James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Kindle

  • Six Ways of Looking at the Nook

    Barnes and Nobles' price cut on its e-reader has larger implications for the future of publishing, reading, and advertising.

    Barnes and Noble announced today that it was introducing a WiFi-only version of its e-reader, the Nook, for $149. It has also reduced the WiFi+3G model to $199, from $259. The Amazon Kindle is $259. [Whoops! That was a few minutes ago. Kindle now down to $189. Interesting.] Points to make:


    1) I have used Nook for several months, and like it a lot. (Spelling note: B&N was originally pushing an all lower-case spelling of the name, as nook, which just looks odd. It now seems to be getting around the problem by switching to all upper-case, NOOK. I'm sticking to conventional orthography and calling it Nook. Disclosure note: as mentioned several times earlier, I've bought the two Kindles I use but got the Nook as a gift from someone involved in its production. Photo from B&N site.)

    2) The Nook should be thought of as basically similar to the Kindle, rather than basically different -- though it has several nice touches. Trivial-sounding but convenient: the Nook has "forward" and "backward" buttons on both the left and right side of the device. The Kindle has a back button on the left side only. I often find that useful when I'm holding the Nook with my right hand while on a subway etc. The ability to use WiFi connections is also handy; as long as you're at a hot spot, you can shop or browse whether or not you have good phone coverage. (Turns out that this works only inside the US, for copyright rather than technical reasons. I'm still trying to find out whether it would work overseas, if the WiFi connection ran through a VPN that "seemed" to be in the US.) For more, some earlier compare-and-contrasts here and here.

    3) The real differences between the Nook and the Kindle should be thought of as large-scale business model differences, even future-of-publishing-industry differences, rather than look-and-feel differences as you hold the devices in your hand. In this sense, the decision to use one or the other is somewhat like deciding to use Firefox rather than IE, when Firefox first emerged several years ago. That is, part of what you're choosing involves the actual features of the product. ("Tabs" and "extensions" when it came to Firefox; WiFi, "sharing," and other features for the Nook.) But part is also an "open" versus "closed" or proprietary business model. Firefox was of course an open-source software development project, versus Microsoft's proprietary IE. The Nook is meant to break two closed systems. One is Amazon's proprietary Kindle format for e-reading books, versus the Nook's open ePub format. The other is Apple's implicit efforts to "app"-ize the Web,

    4) For a very good discussion of the stakes in both the Amazon and Apple efforts, including app-izing the Web, see this article by Sue Halpern in the New York Review of Books, which centers on the emergence of the iPad. She argues that publishers, writers, and readers will all be better off if the "open" models prevail and both the Amazon and the Apple proprietary efforts are defeated. After the jump, a note from a reader to the same effect. And our new issue has a very good story by Michael Hirschorn on this trend.

    5) Also after the jump, a comment by a first-hand informed source about another larger implication of the Nook's emergence: What it means for the next stages of electronic-device development in general, especially in China.

    6) Probably tomorrow, a guest essay by David Rothman, of Teleread, who has been talking and writing about e-readers since long before they were cool (or existed). He also has a theory about the larger importance of these devices, notably the iPad. 

    Supplementary notes from readers:

    1) I noted early on that when I was looking for the same book on the Kindle and the Nook, the price on Amazon was lower. An industry source gave this explanation:

    B&N is working hard to develop parity with Amazon as they both adopt a new agency pricing model requested by the publishers as has Apple. As you know Amazon was trying to hold out and price their books at $9.99 even though they were losing money. The publishers are fighting this. The new model allows the publishers to set the price and B&N (or Apple or Amazon) takes 30%. While the publishers often get less under this model they can establish the retail. They also don't want Amazon to use this predatory pricing that will hurt other retailers and make them more powerful.

    Here's an example:

    Book sells for $25 in hardcover
    Costs retailers (Amazon, B&N, Apple) $12.50
    E-Book version costs retailers $12.50

    Up to now Amazon sold it for $9.99 (taking a loss).

    Now the publisher sets the price of the ebook at say $11.
    Retailers pays $7.70, makes $3.30 profit. Publisher gets 7.70 (instead of $12.50).

    More to the same effect, from Rupert Murdoch, here.

    2) About the implications of the Nook for future electronic devices in general, from a person with deep experience in the Chinese manufacturing industry:

    The nook was no ordinary development. Remember, B&N is not an electronics company. They're not Amazon nor Sony. But what they were able to do was remarkable. Sources in China are reporting that they assembled a small focused team, and brought the product from a concept sketch into production in about a year. Compare that to Amazon and Sony that took three and four years, respectively.

