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Kindle doesn’t light my fire

For the last three weeks I’ve been the perfect candidate for a high-quality ebook reader, such as the Kindle that Amazon debuted today.

As I crisscrossed the country — Tallahassee/NorCal/Tallahassee/Denver/Chicago/Tallahassee/Atlanta/Panama-City — I lived in the rarefied world of the highly-connected business traveler, my small body bristling with smartphones, Bluetooth headsets, teensy high-powered wifi-enabled laptops, iPods, cellular PC cards, and several other devices, most of which require long black proprietary cords.

And I also lugged good old dead-tree reading. So much so that I checked my carry-on bag in order to carry on my hefty old-lady bag that holds all necessary hardware (as well as wallet, keys, license, cough drops, and empty pretzel bags), plus a well-stitched reinforced tote bag (thank you, OCLC!) bulging with several books, a pile of magazines and journals, printouts of stuff from work, and the day’s newspapers.

I always tuck a couple more books in my suitcase, because there is absolutely nothing worse than facing a long plane ride without reading material. I once stood up on a Southwest flight and yelled, “Does anyone have something to read? Please?” At which point two frightened guys immediately handed me their Wall Street Journals.

So the Kindle might seem to make sense for me. It’s got that all-elusive screen quality — and when you enter the Trifocal Years, trust me, it’s all about the screen quality. Thanks to Amazon’s decision to use cell phone technology (versus wifi), you can download books in a minute just about anywhere you are in the U.S. You have access to over 80,000 books, including 100 of the 112 best-sellers — a better batting average than most airport bookstalls. You can subscribe to newspapers cheaper than you can get them in paper; you can read blogs; you can even load your own documents on the reader. You can make notes! You can annotate! And it’s only 10.3 ounces — half the weight of a small box of powdered sugar!

Let’s shrug off the $399 price tag — I’d save enough on Times subscriptions to pay for the Kindle in a year — and note that at $9.99, best-sellers would suddenly be accessible to me.

So, nu, I hear you ask? Is it not good for the readers?

Well, not quite.

First, as Jason Griffey points out on Pattern Recognition, the Kindle reinforces the idea of one owner per book, period. Fair use? We don’t need no steenkin’ fair use. If the Kindle’s DRM model becomes standard, you can kiss libraries goodbye.

Second, it’s a proprietary format. So when Kindle loses its spark and is replaced by the Apple iReader (yes, I made that up), your Kindle books are lost. Sometimes I misplace my books, and once in a while I lose one; but I don’t go to sleep at night worrying that in ten years I won’t be able to access what I can see on my own shelves.

Third, Amazon picks the blogs you read. Yes. They do. Several hundred of them. The world of blogging becomes commodified and stilted and squinched down to the same airport-mall collection. And — sit down — you have to pay for them (“Get blogs wirelessly delivered to your Kindle for as little as $.99 per month”). Yes — you heard correctly — pay for blogs. Anil Dash sounds a twee hesitant when he says, “I don’t think they should be charging for blogs that are distributed to Kindle users.” Let me be man enough for both of us: that blows chunks. Amazon. Stop. Now. Insane.

Fourth, unless you transfer documents via cable, you are charged every time you transfer a personal document to your Kindle. Yes, Kindle burns your own money to move documents from one device you own to another! It’s just a wee micropayment — ten cents per document — but like felling fair use with a death blow, that strikes me as a very bad precedent (though a pretty slick trick; I’m trying to think of a few businesses I could “repurpose” along those lines — perhaps that plate-to-mouth thing that happens in a restaurant? Call it a “prandial usage” fee, perhaps?).

The most enthusiastic reviews on the Amazon product page come from testers who got free access to the Kindle and authors who were caught on tape rhapsodizing about the glorious new flying machine. (Nabokov is dead, or he would no doubt point out that his own works aren’t in there.) Which reminds me of the last three weeks: fun, interesting, mind-expanding — but also, in its way, terribly cloistered, a world circumscribed by other highly-privileged people laden with technology and advanced reading. For three weeks, it didn’t cause too much damage; but if I lived in that strata, me and my old-lady bag and a Kindle, eventually I would see the world as a place defined by Starbucks lattes, carefully-selected hotel mood music, all the other people who think a lot like me, and that thin slice of the reading world afforded by Jeff Bezos and Co.

I believe we are moving to a networked future. I just hope this isn’t it.

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