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.
I've worried in print before about how the expectation of free content on the Internet undermines the quality of that content. Who will pay the investigative reporters, the journalists in foreign bureaus, the editors and fact-checkers who distinguish reliable information from Internet rumor and conspiracy theory? But the iPad provides me the first reason to hope. The very elegance of this technology may help to solve a serious challenge for the post-page and post-print information industry. I won't pay a monthly fee for a newspaper subscription on my Kindle because the interface is awkward, the experience flat and pale. I would be willing to pay a monthly fee for access to a great newspaper (like the one you are reading) on the vivid, touchable, multimedia iPad. If I actually had an iPad.
Media mogul Rupert Murdoch recently observed, "I got a glimpse of the future last weekend with the Apple iPad. It is a wonderful thing. If you have less newspapers and more of these ... it may well be the saving of the newspaper industry." Why is that? Because, Murdoch argues, "Content is not just king, it is the emperor of all things electronic." Platforms such as the iPad would be "an empty vessel" without the creators of content.
So: We know that even bibliophiles like me will purchase books that arrive via the Internet because it represents a quantum leap in convenience. We know that people will consume both good and unreliable news on the Internet when it comes for free. Because of the iPad (and its eventual competitors), we will be able to test if people will pay for excellent news content delivered on a platform that multiplies its usefulness and enjoyment.
Those of us nostalgic for the book-based culture also will be nostalgic for ink on our fingers, the crinkle of thin pages, paperboys and papergirls and stopping the presses. But there really is no competition. Tablet computing makes a user feel like a maestro or a magician, summoning worlds with a touch. Prospero throws his books into the sea in order to abandon magic. A million people have done the same to embrace a new kind of magic.
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