    This is probably the best example of what's becoming the trend for successful consumer electronics product development. Those companies with nothing have everything and those with everything have nothing. This apparent paradox simply means companies with the urge and need to develop products are often better off without an entrenched engineering organization that slows things down and is resistant to doing things in new ways. Those that are free and unencumbered can assemble the best small teams and work with the best ODMs in China and do a better, quicker job.

    3) About whether e-readers generally will bring publishers more money, as discussed here, a reader writes:

    I want to share an observation with you. I own a Kindle and I have been disappointed with the lack of ads. I see no reason in subscribing to, say Vogue on my Kindle if the glossy color ads are not included. To your article's section of "Display ads", I am awaiting the day when I see an add for a great shirt while reading a men's article on Google.

    Imagine if you could interact with the ad by putting in your height, weight, dimensions, skin and hair color then the ad would insert the body type. Next the image would strut down the runway, possibly in 3D. If I find that shirt and several other items I want at my local department store I could have them waiting for me to try and purchase. I would have more time for browsing. I believe an interactive ad that eliminates wasted time is possibly the avenue Internet advertising would support news articles. Google could ask you to personalize your home computer, phone, notebook etc. for your desired ad content. Hopefully, some variation is on the way.

    Dispatch from David Rothman tomorrow. This is plenty for now!

    More »

  • Another argument for the Kindle

    My main view on communications media is that new systems usually add to old ones, rather than displacing them. Radio didn't eliminate books and newspapers -- that would come later!; movies didn't eliminate still photos; TV didn't eliminate either movies or radio; and the internet has not (yet) eliminated TV. A few communications systems do disappear altogether, except for specialist/curio use: vinyl records, photos on real film, etc. Usually the field just becomes more crowded and the options more diverse.

    So it will be, at least for a while, with e-readers like the Kindle versus "real" books. My two Kindles -- and the other competing models that no doubt I'll eventually buy -- are more convenient in many circumstances than thick, heavy books. In other cases, the "real" books are just nicer.

    One of the nice elements of a real book is all the physical manifestations of its substance and tone: the look of the print on the page, the kind of binding, the look of the jacket and the illustration on the cover, plus the fact that when you're holding a book in public those qualities somehow become part of your presence too.

    Thus when I ordered a book that I'd heard was good -- The Max, by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr -- and it arrived just before I was headed to the airport for a trip, I had to decide: was I actually going to read this in a crowded airport and on a jam-packed plane?
    Thumbnail image for IMG_8330.JPG

    I decided -- ummm, No. (Yes, I realize this is part of the superb Hard Case Crime series, which features retro-lurid covers as its trademark.) If I'd had it on a Kindle, no problem! But for a man of mature years, I figured this was not the right look for a Sunday afternoon in public. Maybe I need to loosen up. Or just stuff the thing inside a magazine and let people think I'm reading that. Imagine how impressed they will be:
  • Getting a start on being thankful: new Kindle firmware

    If you have a Kindle 2 or Kindle DX, the new firmware update is worth checking out, so you can play with it while dozing off in front of the football games tomorrow. Amazon's announcement here. Stalwart Kindle Classic customers like me will have to gut it out with original firmware. But those who, like my wife, have the newer models can take advantage of features like better handling of PDF files and the option of rotating files to view in landscape or portrait mode (ie, horizontally or vertically). FWIW, I find that reading .DOC and .PDF files makes up more and more of my time with a Kindle. It's a much more palatable option than printing them out (wasteful) or logging yet another hour staring at a normal computer screen (ugh).

    One more plus of the new firmware, reported today by reader D.P. in Shanghai:

    "Just upgraded my USA (CDMA) Kindle 2 to firmware version 2.3 (via USB), and it registers and connects to amazon here in Shanghai! Just got my new December issue of The Atlantic over Whispernet. This is pretty interesting."

    Now that's the ideal use of new technology! The real thing to be thankful for is that there is so much activity in the "e-reader" field, so that a few months from now we'll have not just the Kindle and B&N's Nook but many other competitors too. This is what the Pilgrims must have had in mind when they started the Thanksgiving tradition.

    On this front: my interview two weeks ago about e-reader use with Len Edgerly, on his The Kindle Chronicles series.

  • Maybe Amazon and Visa should talk?

    Packing for an airline trip. My wife online booking the next family trip. Keeps trying to confirm and pay for the tickets -- cheap advance purchase deal! System keeps rejecting the Visa card number she feeds it. Hmmmm. Am I going to have trouble using the card on the upcoming trip?

