"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.