By David Kopel
I prefer reading books on paper (“pagebooks” in 23d century parlance). So I initially thought that Kindle (and similar products from other companies) was an interesting novelty, but not greatly important. However, some ancillary aspects of Kindle are making me reconsider. To wit:
1. Text to speech. Only a very small percentage of books are so popular that it makes economic sense to create a special audio edition. Kindle’s text-to-speech feature makes every book into an audio book, unless the publisher refuses to grant the rights. As a result, the number of available audio books is vastly increased. The Kindle reader is not excellent, but it’s pretty good. The “reader” has little sense of English, and often puts the accent on the wrong syllable. But the listening experience is no worse than listening to a very clear speaker whose native language is not English, and who therefore incorrectly accents “Wisconsin.” Kindle is incompetent at numerals of three digits of greater. “1990s” will be read as “eye-gee-gee-oss” or “nineteen-goes” or some other bizarre variant. But overall, Kindle creates a reasonably functional audiobook out of every pagebook, with no marginal production cost. Pretty nifty for those of us who might want to listen to a policy book that sold 3,000 copies in 1996.
2. Text resizing. Not a big deal for me now, but gigantically significant for older people like my dad, whose eyesight is not as sharp as it used to be. With Kindle, every book is instantly a large-type edition. As with audio, a special feature that once was available only for big sellers is now available for everything.
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3. Newspapers! Daily subscriptions to the Irish Times, the Daily Telegraph, Spain’s ABC, and other great newspapers for a small fraction of what a print subscription would cost. And, for my dad, a large-print (via text resizing) version of the Denver Post and NY Times. I realize that all this is available for free on the web, but it’s nice to be able to read a newspaper while sitting in the garden, instead of sitting in the home office at the computer monitor.
4. Instant delivery. Back in the days when I wrote a bi-weekly column for the Rocky Mountain News, there were plenty of times when I was writing a column Tuesday night for which was due Wednesday afternoon, and I discovered that the column would be improved by my examining a book to verify a particular fact. Sometimes I was able to get what I needed via Amazon’s preview feature. But even better would have been instant delivery of the book itself. Only a tiny percentage of readers have an important need to have a book now, as opposed to 12 or 72 hours from now. For those readers who do need instant delivery, Kindle is fantastic.
As Wonder Woman might have said, the Amazonians are building the bridge to the future.