We are on the cusp of a future already rewriting itself…

Today Apple finally released their iPad – a tablet-sized device that’s the same size (and price) as a Kindle DX. As I argued last week, this proves that the tablet-sized reader is here to stay. And in honor of today’s milestone, there was some interesting perspective from an Iranian-American journalist on The Huffington Post.

To me, Kindle is like the first Black and White TV that showed up in living rooms, the kind that streaked like a zebra in motion and crackled like a kid’s walkie-talkie, the kind that required antennae-fiddling to get a clear picture and decent sound, the kind that families increasingly bought and sat around.

As primitive as it is, it’s the first wave of a much bigger change. Digital readers will become part of our lives, and (as Charlotte Safavi writes), “When it comes to books, I have come to terms with the fact that it is the written word that counts, not the medium upon which it is delivered.”

And I was touched by the example she used: the epic 19th-century poetry collection “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman.


It avails not, time nor place–distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence…

I was touched because I was just reading that very poem this Saturday.

And yes, it is available for free on the Kindle

The Kindle on Wheel of Fortune?

January 20th, 2010

I was watching Wheel of Fortune, and I swear we passed some kind of milestone. Vanna White started flipping around the letters, and it turns out the contestants were trying to guess the phrase:

Digital Book

Apparently the words “Digital Book” have become a household phrase now — it’s considered so common that even game show contestants are expected to know it! And as I pondered what this meant, I received confirmation just a few episodes later.

One of the prizes they were giving away was a Sony digital reader…

I’ve heard an interesting rumor about Apples’ “tablet” device — which could be released as soon as next week. One analyst described the possibility of “a bigger iPhone, big enough to read with.” It’ll still have a backlit screen, presumably, so the Kindle still offers a superior reading experience. But Apple’s tablet will further legitimize the Kindle — since more people will now be carrying a Kindle-sized device!

I think this firmly establishes the tablet “category” of devices – and now they’re just getting more sophisticated. The Nook gave digital readers some color on their menus, and Apple’s tablet just brings the color to the entire screen. There’s already a Kindle app for the iPhone, but now Apple’s making it available on a tablet-sized device. The devices are becoming more and more similar — but personally, I’d like to see the evolution go in the opposite direction. Maybe someday we’ll see an iPhone with a Kindle-like screen — one that isn’t backlit, and that uses natural light!

But that’s just the beginning, according to an article in Sunday’s business section. We’ll ultimately be surfing the web on our TVs, and watching TV on our cell phones. It’s all just digital content, and in the next few years every boundary will fall away. I’m looking forward to the day when I can read books on an enormous flat-screen TV
– broadcasting literature into my living room. And it’s pretty mind-boggling if you think about it, since the progression of media
hadn’t changed much over the previous two thousand years.

I mean, it started with pictures that cavemen drew on the walls. Eventually humanity developed text (and of course, text accompanied by pictures). But it took until the 20th century before we’d developed moving pictures. (And within a few decades, that was upgraded into moving pictures with sound.) Now we’ve finally reached the next milestone: live moving pictures with sound — which means we can just look at our friends and loved ones, and even enjoy a real-time conversation.

But out of all these developments, I’m still most excited about the books.

I still want to see literature in my living room…

I had an interesting idea. I’m trying to make a list of all the different devices on which I’ve read a complete story.

See, right now I’m reading a Star Trek novel on my Kindle — which is super-weird, because I’d also read these as paperback books when I was a teenager in the 1970s. They’re stories set in the distant future, but now I’m in the future — 30 years from the 1970s — and I’m using a real futuristic reading device…to read about a fictitious future!

And meanwhile my screensaver’s showing me a picture of the Gutenberg press…

So over my lifetime, I’ve read stories on lots of different devices. And as an exercise, I tried to write up a complete list of them all. I mean, the first thing I ever read was a “See Dick Run” children’s reader. And when I was six years old, my parents bought me a comic book about two squirrels. So here’s how that list would begin…

A picture book
Comic books

I thought about also including “The titles of cartoons on TV,” but realized it would take too long to list everything I’ve ever read. (Billboards, valentines, medicine bottles, the instructions on parking meters…) So I tried narrowing the list to devices on which I’ve read a complete story.
Even then, I still ended up with…

Bubble gum comics

Technically, a Bazooka Joe comic strip is still a story. (And for that matter, so are the four-panel “stories” that you’d read in a daily newspaper.) But still, most of the stories I read were published as books. Until the internet came along and added new ways to read stories…

Online eTexts from Project Gutenberg
Short stories posted to Usenet
A type-written manuscript that a writer sent me…

Someone in Hollywood also once sent me a PDF file with a TV show’s script. And I think that completes my list of every device on which I’ve read an actual story.

But it’s a very challenging exercise — try it! (Because I’d love to know what other story-reading mediums I’ve missed…) And it’s also a very satisfying experience. It’s like tallying up an entire lifetime spent reading, while also highlighting the moments when new technologies came along. And of course, the exercise has to end by adding one final item.

Reading stories on my Kindle

Aging, Reading, and the Kindle

January 7th, 2010

“I love reading history,” writes Barbara Strauch, “and the shelves in my living room are lined with fat, fact-filled books.

“The problem is, as much as I’ve enjoyed these books, I don’t really remember reading any of them.”

She’s the health editor at The New York Times – and she’s written a book about the problems of an aging mind. It’s something I’ve worried about: will I still be able to enjoy reading as I grow older? I have fantasies of retiring, and finally having all day to read. (Maybe then I could finally tackle Remembrance of Things Past or War and Peace.) One reason I bought my Kindle was to increase the font sizes on books — so I wouldn’t need spectacles or special Large-Print editions. And with WhisperNet, I’m now invisibly connected to all the literature I could ever want to read.

