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Kindle and Me

October 18, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments


Yes, I succumbed. Am I happy? Yes and no. I’ve had it for 12 days now and have put off writing about it so I can come to a more considered judgment. I still need more time. But let me make some initial observations.

1. Why? I didn’t want one. I really didn’t. I like books. I love books. I love the feel of one when I’m reading. I love having them on shelves. I didn’t want to read books on a small electronic screen, no matter how book-like their appearance is. But when we were preparing to go to Nantucket last month, I realized I had a problem. As I explained here, I had just bought Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World, which I had wanted to read for months, but realized it was just too big to fit in my carry-on bag. So I left it behind and, on arrival in Nantucket we made Mitchell’s Book Corner one of our first stops (as I described in my Nantucket post here). I bought Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher thriller, Killing Floor. Three nights later, after I finished reading it, we went to Nantucket Bookworks, where I bought Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies.

This is all old news. The point is, if I had a Kindle, I never would have been concerned about the 576-page bulk of Ahamed’s book. I could have paid less and downloaded it to the kindle, which is less than half the size and weight of the book. And I could have downloaded hundreds of other books, including all the Lee Child thrillers. I wouldn’t have had to go to the Nantucket bookstores, or worry about what to read if I finished the books I brought with me.

Yes, I know. What’s so bad about going to Nantucket bookstores? Isn’t that a good thing? Yes, it is. Both are wonderful stores and we enjoyed spending time in them. Would I rather give my money to Amazon or to two local bookstores that are as good as one could ever wish for? But that’s not the point. The point is, I bought a book from Amazon already and chose not to bring it because of its size. The Kindle has many benefits when one’s traveling. Or so I imagine.

And guess what? We’re about to go traveling. With the approach of our trip abroad, it seemed like a good time to buy a kindle. I still might have resisted, but just over two weeks ago I had lunch with my friend Werner. I mentioned the trip and he asked if I had a Kindle. I said no. He then didn’t so much argue for my getting one as command me to get one. I ordered it over the weekend. It came two Tuesdays ago.

2. First books. Now what? I have the Kindle. I also have two books I was hoping to read. You know. Lords of Finance and Interpreter of Maladies. But they could wait. Time to give the Kindle a test run. As you may know, the standard price of a Kindle book is $10. Older books whose copyright has expired are available for as little as $1. Why not a fat Dickens novel that I wouldn’t want to carry around a real version of? Okay, David Copperfield. $1. And how about Sherlock Holmes? Okay, the complete Arthur Conan Doyle for another dollar. That would keep me busy in Europe. And with my Nantucket experience in mind, I might as well get another Lee Child thriller. I got the second Jack Reacher, Die Trying. This was probably stupid, because once one starts a Lee Child thriller, one can’t do anything else. And it’s not like they’re great literature. But I read it, and in a way it served as a good test, because I quickly got a feel for what it’s like to be absorbed in a book on the Kindle rather than as printed paper.

3. The reading experience. There’s so much to say, but I’ll be brief for now on this one. Once one becomes engrossed, as I was with Die Trying, one forgets about the format. One just reads. Instead of turning pages, one clicks the “next page” button. Or maybe the “previous page” button. And one can do it one-handed. This turns out to be surprisingly convenient. For instance, you can read in bed lying on your side, as I found myself doing at one point, and not have to bring your other arm up to turn the page. Or use the other arm to hold the book up. However big the book you’re reading, the physical object you’re holding doesn’t change, and it’s not large. Or heavy.

But there are some drawbacks. I don’t know what the process is for converting a book to Kindle form, but whatever it is, it sometimes creates weird line breaks. And of course whatever you read, it’s always in the same font. You can change the font size, which is one of the great benefits of a Kindle, but you can’t change the font itself. So you’re missing out on some of the beauty of a good book. Plus, the contrast between the background and the words is not as large as in a real book. It’s just not nearly as much contrast as I would like. And oddly enough, because you have no sense of how big a book is, you also have no sense of how far you are in it. Yes, at the bottom of each page, you are told exactly what percent of the book you are done with. But really, who wants that? I’d rather just hold the book and know directly how far into it I am. I miss that physical sense of progress. I miss page numbers too. There are none, which makes sense, given that you can change the font size and therefore the amount of words on the screen at any moment. What you have instead is something called “locations”, and you are told at any point which locations are being displayed. As an example, the book I’m reading on it now (more about the book below) has 6391 locations. I am 43% through it, at locations 2792-2797.

4. Buying books. I haven’t mentioned one thing, which you may know, but if you don’t, I better explain it. How does one buy books? The Kindle has a cell phone 3G chip in it and operates on the Sprint 3G network. And you don’t pay for this. Amazon does. I don’t know what arrangement they made with Sprint, but no matter. You go to the Amazon store, select a book, click, and it is downloaded to your Kindle over the cell network in seconds. If you clicked by mistake, you have some time to undo it. If you want to sample the book first, you can download some modest initial portion, the first chapter say. This works really well.

