I'm not getting rid of books by any means and there are definitely some items that I wouldn't read on the Kindle. This week, Farhad Manjoo at Slate offers a perfect example as he dissects why a Kindle, at least as it is currently configured, doesn't fit the newspaper reading model. Earlier this year, Jacob Weisberg, also of Slate, penned a fascinating column entitled "How the Kindle will change the world". When I read it, I could understand his premise -- a culture that reads electronically doesn't need to be any less literate than one that reads works printed on dead trees -- but in all honesty I had my doubts.
It wasn't so much about the electronic presentation of the words. I get probably 85% of my news from online sources now with the notable exceptions of the Sunday New York Times, the New Yorker, Newsweek (though I'm not sold on the new version, which feels a bit like a knockoff of "The Economist" to me) and my guilty pleasure, Entertainment Weekly. Instead my doubts centered around the idea of reading extended works on a screen. News articles on my computer monitor were not a problem but a novel? Really? Yup. Being given a Kindle and settling down to read using it has completely sold me on the idea.
Once I start reading a book on it, it doesn't seem to matter that I'm not physically turning pages. The text is crisp, I can adjust the size for given situations -- smaller type when lying in bed with the Kindle up close, larger type if it sitting a bit farther away on the kitchen table. It's comfortable to hold especially with the optional black leather cover (the second part of the birthday gift that landed the Kindle in my hands) and I definitely notice more often the hand cramps that can occur when keeping a book open now.
The gizmo is an ideal, one might say dangerous, means of addressing our need for immediate gratification. You finished a book and want another? Just download it and your one-click account at Amazon gets charged automatically and invisibly. If you want to avoid that easily bloated American Express bill, the Kindle is a great vehicle to revisit the classics. Many books in the public domain are "Kindle-ized" by volunteers and are now available for free or less than a dollar. As a result, I've enjoyed such favorites as "Beau Geste" and "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" for the first time in years while many others, including the complete works of Shakespeare, are waiting in the wings.
It's even extending beyond books. I recently renewed my subscription to The New Yorker's print edition. I'm wondering now if I should have instead gone with the Kindle edition that I found out about later - less expensive and more green. On the other hand, it wouldn't be well-suited to tearing out an article to hold on to for reference any more than a Kindle book lends itself to...well...being loaned or given to someone after you're done with it.
That issue aside, it's actually quite a joy to know I almost always have a book to read with me now, even if I'm not carrying my Kindle. Amazon conveniently offers a free app for the iPhone that allows you to order and read Kindle books. The value for me is that the iPhone app also synchronizes with the Kindle itself so if I have a bit of a break when eating lunch or while waiting for an appointment, I simply open the app on the phone and it brings me to the exact page I stopped on when last reading the Kindle. Admittedly, the screen is pretty small and I read quickly enough that my finger is swiping almost constantly to turn pages, but it is readable. Plus, when I get back to the Kindle, it then opens to the last page I read on the iPhone. Talk about convenience!
Is it a perfect product? Of course not. It is still early days yet and there are definitely things that I think need to be updated in future versions. For example:
- God help you if you ever actually needed to type anything on it beyond a basic search in the Kindle store. The keyboard seems to fight you every step of the way.
- Please add a touch screen! I'm so used to tapping and swiping on my iPhone that to have to shift to a 5-way controller/joystick feels like returning to the Stone Age. I don't necessarily need to swipe my finger to turn the page (though it's fine when using the Kindle app on the iPhone thanks to its smaller size). I'm OK with the "Next Page/Previous Page" buttons. I just leave my hands where they would be normally and a brief pressure from my thumb turns the page. However, it's a mild form of torture to have to use the controller to move up and down through the lists and menus.
- WiFi! Where's my WiFi? We have barely adequate cell phone coverage at our home and the Kindle's WhisperNet doesn't always pick up the signal unless I go stand by an open door or window first. I'd much rather rely on WiFi when it's accessible.
- Flat lists bad, nested lists good. Apparently, the Kindle 2 is capable of storing 1500 books. Anyone who tries to do that is nuts because you'll never find anything or get to it easily. The Kindle's filing structure for the books you have stored is a single flat list that stretches on for as many pages as you have books with three choices for organization - most recent first, by title, and by author. At some point, you're going to want to have the option to establish your own organizational system or have additional options (by genre, for example) with the choice to show the whole list or only certain subsets.
Nope, the single biggest problem is that the books I want to have available on the Kindle often aren't and in ways that seem rather arbitrary. For example, the single most enjoyable fantasy series I've ever read is The Belgariad by David Eddings (that includes the second 5-book series, The Mallorean, as well). It's become comfort food of a sort, something to be revisited every few years like an old friend. However, only books 3-5 of the Belgariad are available for the Kindle. Where are books 1 and 2? And no Mallorean at all?
Like the Eddings books, the Harry Potter series seems to be one that would lend itself well to the Kindle, something you could recall from your archive for that brief break in a crazed day when you just need something fun and comforting to reread. We already own the Potter books in hardcover (bought at midnight on their original release dates), paperback (for actual reading because those 800-page hardbacks get heavy), and on CD (and then digitized for background noise via iPod on long, non-stop flights). I'd be willing to buy them again to have them accessible via my Kindle. Sure, I can click the "Tell the publisher you want to read this on the Kindle" link on Amazon but will they ever be available? Do I just have to check back from time to time?
In the original "Men In Black," Tommy Lee Jones shows Will Smith some of the alien technology on hand in MiB Headquarters. He points to a small gadget and says, "That's going to replace the CD. Looks like I'm going to have to buy The White Album again." I can sympathize. Amazon has come up with the perfect way to get more money out of me as I seek out those trusted literary friends and bring them along for a new ride.