Charles Petzold

Kindle Me Elmo

November 20, 2007
New York, N.Y.

Have you heard? In a breakthrough technology, the new Amazon Kindle allows human beings for the first time in the history of civilization to actually read books. No longer will we stare in befuddlement at those complex structures of paper, cardboard, and glue, wondering in despair how we can possibly use a device that contains no buttons, no batteries, no backlighting....

But seriously folks. The part that got me perked up was the $9.99 price for downloading books. Just within the past two days I've experienced serious sticker shock on checking out this $234 two-volume compendium and this 304-page but $235 monograph and I sure was hoping I could get a bit of a price break. Alas, these two books have not yet been Kindle-ized, and I'm not sure when they're scheduled for the process. A year? Five years? Never?

But here's my question: Say I purchase and download a book now, and then, say, 28 years from now, I get a strange urge to re-read the book. Do I just pull out my old Kindle and the book's still there? (How many electronic toys from 28 years ago in operating condition do you still own?) Or did I thoughtfully transfer the book to more permanent storage and now I can just copy it back to the Kindle version 15.0? (What forms of digital storage are still compatible after 28 years? Keep in mind that 28 years ago the most common forms of personal computer storage were 8" floppies, 5" floppies, and — brace yourself — cassette tape.) Or has Amazon kept a record of my purchase for these past 28 years and now allows me to download it again for free? (How many stores did you deal with 28 years ago are still in existence today?)

In contrast, when I wanted to re-read Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer (1979) recently, all I had to do was pluck it from my shelf. A quick puff of breath along the top, and it was ready to go. I didn't even need to change the batteries or convert the format!

It's weird. It's counterintuitive. But it's true: Paper is forever.