Why I hope Amazon’s Kindle succeeds.

At Daring Fireball, John Gruber hopes that the Amazon’s Kindle fails because the books being sold by Amazon are wrapped in DRM and cannot be loaned or reasonably transferred to another format.

I appreciate and understand his misgivings. I really do. I have three walls full of books which is evidence of how much I appreciate the power of the written word. And there are some books which I hope will always remain in book form which, in my opinion, are timeless: mathematics and mathematical reference books, books on algorithms, classical books on philosophy–all of which deserve to be presented on the printed page, and saved and cherished like a fine wine which can be endlessly savored without the bottle ever going empty.

But to me there are three classes of books, and (pardon the heresy that I’m about to speak) only one of which deserve the permanence of the printed page. There are timeless works: Donald Knuth’s “The Art of Computer Programming” for example, which deserve to be printed on paper and bound in a book.

Then there are ‘trash’ entertainment novels; books which will be read for enjoyment and, chances are, stored in a basement until they are rediscovered years later soaked through by a water leak, occupying space which could have been used by something else.

And there are ‘reference’ books: technical books which describe a technique, programming API, chip set, or other thing which will find itself out of date perhaps a half dozen years from now.

For the first type of book, yes: I want to own them in book form. I want to put them on my bookshelf on display, take them down and refer to them. They speak volumes as to the type of person I am and the type of person I hope to be, and they are books I hope to pass on when I no longer need them. My copy of Aho, Sethi and Ullman’s “Dragon Book” contains information which was valid twenty years ago and will be valid twenty years from now–even when new techniques are invented which improve on the basic design. Knuth’s books are also essentially timeless, even though today most modern programming languages incorporate many of the algorithms as part of a standard run-time library, if only so one can know how these things work. Numerical Recipes will always be useful.

But there are a number of other books which are not so timeless. Any book on writing software for MacOS 7 is simply a waste of paper and, the dogma that all books are timeless and important aside, really richly deserves to be turned into pulp and recycled into drink containers for fast food restaurants. While my copy of Logic: Form and Function is still quite useful after being first published nearly a half-century ago, my copy on the pre-election biography of George W. Bush (published in early 2000) was a waste of shelf space and was recycled years ago. And who really needs a book on Windows 3.11 software development and using DDE for exchanging messages between top-level windows?

So the concern that John Gruber has with respect to the Kindle may be well founded–but there are quite a few “disposable” books out there that really are ephemeral–and if they were to disappear a decade after they were published, would probably never be missed other than by those people who like collecting obscure historical footnotes.

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