The battle to persuade us all finally to abandon the familiar spine-creased paperback in favour of words on a flickering screen was ratcheted up several degrees yesterday with the launch by Amazon of its long-awaited – and undeniably natty – electronic book-reading device christened Kindle.
"Why are books the last bastion of analogue?" Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos asked at an unveiling of the gadget in a New York hotel, referring to the recent revolution in digital entertainment that increasingly has us downloading the music we listen to and even the films and videos we watch.
It is Mr Bezos's dream that the 10oz (283g) Kindle, which has been under development at Seattle-based Amazon for the past three years, will change how we enjoy the written word just as quickly (and as profitably) as the iPod, the ground-breaking player from Apple, has done our music-listening habits.
Flicker, in fact, is one thing the Kindle screen does not do. It boasts electronic ink-screen technology so the words look like they are printed on paper. Better still, they can be made smaller or larger and are no harder to see when viewed outside in bright sunlight.
Aside from being light, it is about the size of a paperback and much thinner. Unlike rival electronic readers, it has built-in wireless capacity, using cellphone technology, so material can be downloaded without cables or other computers.
Because there are no extra costs associated with accessing the internet, Mr Bezos warned potential buyers to forget waiting for any reduction in its price of $399 (£195) any time soon. The new Apple iPhone first went on sale in the US at $599; this Christmas the iPhone and the Kindle will be priced identically in the United States. The company offered no details on when the machine will become available in Britain.
The Kindle, with its almost unlimited inventory of titles for sale via the internet, threatens finally to up-end the economics of book publishing.
The assumption at Amazon, however, and at competitors such as Sony and Epson, is that it is the book itself that will become extinct. "The question is, can you improve upon something as highly evolved and well-suited to its task as the book? And if so, how?" Mr Bezos asked. " It has to disappear."
Is it possible, meanwhile, that this will turn out to be the gadget that reverses years of decline in book-reading as popular entertainment and gives novelists and non-fiction writers a wider audience again? Downloading a book will take only 30 seconds and 90,000 titles are apparently already available.
Certainly, the consumption of books could become much cheaper. New York Times best-sellers, for example, are available for download onto the Kindle for just $9.99 – a considerable saving over physically buying them. The device can hold 200 books at a time with add-on memory. The battery, the company claims, will get you through War and Peace before needing a recharge.
"Customers think that electronic books should be less expensive than physical books, and we've done that," Mr Bezos boasted, also puffing the aesthetic qualities of the Kindle. "When people see it in person for the first time they do a double take."
Users will be able to subscribe to magazines and newspapers, and an email capability will also allow you to send documents from your computer to the machine.
Manuscripts to printing presses
The first "manuscripts" are thought to have been produced around the seventh to 13th centuries, with largely religious texts produced by hand. A well-known example is the Book of Kells, a Latin collection of the Gospels lavishly decorated with an eight-circle cross. From the 13th century, with the "secularisation" of book production, books changed from being objects of worship to descriptive works. This expansion – though limited, given the lack of printing presses – was driven by the Rennaisance, and with it the rise of European universities and the return in the 13th century of Crusaders, who brought texts from Byzantium – books from ancient Greek and Roman times about world affairs. The first printed – religious – books emerged in the 15th century but books as we know them took off in the 17th century. In the 1600s Gutenberg printing presses were invented in Germany. By 1424, the Cambridge University library owned 122 books. Woodblock printing and paper arrived from the Far East and in 1800.