The advantages that e-books have over their dead-tree forebears are so many and varied that I'm not going to bother detailing them here.
But printed books retain numerous virtues, too. They are, for instance, wonderfully optimized for skimming: Stick your finger in as a bookmark, and you can rifle your way forward (or backward) without losing your place. In e-books, by contrast, you're on only one page at any given time, and it's not particularly easy to return from whence you came.
With a new feature called Page Flip—available in Kindle apps for smartphones and tablets as well as Kindle e-readers—Amazon is trying to re-create the ease of browsing a book in digital form. Instead of showing one page at a time, Page Flip shows the edges of the adjacent pages fore and aft, and displays the page you started at as as a thumbnail. You can whip around as you please, then tap the thumbnail like a home button when you're done exploring.
You can also switch into a bird's-eye view showing a grid of pages-complete with any illustrations, highlights, and other distinguishing characteristics—for even speedier scanning of a book's contents.
In the sneak peek I got at the new feature, it looked especially zippy in smartphone and tablet form. On Amazon's Kindle Oasis e-reader, it runs in a form designed to accommodate that device's more plodding E Ink screen and less sophisticated form of touch input. But it worked there, too, and Amazon is releasing the feature as a software update for the Oasis and other models.
The company also wove Page Flip into the existing integration between Kindle e-books and Audible audio books. If you own a title in both forms, you can choose to have the Kindle app read the audio version aloud as you browse elsewhere in the book. When you're done and tap on the thumbnail, you'll pick up on whatever page the audio got to while you were skimming.
Amazon built all of this with nonfiction reading particularly in mind, says Mike Torres, Kindle director of product management. "This idea of spatial awareness is important," he told me. "People like to bounce around. You might read chapter three twice. You might never read most of the book."
As for flipping around in a novel, Torres points out scenarios where someone might appreciate Page Flip, such as when reading a big fantasy book illustrated with maps. But generally speaking, fiction readers are more likely to begin at the beginning and end at the end.
When Amazon unveiled the original Kindle e-reader almost nine years ago, Jeff Bezos said that the goal was to make it "disappear in your hands," a phrase that's always stuck in my mind. As the company adds stuff such as Page Flip, it runs the risk of winding up with a layer of distracting feature bloat. But Torres told me that the company worked hard to preserve the original vision of interface invisibility.
"We tried to make it simple as well as automatic," he says. "We wanted to make sure on all these devices that when you're reading, you're reading."