The Kindle. Disembodied hand sold separately.
There has been a lot of fretting among bookish types that Amazon’s Kindle will be the downfall of the printed word. Meanwhile, Roy Blount (current president of the Authors Guild) has an op-ed in today’s New York Times drawing attention to a lesser-known concern among Authors Guild types: Kindle 2’s text-to-speech feature allows for books to be read aloud, which means it could significantly cut into the billion dollar audio book market without paying anyone for audio rights.
“You may be thinking that no automated read-aloud function can compete with the dulcet resonance of Jim Dale reading Harry Potter,” writes Blount.
But the voices of Kindle 2 are quite listenable. There’s even a male version and a female version. (A book by, say, Norman Mailer on Kindle 2 might do a brisk business among people wondering how his prose would sound in measured feminine tones.)
The National Federation of the Blind asserts that the Authors Guild is preventing the blind from access to the spoken word (while acknowledging that Kindle 2 “cannot be used independently by a blind reader because the controls to download a book and begin reading it aloud are visual and therefore inaccessible to the blind”). To which Blount responds that “publishers, authors and American copyright laws have long provided for free audio availability to the blind and the guild is all for technologies that expand that availability. … But that doesn’t mean Amazon should be able, without copyright-holders’ participation, to pass that service on to everyone.”
Point: Blount. This debate aside, the Kindle is very cool. We don’t have one, but our sister/sister-in-law Ellen does. It’s fun to play with. We don’t think owning a Kindle is mutually exclusive to buying books. (You won’t hear us say this often, but for once we agree with Stephen King’s critical assessment.) Kindle users are probably the types who still buy a lot of books anyway, although they’re surely buying less than they usually might. For our money, nothing can replace holding a first edition hardcover in your hands or appreciating the aesthetics of a full bookcase to compliment the decor of one’s living room. But we’d certainly accept a Kindle with no small degree of enthusiasm if you were thinking about buying us one.
Does this mean we want everyone to go buy Kindles? No. Since one of us makes a livelihood on selling printed books, we’d encourage you to keep doing that. But is the Kindle the end of the printed word? Hardly.
Once the Kindle is able to replicate Nic Cage’s voice, though, all bets are off. We’ve always wondered what it’d be like to listen to him reading Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic.