The Presidents and the Kindle

November 15, 2010

President Abraham Lincoln reading a book
I remember the day when I almost met President Clinton. He was helping a school in my town install the cables for internet access in 1996 — along with Al Gore — and I was covering the event for a local alternative newsweekly. Some of the volunteers that day wore t-shirts that said “I connected our kids to the future.” And in the teacher’s lounge, I’d found the left-behind remains of sandwich from a local deli, with the word “president” written on a plastic cover. (It was left behind under a sign which read “Your mother doesn’t work here, so clean up after yourself!”)

It was a weird moment, when I realized that when there’s a new technology, we’re all “pioneering” our way towards it together. And 14 years later, when that future finally arrived, I feel like we’d ended up doing it again, moving together as an invisible group, this time towards a new reading technology. Shortly after the inauguration of President Obama, CNN reported that former President Bush had returned to Texas, where he was “meeting the neighbors, making trips to the hardware store, and catching up on some reading via a Kindle.” That same month, former vice president Dick Cheney revealed he also had a Kindle, and a few weeks ago, even Laura Bush told an interviewer that she has one too.

But it’s not just that the Kindle is being used by a handful of White House occupants. After receiving a $7 million advance, former president Bush released his new autobiography on Tuesday. By the end of its first day — counting pre-orders — he’d sold 220,000 copies and delivered nearly $4 million in book sales. But the former president also discovered that nearly 23% of his readers were buying it as an ebook!

A new world may be emerging — an accidental community of early adopters — since the publisher’s spokesman said the figures demonstrate the “rapid growth” of the ebook market. (I calculate that that’s over half a million dollars worth of ebooks sold in a single day!) The publisher also revealed that it was their highest one-day sales in six years — since they’d published the autobiography of former president Bill Clinton. But there’s also something significant about the fact that even Clinton’s biography is now available as a Kindle ebook, along with several by Ronald Reagan, and seven books by Jimmy Carter…

And tomorrow even president Obama is releasing a new book — and has also decided to make it available on the Kindle. It’s a children’s book called Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to my Daughters, and it’s got its own perspective on the way America has changed. It looks back to past presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but also ordinary citizens who made a difference, likeMartin Luther King Jr., Helen Keller, Georgia O’Keefe, and Jackie Robinson. It’s fun to think that this will be the first generation of children who may be reading these classic stories of American history on a Kindle!

The world keeps on changing, both in big ways and in small. (One political blog reported that President Bush now seems more interested in his iPad than his Kindle, and according to his wife Laura, he’s “constantly” playing the Scrabble app.) But 10 years ago, The Washington Post once reported, there was an even bigger challenge confronting ebook author Barack Obama: obscurity! “In the summer of 2000 when he flew from Chicago to Los Angeles for the Democratic convention and no one knew him, his credit card bounced, and he left after a forlorn day hanging out as an unimportant face lost in the power-lusting crowd.”

It all goes to show that a lot can change in 10 years — both for politicians, as well as the rest of us!

Advertisements

Kindle beach ebook ad - I reached across the table but he shrugged

My girlfriend was intrigued when we found out it was Amy Bloom’s short story that appears on that Kindle at the beach in Amazon’s TV ad. But that was only the beginning…

We eventually purchased an ebook version of one of Amy’s full-length novels. (I asked my girlfriend if it felt strange to finally read an ebook that wasn’t free. But she said it was nice to read a contemporary author instead of one of the classics as a free ebook — especially an author with so much grace and style!)

“I’ve been downloading modern ebooks with interesting-sounding titles only to find they’re in the romance genre. You know, ‘I’m swearing off men, oh my he’s fine, oh he could never be interested in me the way I’m interested in him…’ Even hot sex doesn’t seem to change this opinion, until the obligatory sweeping away of all obstacles, leaving our heroine in the strong arms of the ripped body of her soul mate with the smouldering eyes. Honestly, I’m beginning to think it’s illegal to print a romance book unless it spends at least two-thirds of the book with the heroine conflicted about this perfect man who will obviously fulfill all her fantasies. These stilted plots have leaked over into the soft porn as well. But I digress…”

So with all the discussion about Amy Bloom’s story in the Kindle ad, we wanted to finally find out what her writing was like, and downloaded her novel Away, which nominated for both the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. Book critics like this book!

But for my girlfriend, the real question remained: Did Amazon pick well for their Kindle ad? Is her work really vacation-beach worthy?

                        *                        *                        *

The answer is: I think so. There is nothing formulaic or predictable in Amy Bloom’s Away. I had absolutely no idea how the book was going to end, even up to its last 3 pages. Bloom draws you in, keeping your hopes alive through struggles that few today have experienced or understand. The main character, Lillian, flees Russia after her family is brutally murdered before her eyes by the village constables for the unforgivable crime of being Jewish.

She hands her daughter, Sophie, out the window to run to the safety of the chicken coop – but finds her gone when the constables are done and she steps over the bloody bodies of her family. This lives in her nightmares throughout the book. With everyone gone, she goes to a cousin in New York, living a drab existence, using her good looks to get a better job, all the while feeling dead inside. A relative pops up out of nowhere, telling her that Sophie is alive, rescued by their neighbors who then decamped for Siberia.

