The Luddite dream of Jeff Bezos

Writes Jeff Bezos today, on the 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.

20 thoughts on “The Luddite dream of Jeff Bezos

  1. Graham Hill


    Two books arrived for me in the post this morning (neither from Amazon). There was a palpable sene of excitement as I ripped off their wrappers, admired their glossy covers and a sense of contentment as I relaxed in a comfortable chair to browse through one of them. An hour later I realised I should get on with my work and reluctantly put the book down.

    The eBooks crowd may be all excited about the future of the book. Personally, the future of the books I will be buying will look exactly like the two that arrived today.

    Graham Hill

    Independent CRM Consultant

    Interim CRM Manager

  2. Charles

    My local university has a “Center for the Book,” their work is considered cutting edge, even though they teach letterpress printing and even have classes in setting hot lead type on antique Linotype machines. Their handmade books are works of art, you can buy many of them for around $20, and they’ll probably increase in value over time.

    But the Kindle machine can only depreciate over time, eventually becoming another discarded, obsolete machine in a garbage dump.

  3. timswan

    Books wrapped in DRM that is exclusive to the Kindle, and an extremely limited ability to read other formats. I’m sort of surprised at the people that usually argue against DRM that think this is a good idea.

    What happens to your library when the Kindle bombs and you’re unable to read the books that you purchased? I guess you just start a new library.

  4. Aaron

    I totally agree. Collaboration is great, and a lot of the technologies that we have that facilitate it are helpful. But there is a point of diminishing returns where collaboration becomes just noise.

    And let’s not forget the old adage: None of us is as dumb as all of us.

  5. Kontra

    In Newsweek Steven Levy said “Though Bezos is reluctant to make the comparison, Amazon believes it has created the iPod of reading.” While “the iPod of …” has become a cliché to describe any product with a semblance of distilled design sensibilities emanating from Cupertino, there is one fundamental strategic reason why Kindle won’t be like the iPod: content. I explain why here:

    “Why is the new Kindle eBook reader from Amazon and not Apple?”

  6. Nick Carr

    there is one fundamental strategic reason why Kindle won’t be like the iPod: content.

    I agree, though I think it goes beyond the DRM issue with Kindle. When the iPod appeared, digital music players were already well established and people’s PCs were bulging with MP3s, thanks to Napster and its followers. We don’t see anything similar with ebooks. There’s still no evidence that people see much value in them. So while Apple came in and scooped up a market that already existed, Kindle enters an empty space. Tough challenge.

  7. Laurent

    The mistake too many make is to try to position a new product directly against the incumbent solution. Most of the time the new product succeeds by targeting a small part of the existing market (as well as non-consumers) that the current solution doesn’t serve well.

    I think a Kindle can be useful in a few cases:

    – material we’re already used to read online: newspapers, blogs, Wikipedia. For these give me a Kindle any day.

    – material we read and throw away. For some books I want to keep a physical copy once I’ve done reading them. But for, say, the latest Harry Potter I couldn’t care less. Once I read it I can ditch it (or, like millions of readers, try to sell it).

    I think Amazon deserves anyway some kudos for trying to come up with a new solution. They’ve thought about a lot of details (like the complementary 3G access – no monthly fee!) and didn’t try to release yet another e-book.

  8. mndoci

    I don’t know about the Kindle. I love reading books the old fashioned way. Much as I like technology (and when it comes to scientific or technological papers, I exclusively use PDF), reading books for me is still best done the old fashioned way.

    But there are other issues with the Kindle. Looks – bad. Cost – bad. Proprietary format – really bad.

    Perhaps for travel, I can see myself using an ebook, but don’t think the Kindle is going to be that book.

  9. Nav

    Nick, I think you’ve set up a false dichotomy between the collaborative idea of the book and Bezos’ vision in which the issue is who is responsible for meaning in a text. The idea of the book as a closed product of an author has undergone a radical re-imagining in literary cultural theory over the past few decades – this isn’t just about technology but is instead about structures of meaning and how (rather than what) words mean.

    Many would argue that respect for the individual author is a fallacious approach that distorts how we read. That’s not to say that it’s been gotten rid of entirely; rather, people have examined the links between individualism, capitalism and the historical production of the author as an idea and found that it can often limit or constrain how one engages with literature as both art and cultural artefact.

  10. Nick Carr

    Nav, Respecting the integrity of a piece of writing doesn’t mean you have to be a passive or unsophisticated reader. Nick

  11. gianni

    Oh, c’mon !

    Respect for authors and books is not embodied in the physical objectivity of the printed word – otherwise Gutemberg should have been the biggest enemy of the printed word, instead of its greatest hero.

    Don’t think of the people (like Nick and many here including myself) whose bookshelves are bulging with thousands of books.

    Think of the free-press commuters who read an average of 0.75 books per year.

    Think of european college students and their back-breaking backpacks.

    Think of all those times I’d gladly catch an essay or a novel when stuck in an airport lounge.

    Think of how ridiculous I was carrying around “A new kind of science” for a whole summer.

    You guys are whining as if traditional books all of sudden were forbidden. Get a grip, boys !

    Sure it could change the way people read, maybe enticing more of them to read more, which by any measure it’s A GOOD THING.

    Except it won’t.

    It won’t because of DRM (and a few minor design problems), it won’t because of price, it won’t because its butt-fugly appearance will not turn it into a cult object, but rather into the Prius of ebook readers.

    What a shame !

