If only the Kindle 2 were cheaper! Despite its other shortcomings, Amazon's new and improved digital-book reading device does enough right that it could become the Model T of e-readers, capturing the imagination--and discretionary spending--of the masses. But in this wretched economy, in which most of us will purchase only nonessentials that save us money or make us money, I doubt folks will pony up $359 for a pleasure-reading gadget. And thanks to Amazon's mysterious pricing policies, the old argument--that digital books are so much cheaper than their hide-bound ancestors--no longer holds.
Before a recent visit to my dear old mum, I purchased The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell, a 992-page Nazi-palooza that, given the nearly 3-lb. weight of the new English translation, makes for an ideal Kindle selection. But when I got ready to buy it on Amazon, I blanched at the $16.19 price. Every Kindle text I've purchased since Amazon started selling the device in November 2007 has been $9.99. Indeed, that was one of the Kindle's main draws: you could buy books wirelessly, on demand and at a fraction of the cost of their printed peers. Case in point: Littell's book was listed in Amazon's Kindle store with a hardcover price of $29.99, making the digital version seem like a real bargain. But later I discovered that Amazon's bookstore was selling the new hardcover for $17.99. So the Kindle saved me all of $1.80. Big whoop.
So what's with the price hike? An Amazon spokesman says that Kindle store "prices change from time to time" and most books are still $9.99 or less, including New York Times best sellers and "most new releases." Why was the Kindle Kindly Ones $16.19? Because Amazon decided to price it that way. That worries me because as bookstores die out, Amazon is strengthening its lock on the publishing business.
From that perspective, it's unfortunate that everything about the Kindle 2 is better than the original. It's sleeker, more pleasant to touch and easier to read (though the screen is the same size), and the battery lasts forever--more than two weeks if you keep the wireless connection off. It also adds a supercool feature called Whispersync, which automatically notes where you left off reading. So if you use more than one Kindle or download the free Kindle reading software to your Apple iPhone, you can move from one device to the other without losing your place.
Who would read a 992-page book on their iPhone? It's not as bad as you'd think. With a 10-in. iPod Touch rumored to be in the works, perhaps someday there might be much needed pricing competition too.