Like everyone else who follows the blogs and listserves that everyone else follows, over the past month or so I have had the opportunity to skim thousands of comments on the new Amazon Kindle. I haven’t actually played with a Kindle, yet, but if ever a subject were well covered by the secondary literature, this is it, so I feel fully qualified to comment on the matter. (This in the spirit of Pierre Bayard’s recent How to Talk About Books that You Haven’t Read, which I have played with.)

The Kindle is plainly many wonderful things, and does many wonderful things, and, for most purposes, is a pretty poor substitute for a book. (At the same time, for some purposes, such as carrying a substantial library on a long trip, or augmenting that library at 4AM from a hotel room in a strange land, or getting the best price on some content from Amazon, it’s much better than a book.)

I acquired a Sony Reader about a year ago, and I like it just fine, although if I have time, space, and carrying capacity, I invariably prefer a book. When I first played with the Sony I thought that pretty soon now, there would be readers that would make e-books very good substitutes for p-books. A year or two and lots of development costs later, I’m not so sure. Put simply, what is most striking about the buzz around the Kindle is that (almost) no one is saying that it is a revolutionary, next generation improvement over its predecessor. It’s better at some things, has a much better interface for actually acquiring content, and so on. It’s wow, but not “WOW, I’m going to throw away my library and convert the space into a billiard room.”

Here’s an instructive contrast – JSTOR. When JSTOR made the back issues of the leading economics journals available digitally, I did throw away part of my library and repurpose the space. JSTOR made it possible for me to skim and read any article in the relevant journals. Of course, even then if I was really going to read the article, I would print it out, the better for carrying around and making marginal notes.

As we all know, electronic versions of academic journals have been very successful, and most academic libraries are now choosing the electronic form in preference to print for a large fraction of their serials. How do faculty and students use these resources? They search them on the screen, and often skim them on the screen, and if they want to read them carefully they print them out and carry them around. Thus, I claim that the great success of e-journals can be attributed in no small part to the fact that their content comes in easy, print-sized chunks.

I’m betting that something similar will be true of e-books. They will really take off when their publishers admit that on-screen (in either computer or reader) is not the best medium for serious and sustained reading, and develop and use technical and rights environments that allow cheap and convenient print on demand. It’s wonderful to be able to search and to skim on screen, but when you want to read, there is nothing like a book or a printed article. The Kindle and the Reader are great; I wouldn’t leave home without one. But, like almost everyone, I do most of my reading at or near home.