Writes Jeff Bezos today, on the Amazon.com home page:
I love slipping into a comfortable chair for a long read – as I relax into the chair, I also relax into the author’s words, stories, and ideas. The physical book is so elegant that the artifact itself disappears into the background. The paper, glue, ink, and stitching that make up the book vanish, and what remains is the author’s world.
It’s this decidedly old-fashioned experience – this pre-Web experience – that Bezos says he sought to replicate with Kindle, Amazon’s pricey new ebook. No reading-by-committee. No the-crowd-is-the-author rigmarole. No comments from the always-on peanut gallery. No text-as-runny-liquid-fabric. No social network. Just one reader alone with one book by one author:
We’ve been working on Kindle for more than three years. Our top design objective was for Kindle to disappear in your hands – to get out of the way – so you can enjoy your reading.
Bezos must be distressed that the Anti-Gutenbergians are using the launch of Kindle as an excuse for another gleeful trashing of the idea of a book as a self-contained and self-sufficient work. Steven Levy, in his Newsweek cover story on the device, channels the philistine zeal of our post-modern book burners: “Talk to people who have thought about the future of books and there’s a phrase you hear again and again: Readers will read in public. Writers will write in public.” He quotes Bob Stein, head of the ironically named Institute for the Future of the Book: “Book clubs could meet inside of a book.” And Stein’s colleague, Ben Vershbow: “The idea of authorship will change and become more of a process than a product.” Peter Brantley, of the Digital Library Foundation, “envisions wiki-style collaborations where the author, instead of being the sole authority, is a ‘superuser,’ the lead wolf of a creative pack.” Adam Smith, head of Google Book Search, looks forward to “getting rid of the idea that a book is a [closed] container.”
Not quite a quiet read in a comfy chair. Not quite an immersion into an author’s world. More like a buffoonish trampling of it.
“The key revolutionary trait in the Kindle,” writes Kevin Kelly, ringleader of the liquid fabricators, “is its wireless connection … The always on book will be always actionable. This ability to interact, manipulate, shape, cut, clip, annotate, and mash up is what will keep books great.” Translation: If we don’t kill this book, it’ll die.
But Kelly and his fellow-travelers are wrong, and Bezos is right. The only thing that will keep books great is respect for the individual author, the individual reader, and the sanctity of the book as a closed container. When that respect goes, the book goes with it.