    I continue to pack. She holds on the phone with Visa. Suddenly the answer is there: card has been frozen because of suspicious tiny transactions. One for thirty cents, one for forty-five. Just the kind of "probing" charge that credit card thieves attempt to see if a card number is good -- and that, for the same reasons, credit card companies block.

    But wait a minute. These charges -- shown below -- were for the fifteen-cent conversion fees that Amazon charges when you mail it a .PDF or .DOC file to be sent to your Kindle. I was sending several files so I could read them on the plane. (The $1.25 charge is for my monthly Kindle version of the world's finest magazine -- better on paper, but this is a nice backup.) You can get files converted for the Kindle for free, but it means manually transferring them via your computer. I thought it was worth the seventy-five cents to skip that phase.

    I can't be the first person to use a credit card for tiny Kindle charges. Maybe a little coordination to be worked out here, guys? Another opportunity for the Nook?

  • New meta-theme: design!

    The chart below, from David Wolf's Silicon Hutong site, is not meant to be taken in 100% straight-faced earnest -- I think. It's a flow chart for deciding whether to buy a book as a new hard cover, a used hard cover, or a Kindle-style ebook, including the complication that Wolf is based Beijing and can find only so much in the local shops. (I say: choose whatever form you want, but just buy the damned book!!!)


    It's connected to a more earnest but quite interesting discussion by Wolf of the role of physical books in a personal library, even when ebooks are available. And I'll use it as an intro to the next running meta-theme here: various aspects of design.

    I realize that many of the leads and items I am interested in discussing and thinking about -- once the art course is over and the flu has passed and I'm caught up with, ahem, my "real" work -- really concern design in several aspects.

    •  Design of cities, including the ones springing up all over China, as hinted at in this introductory Beijing-vs-Shanghai post several weeks back.
    • Design of "tools for thinking," which generally includes software and which I find particularly provocative and rich in the emerging (for me) intersection of straight text and graphics. I don't mean photo illustrations; I mean "mapping" and "visualization" programs of several sorts that I, as a pure-text guy from way back, find increasingly useful.
    • Design of hardware for thinking and learning, not excluding the familiar Kindle and the even more familiar PC and Mac.
    • Design of the working environment, the reduce the threat posed by the Number One Killer of Modern-day Thought, non-stop distraction

    More on all of that later. This is fair warning. Now, real work again for a while.

  • "It could have been the Kindle..."

    My wife's consoling comment the other day -- that I had lost all my credit cards and cash, but at least I still had my own Electronic Reading Device -- brings up two relevant updates. One is about the evolution of the device; the other, about the ergonomics of reading.

    First, Kindle 1 versus Kindle 2. Below, a compare and contrast from the Kindle labs here at the Beijing HQ. On the right, in brown, the original, time-tested Kindle Classic, with an add-on leather cover from M-Edge. On the left, in black, the updated Kindle 2, in the standard-issue Amazon-logo'd leatherlike cover (though it doesn't come standard with the Kindle -- you have to buy it separately. I now have an even fancier add-on cover):

    Same two items, in opened-and-readable view. Each shows the screen saver that comes on if you haven't been turning pages for a few minutes. Old on the bottom, new at the top, ever-handy Chinese-English dictionary in the upper left just for a color highlight:

    What's the difference between old and new? Screen slightly brighter on new version, but old is plenty clear. Battery life also somewhat better, but plenty long in original version -- days and days. New has easier navigation; NextPage/PreviousPage keys better designed to avoid accidental pressing of keys; and a much svelter look and feel (below):

    All in all the new Kindle seemed the ideal machine for ... my wife!, who initially scoffed but now is a devotee. Plus, sticking with the doughty Kindle Classic shores up my credentials as an outstanding husband. It's probably worth noting that the K1/K2 contrast is of purely antiquarian interest, since the original models are no longer sold.

    Next, future of books. My friend Jacob Weisberg, of Slate, has rashly ignored my advice on how to avoid becoming a Kindle bore and published his paean to the device several weeks ago, here. I'll solidify my non-bore status by mildly dissenting from his view. Jacob tells us that:
    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.
    I say: sort of.

    The Kindle -- a generic term for all subsequent e-reading devices -- turns out to be great for works in which only the words matter. I find it to be perfect for reading novels -- although what's the surprise there? People have never cared whether they read a great tale in hard back, in paper back, or via Books on Tape. The story is what carries them. My wife has also pointed out that it's useful for reading "difficult" material, since you can concentrate on each little screenful rather than being overwhelmed by a long imposing block of type on a page.

