The future of reading

After more than a week with my Amazon Kindle, I am ready to say I have seen the future of reading. This actual device, mind you, much as I like it, is not yet there--not quite--but it's close enough to be already indispensable, and to prove that the underlying idea is unstoppable.

The Kindle is as clunky as it looks in the photographs--and the ergonomics are as awkward. The buttons are too big and squeaky; you can't pick it up without pressing one and losing your place; the keyboard, though pitifully slow, runs several characters ahead of the cursor; and I would be hard-pressed even after a week to say precisely what the "back" button does. The use of "locations" rather than page numbers needs rethinking. (The interface has to convey a better feel of how much you've read and how much further you have to go: it's not enough to be shown you're about 30 percent through...30 percent of what?) And I need to reconsider Michael Lewis's reliability as a reporter. His gushing on the Amazon website over the quality of the screen calls this very much into question. Clearer than print? Better than paper? What on earth is he talking about?

The screen is all right, I suppose, better than a computer screen--but it does not display black on white or anything even close. For the photographically minded, I would guess that it's maybe 80 percent gray on 15 percent gray. Perfectly legible in good light--the brighter the better--and no harder on my ageing eyes after several hours than a book. But in less than good light, it is a strain. Coming back on the train from New York last week, on a gloomy afternoon, with an under-powered reading light above, it was harder to read than a book or printed newspaper, and after my eyes had wandered a few times from my Kindle to my neighbor’s magazine, which I could read more easily, I switched back to old technology. Its picture display is hopeless. Its web-browser...well, forget about the web-browser.

I will never bond with this device the way I have with my iPhone. I spend no time gazing fondly in its direction. If my Kindle and my iPhone were trapped in a burning building, it would be all over (aptly enough) for the Kindle.

And yet! The thing is in constant use. Instead of lugging one or (often) two bags around, containing three or four multi-part newspapers and two or three  books, I carry the virtually weightless Kindle and one paper. (If the FT was on the Kindle store, it would be no papers.) I currently have half a dozen books loaded, plus free sample chapters of several others. So whatever my mood, there is always something to read. The wireless connectivity--as much as the low-power, no-backlight, e-ink screen--is the real breakthrough. Download a book in 30 seconds (Lewis was not exaggerating about that), or today's paper, or the latest issue of The Atlantic--issue by issue on demand, or by subscription with automatic delivery. It's irresistible. Intrigued by a book review? Get the sample chapter, or buy the whole thing, and start reading right now.

Really, there's no going back. Not until they fix that button, anyway.