Just days after a report from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) warned of a continuing decline in reading among today’s students, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced a new electronic book-reading device, the Kindle, that some experts are touting as the future of reading. But whether the device can help spark new interest in reading among a generation of students weaned on video games remains to be seen.

Amid the buzz generated by the Kindle’s release, some analysts were calling the device the iPod of reading and were likening Bezos to Apple’s Steve Jobs.

Amazon’s new eBook reading device uses a new, high-resolution display technology called electronic paper, which aims to give the reader a crisp, black-and-white screen that resembles the appearance and readability of printed paper. The screen works using ink, just like books and newspapers, but displays the ink particles electronically.

Bezos said his company spent three years developing the Kindle reader. eBooks for the device will cost about $10. The Kindle is thinner than most paperbacks,weighs 10.3 ounces, and can hold some 200 books, along with newspapers, magazines, and an entire dictionary. Users can purchase SD (secure-digital) memory cards to increase the device’s memory.

Readers can buy and download books directly to the Kindle without a PC through SprintNextel Corp.’s high-speed EV-DO cellular network without fees or contract commitments. They also can take notes on what they read and store their notes on Amazon’s servers.

As of press time, the Kindle was sold out on Amazon. Because Amazon conducted a pilot program with the Kindle, some people had been using the device for about two months, and nearly 900 product reviews were already on Amazon’s Kindle page. The ratings, according to Amazon’s five-star system, are decidedly mixed: 269 reviewers awarded the device one star, 127 gave it two stars, 134 gave it three stars, 120 gave it four stars, and 237 awarded it five stars.

Reviews from both sides–those who are eager to use the Kindle and watch its progress, and those who pledge to stand by traditional books until the end of time–seemed to be evenly split, although many early users lamented the Kindle’s $399 price tag.

In a Nov. 26 note to clients, Stifel Nicolaus analyst Scott Devitt predicted that, over time, the Kindle “could prove to be as important to reading as the iPod has been to listening.”

Other eBook devices already exist. Sony’s Portable Reader System, for example, sells for about $300, and many reviewers have already compared the two reading devices.

A few schools also have been using eBook reading devices, though the technology has yet to catch on more widely.

With all the hype around Amazon’s Kindle, some experts have wondered whether the device might help increase the frequency with which students read–especially if the Kindle’s price drops.

According to the NEA’s report, such a development would be timely. Drawing on a variety of sources, public and private, the report essentially reaches one conclusion: Americans are reading less.

The 99-page study, “To Read or Not to Read,” was released in mid-November as a follow-up to a 2004 NEA survey, “Reading at Risk,” that found an increasing number of adult Americans were not reading even one book a year.

“To Read or Not to Read” gathers an array of government, academic, and foundation data on everything from how many 9-year-olds read every day for “fun” (54 percent) to the percentage of high school graduates deemed by employers as “deficient” in writing (72 percent).

Among its findings: In 2002, only 52 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24, the college years, read a book voluntarily, down from 59 percentin 1992. Money spent on books, adjusted for inflation, dropped 14 percent from1985 to 2005 and has fallen dramatically since the mid-1990s. And the number of adults with bachelor’s degrees who are “proficient in reading prose” dropped from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2003.

Some news is good, notably among 9-year-olds, whose reading comprehension scores have soared since the early 1990s. But at the same time, the number of 17-year-olds who “never or hardly ever” read for pleasure has doubled, to 19 percent, and their comprehension scores have fallen.

“I think there’s been an enormous investment in teaching kids to read in elementary school,” said Dana Gioia, NEA chair. “Kids are doing better at 9, and at 11. At 13, they’re doing no worse, but then you see this catastrophic falloff. If kids are put into this electronic culture without any counterbalancing efforts, they will stop reading.”

Whether the Kindle holds promise as a classroom tool is subject to debate.

Christopher Dawson, a teacher and IT administrator at Athol High School in Massachusetts, believes some day it could be–though he thinks the price is a little high.

“Does a Kindle (or lots of Kindles) make sense in the classroom? I don’t think it’s there yet for a couple of key reasons,” he wrote in a blog entry posted at ZDNet.com. “Most importantly, textbook content, as well as solid support for image rendering, simply isn’t there. I can live with the black-and-white screen, but a picture really is worth a thousand words for most kids. The lack of high-quality image support on the digital ink screen, even if the textbook content were available, is something of a deal-breaker.”

Yet, wrote Dawson,”if a wide library of [electronic] textbooks were out there, and the next generation of the Kindle could handle images as easily as the [Asus] Eee [sub-notebook PC], then you just might have a point. At anywhere from $50 to $200 a pop, textbooks are a huge expense; if substantial discounts could accompany the downloadable content, and the content could be easily moved among Kindles based on course offerings, I’d be pitching these things like crazy to the school committee.”

He concluded: “Address the content issues, content management and licensing …, and let Moore’s Law do its magic on the price, and we’ll be in business.”

Links:

Amazon’s Kindle

NEA’s “To Read or Not to Read” report

Christopher Dawson’s blog post on the Kindle