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No more reading the readers

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One of the many uses of air travel is the opportunity it provides to take a snapshot of the public's reading tastes. Sure, bestseller lists rank what's popular, but if you want to do more detailed market research -- to know what kinds of people are reading what kinds of books, and how many pages into them they fall asleep -- there is no better vantage point than the aisle of a jetliner. It is from there that my extremely scientific research has produced data suggesting the following: Readers of mass-market thrillers often wear Dockers and polo shirts bearing company logos; readers of books like "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" can often be found in business class or first class (it works, folks!); and, almost without exception, there will be a young person in the last row traveling with nothing but a knapsack and reading Camus for the explicit purpose of striking up a conversation with a sexually desirable fellow passenger.

Unfortunately, my airborne research methods are about to be thwarted. On Monday, the online bookseller Amazon unveiled Kindle, a $399 wireless, hand-held reading "device" that weighs just 10.3 ounces and uses a glare-free display screen called electronic paper. Kindle can hold up to 200 books and allows users to download almost 90,000 titles, including magazines, newspapers and blogs. All of these can be accessed, for a price, within 60 seconds without having to sync up to a computer or subscribe to a wireless plan.

Electronic reading devices have a history of failure (Sony put out an e-book reader last year, and I doubt I'm the only one who never heard of it), but I'm willing to give Kindle the benefit of the doubt -- and not just because the Amazon website features video testimonials from authors such as James Patterson talking about how it's easier to use than a microwave oven. As someone whose livelihood is dependent on people reading, I'd be dumb to get too cranky about anything that facilitates the process.

But I can't help getting churlish about the other thing Kindle will undoubtedly do: make it a lot harder to indulge in the crucial cultural task of judging books -- and the people who read them -- by their covers.

Kindle will look like Kindle. You can't glance at it and see the telltale orange spine that denotes a Penguin paperback, or the foil-embossed dead-giveaway of a romance novel. And if you can't read title and author, you can't evaluate your seatmate. As any Camus-toting backpacker can attest, the joy of reading isn't just about stimulating our brains, it's about letting others know exactly what kind of stimulation we require.

Like other, more obvious objects of personal style, such as clothes and furniture, which have evolved from mere expressions of taste to markers of character, books provide the outside observer with clues as to what sort of person we are. And although these clues might be deceptive (who's to say a Rhodes scholar can't dip into a monster-truck magazine when he's so inclined?), there's no getting around the fact that, for many of us, we are what we read. Half the fun of going into a new friend's home is surveying the contents of his or her bookshelves. It's much more accessible than a diary -- and often more revealing.

Novelist Nick Hornby summed all this up, vis-a-vis another telltale, the music collection: "What really matters is what you like, not what you're like." And as Kindle could be to books, iPods and digital music files are to CDs and records: The intensity, nature and quality of our relationship to music is increasingly hidden from view.

Does Kindle have the power to render our bookshelves so bare that we'll be forced to start collecting Hummel figurines to fill in the empty spaces? Probably not for a while, because there are still several generations of readers out there who have lots of books and no plans to throw them away. But what may change rather quickly is the book not just as personal effect but as part of the connective tissue of society. In other words, in a post-Kindle world, we'll still read, and we may even read more. But because we'll be doing it in a more anonymous, invisible way, we risk stripping it of its significance as a public act.

On the other hand, maybe we need Kindle more than we realize. It so happens that its appearance on the market coincides with the release of a National Endowment for the Arts report finding that Americans of all ages are reading both less frequently and less well than ever before. And while there's no telling whether a computerized widget is literacy's last hope, I'd be remiss not to mention that in the time it took me to write this column, Amazon sold out of Kindles and placed them on back order.

OK, we may not all be able to get one in time for our next flight. We can, however, do something that may soon be unheard of, on planes or anywhere else: notice what the person next to us is reading, smile and say, "I loved that book."

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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