WASHINGTON -- There was a time when books -- printed and heavy, deckle- edged or trimmed flush, calf-bound, cloth or buckram, now used mainly for doorstops -- were the central obsession of my life. I loved everything about used bookstores -- the musty smell of decaying paper, the reading copies and remainders, the treasure hunt for a bright volume of an old favorite. I remember the pleasing chaos of the Strand bookstore in New York and the small shops selling first editions near the British Museum. I surrounded myself with books on shelves, books in boxes, books in random stacks that caused visitors to trip.
But I haven't been to a used bookstore in years or bought a new book at a bookstore in months. First, Amazon brought an infinite variety of books directly to my front door. Then the Kindle allowed me to purchase most books through the ether in less than a minute. Convenience overwhelmed my obsession. The elaborate culture that once surrounded the printed word has become unexplainable to my children.
Now my elder son, along with more than a million others, has bought (with his own money) an iPad -- a purchase his mother still thinks would be an extravagance for me. But I get to play with it. I like my Kindle's battery life. I can't type on the iPad's maddening virtual keyboard. But really there is no comparison. The iPad is one of the most elegant, useful, astoundingly cool objects ever produced by the mind of man. Da Vinci would drool. Newton would show an equal and opposite attraction. Edison would ignore the objections of his wife and buy one, preferably the model with 64 gigabytes.
There are, of course, skeptics who regard the iPad merely as an iPhone with pituitary problems. They remind me of a quote attributed to the British editor C.P. Scott: "Television? The word is half Greek, half Latin. No good can come of it." In fact, the combination of the Internet and the iPad has changed our relation to the written word forever. The Information Age is now affordable, portable, intuitively organized and infinitely customizable. All future content, including books and newspapers, will need to assume the shape of this innovation.