The trip to Siberia is less bizzare than it sounds at first. The Russians set up a “Zionist Paradise” there in hopes of sequestering Russian Jews in one spot. On this scant information, and armed with hope and her wits, Lillian sets off across US to go across the Bering Strait and then to Siberia to find Sophie. It is this trip that takes over two years and the rest of the book.

Amy Bloom writes beautiful descriptions. Lillian, newly arrived in New York, crowds into lines of other immigrant girls looking for seamstress work at a Jewish theater. “The street is like her village on market day, times a million. A boy playing a harp; a man with an accordion and a terrible, patchy little animal; a woman selling straw brooms from a basket strapped to her back, making a giant fan behind her head; a colored man singing in a pink suit and black shoes with pink spats… Lillian makes herself smile… as she walks past the women; they reek of bad luck.”

A couple of things really stand out for me when I consider this book.

There is a wealth of misery. Not only Lillian, but everyone she comes in contact with has their own tragic story, full of heartache and nightmares. Every. Single. One. I read on Wikipedia that Bloom is “trained as a social worker and practiced psychotherapy.” I wondered if these experiences influenced the way she drew the characters in Away. Not that she’s using specific stories, but that every single person she meets has a tragic past. Or perhaps I’m an optimist and think that at least some of the people I meet aren’t living with some horrific tragedy in their past. The unending onslaught of misery did wear me down by the end, even though some of the individual characters re-invented themselves and triumphed over their adversity.

The way Bloom treated Lillian’s nightmares, recurring throughout the book, seemed to me to come from her understanding therapy. It’s the same nightmare, over and over, always waking up screaming, until Lillian herself is no longer frightened by them, but thinks in her dreaming state, “yes, yes, the blood, the broken tea cup…” Familiarity breeds contempt, even with horror.

There are a few things I could quibble with, or pretend that if I were the editor I would change. For example, a full 10 pages of a 225-page novel is devoted to her train trip across the U.S. locked in a broom closet completely devoid of light. I kept expecting something to happen during this time, but no. Dark broom closet, stumble out into another train station and another train, another broom closet, Seattle. A lot of pages for not much. But these are minor.

For me the magical and wonderful moments in the book for me came from a thesaurus. I’ve never seen a thesaurus used as a character in a book before, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. A Jewish tailor in New York takes Lillian under his wing and tells her that in order to learn English, her best friend will be the thesaurus. Her adventures in New York are accompanied by asides of her learning the language through this tool. For example, Bloom writes, “You cannot admire Reuben for his integrity (forthrightness, honesty, purity, honorableness), and a good man would not enjoy knowing his gift was hidden in the apartment his son pays for, but Lillian thinks that Reuben is better than honest and better than good; he is strong.”

It’s a great read and highly recommended.

                        *                        *                        *

Click here to purchase Away by Amy Bloom.

Or read my interview with Amy Bloom about the day she discovered one of her short stories appeared in Amazon’s Kindle ad.

Globe of the Earth
There’s three Kindle stories today, and together they paint a picture of how the Kindle is changing our world. First, 8% of Americans now own a Kindle or some other digital reading device, according to a newly-released poll. It discovered that 92% of Americans don’t own a digital reader, so “any real changes may take a while to detect, but some small ones are noticeable now.” Harris Interactive had surveyed 2,775 adults last month, and concluded that people who own digital readers end up reading more books.

I had to laugh, because yesterday I’d reported on a 2008 comment by Steve Jobs. The Apple CEO told an audience that “40% of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year… people don’t read any more.” But according to the new Harris poll, now it’s only 25% of Americans who read one book or less each year. (Plus, there’s apparently another 40% of Americans who every year read at least 11 books.) And the percentages are even higher for people who own a digital reader: each year a full 62% of them read at least 11 books, while 26% of them are reading more than 20 books!

“People seem to be reading more if they have an eReader,” the researchers concluded, “which is something the publishing industry, which has been in decline over recent years, is sure to celebrate.” But the same day, there was an interesting counterpoint coming from one of America’s top technology colleges. Last week I reported figures challenging whether the ebook was really outselling the printed book. Today those figures drew a response from the Technology Review blog at MIT.

“The death of the book has been greatly exaggerated…” wrote Christopher Mims. “I’m calling the peak of inflated expectations now.” He’d heard predictions that the printed book would be dead within five years, but “it’s just as likely that as the ranks of the early adopters get saturated, adoption of ebooks will slow… Get ready for the next phase of the hype cycle – the trough of disillusionment. The signs of a hype bubble are all around us.”

Fortunately, the pollsters also asked whether people planned on buying a digital reader over the next six months. 80% of them said they were “not likely” to, and 59% even described themselves emphatically as “not at all likely.” Another eight percent said they weren’t sure, leaving 12% who said they were likely. But even among that 12%, for every one person who said they were “very likely,” there were three who were only “somewhat likely.”

But there’s a wild third perspective coming from a bus driver in Oregon. The 40-year-old bus driver was caught reading his Kindle while driving the bus. It was 7:15 in the morning on a fateful drive towards downtown Portland, and his reckless driving was captured by another handheld piece of technology — a cellphone movie. In one amazing frame, he’s actually steering the bus with just one elbow on its steering wheel, holding his chin in his hand while he points his head down towards the Kindle resting on the driver-sider dashboard. “At one point he also appears to ‘turn’ a page,” noted one Oregon TV report.

I know it’s only one anecdote, but I think it says more than any statistics ever could about how much the Kindle is creeping into our world…