    But a lot of printed material involves more than the words. If layout adds anything whatsoever to the reading experience, the Kindle -- so far -- is distinctly inferior. No doubt I'm professionally biased, but I feel that magazines are far better to read as actual, physical magazines than on-screen. You see the illustrations; you see the graphics and the pull-quotes; you can take advantage of the very highly-refined art of presenting words and pictures on the page. (By the way, subscribe!) As a topic for another time, I also feel that the actual layout of broadsheet newspapers allows for a far quicker and more sophisticated scan of contents (and grasp of relative importance) than clickable links on a computer screen can. In the long run, someone will figure out how to replicate the sophistication of newspaper design on electronic "paper."

    So: feel comfortable reading your fiction and your homework on a Kindle-like device; pray that newspapers survive long enough to allow you to read them on some nice e-paper layout; and in the meantime, cherish your paper magazines.

    More »

  • Kids and Kindle

    My wife is only days away from receiving her exciting new new-to-her Kindle, which is to say that I expect soon to get my hands on a Kindle 2. Meanwhile this note from a good friend about the machine's effect in his household:

    An (unreported?) Kindle phenomenon: 11-year old girl, drove parents crazy by not reading books because totally addicted to electronics, has now transferred total addiction to Kindle 2 - and now does nothing, ever, but read books, one after another. In bed, in the car, while eating - while crossing streets!

    [My wife] says, "Let's buy Amazon stock. In six months, the world will have discovered this particular phenomenon." (She is the one who had the sudden insight that this might work for [our daughter].)

    Ah, this explains the trajectory of my financial life. On hearing the story, my first instinct was not, "Hey, let's act on the potential market-moving nature of this news" but rather "Hey, maybe this is a new answer to all those old laments about American kids refusing to read." Either way, good news for Amazon, good news for the family in question -- and not even bad news for those who have most reason to fear the coming of Kindle, book-store owners, since it sounds as if this new enthusiast was not spending that much time in book stores anyway.

  • More about "America's Defense Meltdown" (Updated)

    This is the book I mentioned yesterday, a very useful overview of the issues, challenges, constraints, and possibilities for America's defense policy. Two tech-related positive developments concerning this book.

    - Hardcovers of the book will be available sometime soon. But if you would like to start reading it today, you can get an electronic copy, free, by requesting one from Winslow Wheeler, the book's editor. He has placed his email address on the Center for Defense Information web site, and  (with his permission) I also give it here: WinslowWheeler@msn.com .  UPDATE: free PDF download now available directly via this link.

    - If, in addition to being interested in a sustainable defense policy for America, you use a Kindle, you will find that the emailed PDF version formats itself well for Kindle reading. (Thanks to Dave Finton on this point. For info and links about how to view .DOC and .PDF files on a Kindle, check here.)

  • How to avoid becoming a Kindle nerd-bore

    Only one way: Just shut up when tempted to say or write anything about it. Otherwise you'll be driving people crazy with your enthusing about how useful and convenient it is, and what its potential might be, and how many elegant decisions are evident in its conception and design.

    I'm talking mainly about high-level functional design: what should the whole system be able to do? What functions should be built in or omitted? Rather than the physical industrial design of the device itself -- which is quite nice but is widely recognized as Ver 1.0 of something that will go through many refinements and tweaks.

    After the jump, two points about functional-design elegance, then maintaining silence on this subject for as long as I can:

    Reading .DOC and (some) .PDF files. This part of the Kindle's function turns out to be much more important than I anticipated.

    Mine can't be the only line of work that involves an endless stream of material to read, often arriving as Word .DOC or Adobe .PDF files. I resist printing them out, and I resent the additional hours of sitting in front a computer screen to read them.

    By moving them instead to the Kindle, (a) I have them all in one place, (b) I avoid lugging around, or forgetting, that much additional paper, and (c) I have them in a much nicer form for reading than the computer itself.

    The elegant design touch here is the range of choices for getting .DOCs and .PDFs into the Kindle. If you're willing to spend ten cents per document, and if you're in range of Kindle's wireless network in the U.S., you email each file to YourName@kindle.com, and a minute or two later it appears automatically on your Kindle.  If you don't want to spend that money, or if you're outside the US, you email them instead to the bluntly-named YourName @free.kindle.com. Then a minute or two later you can download the converted files from an Amazon site and transfer them to the Kindle by USB cable.

