joys of the Kindle. We're asking you what you think about the idea of reading on a wireless electronic device versus a book. And for Bill in Chicago, Jacob, Bill, you're concerned about the financial impact, right?

BILL (Caller): Yeah. What I find interesting about the Kindle and the iPod, I do have an MP3 player, but it's not an iPod, because I think that people are underestimating the long-term cost. If I pay 29.99 for a hardcover book, that book may last 20, 25 years. If I pay 9.99 for the Kindle version, then when my Kindle dies, or it breaks, or the battery dies or a it's out of commission permanently, I have to pay another 9.99 for that same book. And pay 9.99 every subsequent time to replace that -the same way with an iPod.

If I buy the CDs and rip the songs, I have the CD. I can rip the song anytime I want to. If I have 10,000 iPod songs on my iPod from iTunes, guess what? I have to pay (unintelligible) if I ever want to replace those songs. And I'm wondering if anybody's realized that there's a bigger long-term cost, possibly, with the electronics form, than just going to an old-fashioned bookstore.

STEWART: Bill's from Chicago, thanks a lot. And Jacob, I'm not Kindle literate enough to know if that's really a big issue.

Mr. WEISBERG: Well, I think in that case Amazon says it's not. When you buy it, it's in your library and you can download it on various devices. In fact, you can already download your Kindle books on your iPod. They just put up an iPod application, an iPod app, that lets you do that. But, you know, I think what a bunch of these calls get at is the feeling that a book is real and an ebook isn't. And that is a very deeply engrained human prejudice which I share.

And I think a lot of people are going to do what I do, which is to read a book on the Kindle or other ebook reader, if that's the most convenient way to read it, but still want to own a physical copy of it. And I saw statistics somewhere that Amazon says that the people who are buying books on Kindle aren't buying any fewer printed books. So they still want to have books in their house. They still want to own books.

And as I was saying, I'm someone, I sympathize with the caller who is talking about downloaded music and LPs and how, you know, the real lovers of - the real collectors want to have that old vinyl. They love the old packaging. They love the whole aesthetic experience even though it's not the technology most people use to listen to music anymore.

Same thing through books, absolutely. And I think in some ways, as a paradox, which is maybe to the good, which is as books become less about just transmitting the contents, they become more about the design, the art, the packaging, the tactile field, that reality. So I don't think, I hope, we aren't living in houses without physical books in them anymore. But I think that's totally compatible with doing much or most of your reading on an electronic device.

STEWART: Mark(ph) from San Antonio agrees with you about the sensual part of reading. Hi, Mark.

MARK (Caller): Hi there. Yeah. I was just listening to the show and I was thinking, gosh, I mean, I'm a big book nerd. I go to library and as a kid I would, like, sniff that book - the smell. You get that, you know, new books, old books. And, like, you can almost, like, become a connoisseur of different scents inside those books. And I thought, well, maybe they can have an application where they could just, like, puff out, like, a little scent, like a Glade. That'd be awesome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEISBERG: Yeah. That's a very funny point. I remember talking to someone about a…

STEWART: Thanks, Mark.

Mr. WEISBERG: I'm sorry, I jumped in, Alison, sorry to interrupt, but the - he just made me think of someone at Microsoft said to me about 10 years ago when they were talking about eBooks. And they said, if you want it to smell like a book, we'll make it smell like a book, you know. And I think we're not quite there yet, but it's not at all unimaginable that they will - there will be leather - a deteriorating leather cover for your Kindle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEISBERG: Or some perfume you spray in the room to make it smell like a musty library.

STEWART: How about a book shaped little air freshener you hang around the end of Kindle like a bookmark?

Mr. WEISBERG: Yeah, exactly, from the - from the rearview mirror in your car.

STEWART: Jacob Weisberg is the editor in chief of the Slate Group. And he wrote an op-ed for Slate Book End, "How the Kindle Will Change the World." He joined us from his office in New York City. Jacob, thanks a lot.

Mr. WEISBERG: Thank you, Alison.

STEWART: Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, a special Tuesday edition of the Political Junkie, it's our primetime presidential presser preview.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Alison Stewart in Washington, D.C.

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