The problem now isn’t the reading technology — it’s the physical problems of the reader! Will reading be a different experience when you’re doing it with a differently-aged brain? Strauch apparently answers the question in her upcoming book – but there’s reason to be optimistic. The book’s subtitle is “The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind,” and according to the blurb on Amazon, “the middle-aged brain is more flexible and more capable than previously thought.”

And in the New York Times this week, Strauch informs us that “The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture.” So I won’t lose my ability to enjoy the great works of literature before I die. And in fact, if I’m understanding her correctly, our ability to literature may actually improve with age.

“If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can…”

Life, According to the Kindle

January 6th, 2010

Here’s one of the things I love about my Kindle. Not only am I successfully juggling 10 different books at one time. They’re all free!

I live near San Francisco, so it’s especially fun to read what’s essentially a blog post about the city…written in 1836.


Friday, December 25th. This day was Christmas; and as it rained all day long, and there were no hides to take in, and nothing especial to do, the captain gave us a holiday, (the first we had had since leaving Boston,) and plum duff for dinner. The Russian brig, following the Old Style, had celebrated their Christmas eleven days before; when they had a grand blow-out and (as our men said) drank, in the forecastle, a barrel of gin, ate up a bag of tallow, and made a soup of the skin…

That’s from Two Years Before the Mast, a young Harvard grad’s journal of his years working as a common ship’s hand — as they work their way up the Mexican territory on the Pacific Coast which, just 13 years later, would enter America as the state of California.

It’s one of the first moments where I’ve felt such an intimate connection to someone who lived nearly two centuries ago. But while young Richard Henry Dana was traveling in what was then a foreign land, he seems lonely but intrigued, which gave him a special willingness to share his sincere human reactions with a concise humility.

My girlfriend told me Dana was a student of Ralph Waldo Emerson at Harvard, and Dana’s father was a poet. But in his own honest way, I think Dana stumbled into the grandness of literature itself.

Yet a sailor’s life is at best, but a mixture of a little good with much evil, and a little pleasure with much pain.

The beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the commonplace, and the solemn with the ludicrous…

That’s the second time in a row that’s happened! The screensaver is of an author whose books I’m reading on the Kindle!

This time, it was Alexandar Dumas. (I’m reading The Three Musketeers). And boy, does he look happy about it…

Yes, I’m looking up more ways to hack the Kindle’s screensaver images. And yes, I want to replace them with my own favorite authors. But as January 1 rolls away, it reminds me that this isn’t the first time I’ve done this. In fact, I hacked another set of author images 10 years ago — before the Kindle was even invented.

And I think the two experiences sprang from the exact same impulse…

Everyone has their own personal favorite authors. But when you’re selling a device — whether it’s a Kindle or a calendar — you just have to guess. The Kindle guessed Jules Verne, Oscar Wilde, Jane Austin, and Emily Dickinson (among others). And in 2000 I’d bought a “Great Names In Literature” calendar that had made — pretty much the same choices.

But they’d left out my favorite authors. (Where was William Faulkner? And how about Norman Mailer? Man, that guy was a hoot…) I also wished they’d included Jack Kerouac on my calendar. And then, I did something about it.

I went to the public library and photocopied giant pictures of my favorite authors — including Faulkner, Kerouac, and Mailer. And then I pasted them directly into my calendar — over pictures of my own least-favorite authors. (Don’t ask who!) I take my calendar far too seriously — I believe it’s a January ritual consecrating hopes for the year to come — or something like that. So I was hoping I’d end up writing my own book that year — and I wanted the right authors looking down from my calendar!

I could always do that to the Kindle’s screensaver images, but I won’t — because I really like the Kindle’s screensaver images. But I still might add a couple of my personal favorites into the mix as well.

A Kindle Screensaver Miracle

January 1st, 2010

What a nice moment. I’ve been reading Around the World in 80 Days — Jules Verne’s original novel. In the next chapter Phileas Fogg launches his trip, so I pick up my Kindle, but its screen-saver’s on.

And it’s showing me Jules Verne!

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. One of Verne’s other books is #46 on the Kindle best-seller list. (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – written in 1870.) It’s been in the top 100 for 268 days.

But I’m guessing that’s not the reason Amazon included his picture as a Kindle screensaver. Jules Verne is one of those authors who symbolizes the reach of literature (since he famously wrote about submarines and space travel before either of those things was actually invented!) I’m guessing Amazon chose his image as a Kindle screensaver before they’d realized just how popular Verne would be for their digital editions.

But also, Jules Verne just looks like a novelist. (Wild French hair brushed back like he’s facing a gale — plus an old-timey bow tie and a classy 19th-century suit.)

But it got me thinking about just how exactly does Amazon pick the authors for their screensavers. So far I’ve also seen Emily Dickinson. I felt kind of sad. I remembered that she’d lived a lonely life — never left the village where she lived, and often never even leaving her house. (And I was surprised they’d used a picture of young Emily Dickinson. Or maybe she just looked young…)

And, yeah, when Oscar Wilde came up, I just assumed that my Kindle was haunted…

Sometimes it’s not an author — sometimes it’s just a cool image And sometimes, it’s a tip – which are actually pretty useful. (I didn’t know I could type my way to selections on the home page if I sorted the books by title…) 

And yes, there is a way to change your Kindle screensaver