    The conversion process is bulletproof for .DOC files. Doesn't handle .DOCX, the newer format for Word2007 files. You have to convert them to .DOC on your own computer before sending, but that's easy. It works for some .PDFs and not others. The more text-y and clearly laid out the .PDF file, the better the chances. For more tech info on getting PDFs into a Kindle, check here and here.

    What strikes me as elegant is the range of choices: for online and offline, free and low-fee, when you're traveling and when you're at home.

    What also strikes me is a subtle branding success. Since there is not yet an agreed generic term for whatever this device is -- not like "your laptop" or "your PDA" etc -- you end up having to say "load them onto your Kindle" whenever you're talking about it.

    Library in the cloud: When you buy an e-book from Amazon (and of course there are vast numbers of free books too), it comes onto your Kindle. The device itself can hold hundreds of entire books at a time - probably thousands, if you insert an SD storage card.

    When you're done with a book, you can delete it from the Kindle if you want. It stays in your index of available books: the little tab indicating its location just switches from "Kindle" or "SD card" to "Amazon." Meaning that in principle you can go collect it again months or years later.

    Obviously extending your library into Amazon's portion of the internet cloud is great for Amazon as a branding lock-in. Obviously too, this and similar developments pose potential big problems for the book store business, even as they might help the book business per se. I love, and go out of my way to shop at, the great independent stores -- from Elliott Bay in Seattle or Powell's in Portland to Kepler's in Menlo Park and the Tattered Cover in Denver and Kramerbooks and Politics & Prose in DC. But I can't easily get books from them when on the road or living abroad.

    From the reader's point of view, the seamless cloud/Kindle integration is a nice touch, even if you never go back to re-load a book you previously read. It's a nice illusion to think that your virtual library is always there to browse around in.
    Bonus touches
    : battery life is something you never have to think about. Unless you forget your recharging cord before setting off for a trek through the Klondike, the power lasts much longer -- many, many days' worth of use -- than you're likely to be away from a plug. You can maximize battery time with two painless steps: leaving the 3G wireless wi-fi receiver off except when you plan to download a book, and turning the device's power off, rather than putting it to sleep, when you're not reading. Unlike a computer, it turns on and off instantly.  And apart from all of this, you can buy replacement batteries.

    Also, the screen is, on longer exposure, very comfortable to read from.

    By this point, I realize that I have now given a lesson in how to become a Kindle nerd-bore. So that's it for a long while.

    More »

  • Newbie Kindle reactions (cont)

    1) Whole different way of thinking about buying books:

    Sitting on the airplane at Newark airport Friday afternoon, getting ready for the 13-hour flight to Beijing. People are still trudging aboard, still OK to talk on the phone, chatting with a friend who mentions a great new book he's sure I'll want to read. While talking with him, I take out the Kindle that I got three days earlier, search the Kindle online store, find and buy the book, have it delivered to the Kindle to read during the flight -- all within about two minutes total. Huge reduction in the gap between "thought that a book might be interesting" and "paying money for that book." Works only for books in the Kindle catalogue, of course.  Implications not so good for book stores but positive for the overall industry of selling ideas  / thoughts / writing, I would think.

    2)  And about not buying books:

    Giant supply of books for free download, in Kindle and other eBook formats, here and here, among other sites. They're mainly out-of-copyright classics, from Ulysses to War and Peace to Huckleberry Finn to Persuasion to Looking Backward to The Oregon Trail to Anne of Green Gables to the Complete Works of Shakespeare (and many by PG Wodehouse). Plus a few new ones. Small donations solicited here. In most cases you download to your computer and transfer to Kindle via USB cable, which is extremely easy.

    3) And about the process of reading:

    Spent six or seven hours of the flight reading on the Kindle. Perfectly pleasant and legible. Only one inconvenience relative to " real" books -- harder to flip ahead or back several pages at a time. (You scroll page by page, or else go to the table of contents.) And a kind of mental-picture adjustment: it's easier to insert bookmarks or placeholders, or seach for a specific word in the text; harder to have a remembered visual image of a certain passage as it fits on a certain place on a page. Not good for books where pictures, illustrations, maps, production quality matter a lot. Very, very good for reading Word .DOC files or .PDFs that I would otherwise have to read on the computer.

    My theory: television didn't eliminate radio, telephones didn't eliminate personal conversations, eBooks won't eliminate real books. People always find more ways to communicate, and this will be another way. Very good for some kinds of information, not so much for others. A welcome new addition to the mix. 


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