Right now, you can’t watch TV or walk into a store without seeing those three dreaded words, “BACK TO SCHOOL.” Their presence can mean but one thing: The summer death knell tolls thunderously.

But, wait—there’s time! We still have a precious few weeks to get out and travel, hit the beach or soak up The Great Outdoors. And, if you’re going to do any of these things, chances are you’ll be reading a book somewhere along the way. So, I’ve taken it upon myself to test out two technically advanced methods of getting my lit on. It’s a head-to-head throwdown between Amazon’s nifty new Kindle device and an iTunes audio book. Can they replace the good old-fashioned dog-eared paperback? Well, I did find things I liked about both experiences during my experiment, but this just wouldn’t be The Grouse without unleashing a little vitriol. Now, let’s have at it.

On Book Buying

You’d keel over with boredom if I walked you through the entire process of using the Kindle, but a little background is in order. The Kindle comes paired with free EVDO cell service provided by Sprint, which means I don’t have to be in a Wi-Fi hotspot to use it. Anywhere that I can use a Sprint cellphone, I can buy a book (of course, Sprint itself is a subject that could fill a few dozen Grouse columns, so I won’t go there now).

The wireless Kindle store allows me to browse books, newspapers, magazines and blogs. Books can be browsed by title, by top sellers, by what’s “New & Noteworthy” and by what’s been recommended to me by Amazon. They can also be searched for by title.
The Kindle can display grayscale images, so the covers are all there. And, just like on Amazon’s site, I can read and write reviews. I can download a free sample of a book before buying it and if I subscribe to a newspaper, magazine or blog, new content is automatically sent to me when it becomes available. For Amazon, the Kindle jumps that one hurdle the company has always stumbled on: making customers wait days for delivery.

But, there’s a lot the store can’t do. First of all, my Wish List is suspiciously absent, even though I know there’s a Kindle version of at least one of the books on there. Why not tell me that so I can download something I haven’t gotten around to buying? Then there’s the fact that I have to pay a subscription fee for blogs. Seriously, I have to pay $1.99 per month to get Gawker headlines? A simple RSS reader should have been easy enough to build into this thing. But, I suppose “free” EVDO service doesn’t pay for itself.

But, the iTunes book shopping experience is worse.

The biggest crime is that the much-ballyhooed wireless store for iPhone and iPod Touch isn’t in the business of selling audio books. Unlike the Kindle, I have to be on my computer to purchase a book, which means I can’t pick up something new if I finish whatever I’m “reading”. I can sample the iTunes audio books as well, but all I get is a minute-thirty–long clip that seems to have been chosen at random. But, thank God for that sample. Out of curiosity, I listened to a taste of the new Madonna book written by her brother. This was one of those cases in which the author and narrator are one in the same. If you consider Madonna talented, then you’d have to concede that talent isn’t genetic.

Though it should be noted that prices at both stores are comparable or even cheaper than buying a physical book, both shopping experiences pale in comparison to going to an actual, factual real-life bookstore. I’m one of those people who doesn’t necessarily know what he wants to read when looking for a new book. I like to walk into Barnes & Noble and check out the wall of new releases or poke around the special subject-specific displays. That’s always the issue I’ve had with the regular site, which both the Kindle and iTunes store also suffer from. Clicking through a list of titles is a sad replacement for the visual stimuli of a bookstore. The fact that the Kindle only does grayscale images just compounds the problem.

On the Reading Experience

Reading on the Kindle is actually very pleasurable. Though the awkward placement of some of its buttons had me accidentally flipping pages at times, I found the experience to be the same as reading a regular book—except better. If I get bored of my book, I can test drive another one, or catch up on my news instead. If an author insists on using a word I don’t understand, I can find it in the built-in dictionary. If a reference is made to a person or place I’m unfamiliar with, I can look it up on Wikipedia. Unlike the crappy display of my LG Voyager phone, the Kindle’s display is perfectly readable in sunlight. Best of all, I can bump up the size of the text, which means never having to wear my sunglasses over my reading glasses when reading outdoors.

The Kindle has a rather rudimentary Web browser, but its lack of JavaScript and Cascading Style Sheet support means that it’s basically useless. Amazon charges me $1.99 per month to a read blog, but then I can’t easily read the stories these blogs link off to. There’s something wrong with that.

For a brief second, I wonder why this wireless device doesn’t have a built-in email client—and then it dawns on me why I’m enjoying the Kindle so much: I’m completely absorbed in the experience of reading without any distractions from email or IM. It’s very book-like.

To my absolute shock, I’m also enjoying the audio book I downloaded: Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone (hey, I never got around to it). The experience is not unlike listening to a lecture. I suppose this is what it was like listening to a radio serial back in the day. On my iPod Touch, the book is easily found in the special spot reserved for audio books, so I don’t have to flip through my entire music collection to find it. I was delighted to find that the book picked up where it left off if I switched to music and then back again. It even saved my place during a firmware update. While I much prefer reading, an audio book is perfect for a road trip. I’ve actually been listening to The Hot Zone at the gym, which has been great—who’d have thought treadmills and virus-ridden exploding monkeys were so compatible?

On Lmitations

The Kindle is certainly amazing. It’s reanimated the corpse of something I’d long thought was dead: my love of reading. These days, most of the reading I do is done online. But, the Kindle has helped me realize how much I miss sitting on the couch or on a park bench to read. Coupling books with its ability to snag newspaper headlines and blog posts, the device strikes a nice balance between the offline and online reading experiences. The iTunes audio book is whole other animal completely, but an animal that has its place.

The paperback still has them beat, however, and for some very basic reasons. An iPod might survive a trip to the beach, but I would never bring the Kindle near one. It’s not necessarily a fragile device, but its exposed ports all beg to be invaded by sand. Plus, I never have to worry about a book melting if I fall asleep in the sun.

While we’re on the subject of durability, let’s be honest about where a lot of reading takes place: I’d hate to see what would happen to the Kindle after an accidental swim in the toilet.

Air travel is another leg up for books. I’m one of those people who likes to read while the plane is taking off, as if to somehow distract myself from the fact that I’m leaving the safety of the ground in a 300-ton metal sarcophagus. Point being: I can’t turn on a Kindle or iPod until we’ve reached cruising altitude, nor can I have it on while we land.

The final advantage for books is that they’ll never run out of batteries. It’s so simple, but so true. No matter how cool, well designed or technically advanced a gadget is, a gadget is still a gadget. It is still subject to power failure. A book could never leave you hanging like that.

What are your thoughts? Are electronic books the future or will Gutenberg always be king? Has anyone out there had any experience with the Sony Reader? Share!