- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2008

We’ve all done it. Rushing to get clothes, kids and currency properly packed, we arrive at the airport ready to relax and realize we’ve forgotten a book for that four-hour flight. Or we remember but finish it by the time we land and have nothing left to focus on but our fellow sunbathers as we sprawl out on the beach. So we stop at the airport bookstore and, all too often, are stuck choosing between the latest Stephen King and the last few Jodi Picoults.

Could Amazon’s Kindle change all that?

The debate over electronic books, or e-books, has raged since the digital age began. Some predict that books will be obsolete one day, and the rapidly decreasing numbers of people who actually read their newspapers on newsprint back them up. Others insist that the perfect simplicity of books can’t be bettered.

That latter group long seemed to be right. No e-book readers really caught on, and programs that let you read books on cell phones or PDAs were barely used.

The company that changed the way we bought books now wants to change the way we read them, though. Amazon.com introduced Kindle last November; the first batch sold out in less than six hours despite a price tag of $399. (This month, the price dropped to $359.) What is it about this device that caught readers’ attention when so many other e-readers have failed?

One word: wireless.

Unlike other e-readers, the Kindle enables users to download a title from anywhere, anytime. You can think of a book and, if it’s available, start reading it in less than a minute.

“Our CEO, Jeff Bezos, said that the vision for Kindle is to be able to get every book ever printed in less than 60 seconds,” says Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener. “That’s a grand vision; we’ve got a long ways to go.”

The Kindle store started with 90,000 books, including 112 recent best-sellers. With thousands added just this month, there are 125,000. (Borders, for comparison’s sake, averages 87,000 titles per store.) Most new releases are $9.99, while classics are practically free. That’s in addition to newspapers, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and magazines, including Time and the Atlantic.

Mr. Herdener says the company has found that it’s not so much gadget geeks who are buying its product, as you might expect, but voracious readers. Josh Bancroft is both. He’s a social-media expert for Intel Software Network in Beaverton, Ore., who reads about 100 books a year and says, “It drives me crazy to have a few minutes go by without something for me to read.”

Mr. Bancroft, 31, calls traveling “one of the most brilliant uses for the device.” He bought his Kindle right after a two-week trip to Shanghai. “I finished the first book before I even left my home airport and bought another one there. I finished that one by the time I got to San Francisco and bought another one there. I finished that one before we landed in Shanghai,” he reports. “By the time I got home, I had been carrying these five or six books in my luggage all over the world. It was that experience that gave me concrete evidence of how a Kindle could simplify my reading.”

Mr. Bancroft reads mostly sci-fi, history and computer books on his Kindle, which he has shown off using Amazon’s See a Kindle in Your City forum. His 5-year-old daughter calls it his “magic book.”

“For me, it has changed reading the same way MP3 and iPods changed music,” he says.

Katelyn Schreyer and her Kindle also are inseparable. The 22-year-old University of Maryland, College Park student says she reads more now. “I have been a big reader since I was a child, but my casual reading declined when I entered college and did not have easy access to a bookstore, a place to store books or a way to get at the books stored in my parents’ garage 3,000 miles away,” says the former Californian. “Now that I have a Kindle, I read about five books a month, mostly sci-fi/fantasy fiction.”

Ms. Schreyer even stores her course books on the Kindle - some, like Homer, free - and her professors’ PDF lecture notes. Users also can attach their own notes to books.

Might airports one day become filled with people standing around, downloading books before takeoff, instead of dashing into the bookstore for one?

Miriam Fields at Olsson’s Books at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport wasn’t too worried: She hadn’t even heard of the Kindle. She notes that her customers are split 50-50 between those who run in to grab something quickly and those who browse.

Walter High, who along with his wife owns 2nd ed. Booksellers at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, says he has seen more browsers in the past 6 1/2 years - increased security measures mean people are getting to the airport earlier.

Mr. High isn’t concerned that the Kindle will hurt business. “Popular reading is not something you want to do on a computer, generally,” he argues. “It’s great for research and reference, but it’s hard to sit and read for hours on a screen. People have a visceral connection to books. They like the feel of a book in their hands. They like the way a cover looks.”

Still, one type of customer behavior the longtime bookseller has observed could mean either good news or bad news for the Kindle. “We have people come in all the time who ask for a specific book, saying, ‘I was reading it, I left it in my hotel, I left it on the airplane,’” he explains.

If you have a Kindle, you never have to worry about losing a copy of a book. However, you would be out the price of a few dozen if you left that little 10.3-ounce device on the plane.

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