Usually. Here’s one example where downloading an initial sample didn’t work so well. I’m a big fan of Robert Alter’s translations of various parts of the Bible. I bought his translation of Genesis years ago, but never his follow up translation of all five books of the Torah (incorporating his earlier Genesis translation). And I bought his translation of parts of 1 and 2 Samuel, but not his Psalms. That first night when I got the Kindle and was looking for books to buy, I thought, why not get the Psalms? And there they were, in the Kindle store. I decided first to download a sample. The only problem — and I don’t blame Amazon for this — is that the first part of the book is Alter’s lengthy introductory material. The sample ended long before the end of this initial material, so I never got to see what an actual translated psalm looked like. Plus, I wondered if this is the sort of book that reads well on the Kindle. The layout of the physical book, with commentary below the translated text, might not lend itself to kindleization. I didn’t buy it.

5. Price. Kindle’s pricing has dropped steadily. It was initially $399. I bought it for $299. Alas, the week I got it is also the week that Amazon did two things. It dropped the price to $259, and it introduced an international version, for $279. Let me explain. As you might have realized when I said the Kindle operates on the Sprint network, Sprint is one of the two US cellular networks (along with Verizon) that doesn’t work abroad. This means the Kindle I bought — and I knew this when I ordered it — would not be able to download new books when we are away. I’d have the convenience of one small object to carry around with lots of books, but not the convenience of spontaneously ordering new books. That’s just the way it is. Or was. Effective tomorrow, for $20 more you can get some chip added that allows it to work abroad. I wasn’t too happy. I wrote to Amazon, using their online form, asking to get $40 back or to let me return my Kindle in exchange for the international version. I got no reply. After 4 days I called, just asking for a $40 credit. I was given it. That’s that.

Actually, that’s not quite that. Of course, if I get to go on our trip with a Kindle, what’s Gail supposed to do? We can’t both read it simultaneously. Should she pack a load of books? We’re buying a second one, the international version. It should ship tomorrow. Another feature of the Kindle worth mentioning is that you can share books on six devices. This isn’t quite as good as it sounds. Now, mind you, real books you can share with anyone, so any sort of limitation isn’t something to be excited about. You’re not so much buying the book as the right to install it on your device. And you can install it on 5 more devices, provided they are all on the same Amazon account. Gail’s Kindle will have to be connected to my account, or vice versa. Once it is, she can download to hers all the books I’ve bought. And when we’re abroad, she’ll be able to download new books, whereas I can’t.

6. Joy/Frustration. A couple of days after my Kindle came, I suggested to Gail that she try it out so she could decide whether she wanted one. She could read Sherlock Holmes. Or Lee Child. But I thought, why not download another book that she could try. Having read great reviews of Lorrie Moore’s new novel A Gate at the Stairs, I chose that. A half minute later, it was on the Kindle. And a few days ago, our friend Carol skyped Gail from Edinburgh. We were talking to her about our plans when she recommended some books about Venice. One was John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels. As we talked, I downloaded it. A minute later, I showed it to Carol. (And I’ve since been reading it. It’s the book that I mentioned above as being 43% through. I bet the printed version has a map of Venice, and maybe additional visual information. If so, I’m missing out. One does lose out with the Kindle.)

That’s the joy. Someone recommends a book. You download it. You start reading. Just like that. The frustration? A lot of books aren’t available. Major US releases are. Copyright-free classics are. Here are the two examples of unavailability that have most upset me.

My first night downloading books, I remembered that a history of Venice came out some years ago that I wanted to read. I couldn’t remember the name, but I knew I’d recognize the author when I found it. Not hard to find, not when its title is A History of Venice. The authoer is John Julius Norwich. The paperback edition is 736 pages long. A perfect book to bring on the Kindle. The only problem is, it’s not available on the Kindle.

Yesterday, I decided I just had to have Hilary Mantel’s new historical novel Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and the rest. I read Janet Maslin’s rave review in the NYT a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday I read the rave review in the current New Yorker. Later yesterday, in going through recent Wall Street Journals, I saw their own rave review. I got curious — why hadn’t I seen a rave review in the New York Review of Books. Patience. It’s in the November 5 issue, which hasn’t come yet. Not to mention that it was awarded the Man Booker Prize two weeks ago. This is a book I couldn’t wait to read. And at 532 pages, it isn’t one I want to carry on our trip. To the Kindle Store. Alas, it’s not there! I was dumbfounded. I thought major contemporary releases are pretty much all available. And maybe that’s so. But Wolf Hall isn’t.

Those are my thoughts so far. I’m puzzled, really, as to what to load onto the Kindle for the trip. I’d put Lords of Finance on if I hadn’t already bought it in hardcover. Maybe I just need to pay the $10 and get it. I’ll know a lot more about how well the Kindle meets my needs after our trip.

Oh, one more thing. One of the features Amazon added a few months ago is that you can read Kindle books on various smart phones, such as the iPhone. I downloaded the free Kindle reader app at the time. What’s really good about it is that you can sync where you are in a book across devices. So if I’m in the middle of a book and find myself somewhere with my phone but not my Kindle, I can open the Kindle app on it, call up the book, and it will be at the location where I left off on the Kindle. To “turn pages” on the iPhone, one just swipes across the screen.

Categories: Books, Technology
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