[5 August 2009]
The Seattle Times (MCT)
Recently Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was asked whether he still reads books on paper, what the techies call “physical books.”
“I kind of am grumpy when I am forced to read a physical book,” Bezos replied. “Because it’s not as convenient ... You can’t turn the page with one hand. The book is always flopping itself shut at the wrong moment.
“It’s had a great 500-year run ... but it’s time to change.”
Uh oh. I like Amazon — the ease and price of its service, and, at least in the past, its corporate principles. Like the time in 2006 it fought the U.S. government’s subpoena to sift through the book-buying records of 24,000 of its customers.
But lately I’ve got to say: Jeff, you’re making me grumpy.
I am one of those annoying book junkies. I’ve been in the same book club for 15 years. Paper or pixel, it doesn’t make much difference to us. I tried to describe what does matter to me when Amazon put out its e-book reader, the Kindle, in 2007:
“Books are our last private refuge,” I wrote. “They’re analog. Stand-alone. Other than talking with my wife late at night, reading a book is about the last form of communication I do that doesn’t involve logging on to some collective network.”
Which is why U.S. Patent Application No. 20090171750 is so irksome.
It was filed last month by three Amazon technologists. It’s a system for embedding ads in books. Both in special-run print books and in what is said to be the future of all reading, e-books on devices such as the Kindle.
There could be full-page ads. Ads in the book’s margins. Ads that open when you click on them. Ads individualized to you the reader. And ads pinned to what the book is about.
“For instance, if the requested content includes a novel taking place in Europe, the advertisements may include information about European hotels, resorts, etc.,” the Amazon patent application reads.
Or: “If a paragraph ... describes a sports competition, the content manager may place a sports equipment advertisement, such as an ad for a sports shoe, on the left or right margin closest to the paragraph describing the sports event.”
This idea has launched a cottage industry of jokes pairing ads with your favorite books. “Catcher in the Rye,” brought to you by Clearasil. “Lord of the Flies,” sponsored by Parenting Magazine. “The Grapes of Wrath,” made possible by the La Leche League.
We laugh as a way of saying: Amazon, what are you thinking?
The company hasn’t announced plans to put ads in books. It also wouldn’t be a first — I remember cigarette ads in the sci-fi thrillers I read when I was a kid.
Still, there’s something unsettling going on at Amazon. Last month they made headlines by reaching out and digitally deleting some copies of the Orwell novel “1984” from customers’ Kindles.
It had reasons for doing so (apparently the books were not supposed to be sold in the first place). But people freaked out — due to the Orwellian irony, but mostly that Amazon has the power to paw through your bookshelf without asking. It raised the specter of high-tech “firemen,” a la Fahrenheit 451, riding the ether world “burning” book bytes for the common good.
To his credit, Bezos apologized, calling it “stupid and thoughtless.”
“We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission,” he wrote.
OK, but what is the mission? It doesn’t seem it is selling books so much as transmogrifying them. Dissing the “physical book,” all the while working to replace it with e-books beamed, ad-blitzed and ultimately controlled by Amazon.
“If you’re an incumbent in any industry, and rapid change is under way, you’re uncomfortable, even if long-term it’s going to be good,” Bezos soothed.
Ugh. I’m an incumbent — a reader. The important thing to me isn’t physical book versus e-book. It’s the words and me. Without you, Jeff Bezos, in there with us.
My summer book is “Shadow Country,” by Peter Matthiessen. It’s 892 pages of slow descent into the muck of frontier-era Florida Everglades. Reading it in Seattle’s 100-degree heat the other day put me right there with the skeeters and sharecroppers and Big Sugar pillagers.
I guess all I needed to complete the experience was a pop-up ad for Disney World.