  12. BrianSJ

    The thesis about the individual author and individual reader is sound, but not necessarily exclusive. The paper book has a very long future but I am surprised at enjoying reading texts from the gutenberg project on my nokia e61 (no DRM, no additional device) when travelling.

  13. Phil

    Many would argue that respect for the individual author is a fallacious approach that distorts how we read.

    [Rhetoric peeve]

    Is “many would argue” a roundabout way of saying “I do argue”? If not, what do you argue?


    More to the point, what does this actually mean? (Fallacious in what way? How does it distort?) I’m currently reading Outsiders by Howard Becker, Mafia, justice et politique en Italie by Jean-Louis Briquet and Predator’s gold by Philip Reeve. All of them (especially the Reeve) grab me by the collar and immerse me in somebody else’s world. That’s what books do well, for me, and I don’t see that gaining a critical distance from Reeve, Briquet and Becker – or mentally putting myself on their level – would do anything but get in the way.

    The ‘conversational’ style of reading that some people are trumpeting sounds more like skimming a newspaper article looking for the interesting bits – or, among academics, skimming a journal paper looking for arguments that touch on what you want to say in the paper you’re writing. It’s not the best way to read journal papers or newspaper articles, and it certainly isn’t a good way to read a book. The copy of Outsiders I’m reading has been annotated by several students, one of whom is very keen to point out that the mechanisms of social control Becker’s describing really don’t apply at all these days. It’s like listening to my son speculating about the plot of a book he’s halfway through – “Well, maybe. Just keep reading, OK?

    I probably spend more time reading blogs, most of which I also comment on, than I do reading all of the above put together. It’s a very different experience; it’s reading and writing brought together, in a collective exchange not unlike a conversation. It’s a bad habit, which I indulge in because I get a certain kind of gratification* from a quick hit of self-expression and response; I’d like to do a lot less of it, and a lot more reading.

    *Cold pricklies, mostly.

  14. Sid Steward

    An electronic reader should leverage the cloud by giving me access to my entire library. As a techie with a paper reference library that is difficult to access, navigate and search, this would be valuable to me. Perhaps Kindle + Safari Online = $$$?

  15. Soundacious

    You want to know what would be the “iPod” of ebooks? Or better?

    1. 25 or so flexible color displays bound together in a leatherette cover. You can choose to scroll through pages electronically or turn them manually. Hold given content you want to keep handy in the pages in the back. And you can always buy and insert more in the sleeve.
    2. A stylus that can be used to highlight and add notes to any text, saved with the document.
    3. No stinkin’ DRM, and an automatic wireless connection to Project Gutenberg.
    4. A price point of $150 or less. Preferably more like $99.

    That’s what’s gonna change the world. This overpriced, clamped-down PDA isn’t even close.

  16. Kevin Kelly

    Nick’s great phrase: “text-as-runny-liquid-fabric” makes me hungry. Yum yum.

    I live and work in a two-story library with many thousands text-as-stiff-dead-trees books and I love them all. But a little runny-liquid-fabric stuff would be the perfect counterpart. Like wine with your meal.

    BYW, I agree 100% that there’ll be no ipod of reading before there is a napster of reading. Good call.

    But why should a book be a sacred closed container, any more than your mind should be a sacred closed container? No book is an island, no matter how much it pretends. All that’s happening is the connections that have always been there are being made visible and actionable.

  17. Chris K

    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.”

    Interesting in that a couple of the “post-modern book burners” talk about the e-book as I hear writers talk about that old-fashioned typewriter/word-processor/computer and paper-concocted volume we hold in our hands today. Writing is a process–always has been, always will be. And as far as sole authority vs superuser goes, I see no difference. An author in the pre-post-modern bookburning sense has always made use of the contributions of others in the world around him or her, incorporating bits of conversation overheard in the market, basing a character’s physical appearance on the lady in the subway, imagining what ought to happen to that rude man crowding the bar, etc, etc.

  18. Harald Felgner

    Musing about my personal list of needs/ uses concerning media portability:

    * I need an audio-carrying device, as I fill a 4-hour train commute or a 15-minute walk with MANY snippets of music and spoken-word podcasts (iPod). I need a syncing mechanism with my home-base (iTunes on desktop computer) or with my multi-purpose device I carry around anyhow (iTunes on laptop). I would need an online audio backup service (?).

    * I need my portable multi-purpose device mentioned (Toshiba) to accomplish the MANY tasks of business and personal digital life.

    * I need a mobile high quality camera (Nikon) to take MANY pictures. I need a syncing mechanism (Adobe Lightroom), and I need an online backup/ publishing service (flickr).

    * I need a mobile phone to take MANY calls a day which additionally serves as a low-quality camera and recorder (Sony Ericsson). I need a syncing mechanism (Windows Explorer).

    * I need a text display device to read say a MAX of 100 pages a day from a RESTRICTED number of sources (one or two books and two magazines/ newspapers) when not at home. Let it be 1000 pages for a holiday. But nevertheless: I concentrate on/ dive into ONE or TWO books then, reading sequentially. Concerning the magazines and newspapers: I browse them – which is different from searching. Paper is fine for that. The use case of researching (full-text search) is so tightly coupled to re-using the found text snippets instead of just reading them that I would use my laptop anyhow.

    Is the Amazon Kindle the future of the book? No, definitely not. But …

    … it might be the future of a completely new need/ usage scenario.

    Tell me how!

Comments are closed.