I'm pretty sure that when Amazon named its new digital book the Kindle, the thinking was that it would "kindle the imagination" and not my initial image from the futuristic film Fahrenheit 451, in which fires were kindled to burn piles of paper volumes. Either way, though, the company has brought a hot new idea to the reading world.
While this isn't the first successful shot at creating a digital book—that honor goes to the Sony Reader, launched in 2006—Kindle breaks new ground in the ease with which you can load books. Sony requires you to shop for digital volumes online, download them to your computer, then upload them to the Reader via USB cable. The Kindle eliminates the need for a computer altogether thanks to a built-in cellular modem that connects wirelessly to Amazon.com. You're not just carrying a book—you're carrying the bookstore. That allows you to select and directly download new volumes while sitting in an airport waiting room or lolling about under a shady tree. Even Walter Isaacson's hefty 700-plus-page Einstein biography downloaded in about a minute.
Where Kindle wisely emulates the Sony Reader is in its reader-friendly display. Unlike reading on a glaring computer screen, which will fry your eyes long before you get through a few chapters, both book formats have electronic ink displays that have no beaming backlight. Instead, they use reflected room light to illuminate a high-resolution black-on-off-white screen. The result: a comfortable, paper-like reading experience, with the welcome option of increasing or reducing the type size anytime you please. Electronic ink technology uses just a trickle of electricity, so you can read thousands of pages without recharging. And you can carry those thousands of pages without getting a hernia: the Kindle holds over 200 books in a slim 10.3-ounce device.
And the Kindle isn't just for reading books. Downloadable editions of top magazines and newspapers are also available, and updated entries to your favorite online blogs can be sent to the Kindle automatically as they're posted throughout the day. The price of this new darling of the digerati isn't cheap, at $399, but at least there's no charge for using the cellular service.