Can Amazon's Kindle remake e-books?

Nobody likes e-books, but maybe the online bookstore can change that.

Published November 16, 2007 6:20PM (EST)

CNet and the Wall Street Journal are up with scoops on a long-awaited device from Amazon, a thing that could either be quite grand but that odds say will prove a bust: an e-book reader. It'll come out Monday, they say, in a flashy media event in New York.

Don't scoff. This is not just any e-book reader.

This reader, whose production Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has reportedly personally overseen for more than a year, is billed as the one that will finally hit big: The e-book reader, that is, that'll rehabilitate your basic suspicion about these things marketers and tech gurus call "e-books," transforming what has been an unpopular idea -- the idea that something powered by batteries could elicit the pleasure and comfort we covet in printed books -- into a thing so obviously enjoyable you wonder what the world ever did without it.

Right, like the iPod. Could Amazon's e-book reader be that big?

That would have to be the company's goal, at least -- the next killer device. Amazon is not a hardware manufacturer; it is an online retailer. That it is moving into the hardware biz must signal grand ambitions, ambitions that likely stem from this basic proposition: E-books looks good on paper.

In theory, I mean, an electronic device that can serve up lots of reading material, one that's as portable, durable and easy to use as a printed book and that can also somehow mimic print's look-and-feel -- in theory, such a device could be a smash. We'd all buy one, and then we'd buy books in the same way we now buy music, in purely electronic transactions that involve no physical media whatsoever.

Trouble is, every e-book venture -- most recently Sony's Reader -- has failed. Maybe that's why Amazon calls its device Kindle. Bezos thinks he can spark the fire.

Details are skimpy. The device, reports say, will have Wi-Fi, Sprint's EV-DO wireless service to make book purchases on the go, and a 6-inch screen that is not backlit. It will go for $399, but there's no word on the cost of the books or even the sales model.

Oh, and also, judging from the sneak pictures the FCC put out while the Kindle was being approved, the device also packs, to quote Engadget, "a big ol' dose of the ugly."

What we all wonder about e-books -- the thing that seems most preposterous and unlikely about e-books -- is their amenability to "curling up" to.

You've got this picture of yourself on the beach or in bed or on your Pottery Barn leather recliner by the fireplace on a lazy winter morning. And whether it's a good solid hardcover or a tattered old paperback, and whether the author is Dave Eggers or Dan Brown or Jane Austen or Malcolm Gladwell or Cary Tennis or Francine Prose or Michael Lewis or whoever, the whole thing feels just perfect. If you're a reader, it's the best place in the world, doing that thing at that moment.

Inserting an e-book into the scene feels blasphemous, doesn't it? It's a profound violation of the accepted norms, like doing your taxes on your honeymoon.

But this sort of reading is so wonderful for many of us mainly because it's so rare for many of us. Who has time anymore to curl up?

In a nation of commuters and business travelers, a lot of the reading we do, now, is during stolen moments between endeavors deemed more important, on trains and planes and waiting rooms, in hotels in new cities too dismal for tourism where we've flown because our bosses made us.

Amazon's reader could be a godsend for these folks. CNet reports that the company is considering a deal with W Hotels for guests to be able to check out the Kindle during their stay.

Imagine that! You're put up in this corporate hotel for a job that's going to last you don't know how long, you've tired of cable, and hotel porn just doesn't do it for you anymore, you can't do the Web because your laptop just reminds you of work, and the nearest bookstore is in a mall out in the suburbs. The Kindle to your rescue!

Seriously, if Amazon has gotten this right, it'll be big.

[Picture from the FCC, via Engadget.]

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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