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Liberating, efficient, utilitarian — bloodless? The evolving Kindle experience

In August of 2009, I bought a Kindle. I was immediately quite happy with it (see “Impressions and advice from a new Kindle DX owner“), and I continue to be so these two and a half years later. My Kindle has become a major part of my reading world as a whole, particularly as a device for liberating me from the backlit screens and chair-bound posture of laptop and desktop computers, since my main use of it has been to read the multitude of articles, essays, blog posts, books chapters, and other items that I find every day on the Internet.

But that doesn’t mean I’m a fan of the current and near-universal trend away from print and toward a wholly electronic world of reading. Nor am I fan of the evangelistic zeal displayed by some of the trend’s proponents. As I mentioned last week, it’s important to maintain a vital relationship with paper, and this means, at least for me, remaining engaged in an ongoing balancing act, in the course of which certain truths about the digital reading experience have become ever clearer. Read the rest of this entry

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos actually *gets* books and their value

Photo: Jeff Bezos

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos displays a Kindle

I’ve been quite enthusiastic about the Kindle and the e-reading revolution ever since buying a Kindle DX last year. I’ve also been pleased at the way Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos continues to say things that demonstrate his authentic commitment to positioning the Kindle as a device that doesn’t destroy the reading experience but instead preserves what’s most valuable about it.

Case in point: In connection with yesterday’s release of the most affordable Kindle yet, Bezos spoke to USA Today this morning about the stunning growth of the e-book market. And what he said indicates that both his head and his heart are in the right place regarding books and reading and their translation into a new digital environment:

USA TODAY: Why not add multimedia to e-books?

JEFF BEZOS: You want to enter the author’s world, the great novel or engaging non-fiction narrative. In the case of a physical book, you’re not noticing the stitching and the glue and the paper and the ink. That all disappears. We’re always trying to make Kindle get out of the way.

If it’s a book about music history, having music people can play at certain points in the book can be useful. Maybe biology textbooks can benefit from certain animations. You’re not going to make Hemingway better by adding animations.

— “Volume of Kindle book sales stuns Amazon’s Jeff Bezos,” USA Today, July 29, 2010

To which I reply: Yes! And not just because I agree passionately with the idea Bezos is advancing, but because I’ve actually experienced that disappearing of the physical technology and absorption into the author’s world that Bezos describes and the Kindle successfully accomplishes. Books have always done this. It’s their signature magical power. I well remember Stephen King describing his own experience of test driving a Kindle a couple of years ago, before I bought mine. He specifically highlighted the aspect of the experience that we’re talking about here:

Will Kindles replace books? No. And not just because books furnish a room, either. There’s a permanence to books that underlines the importance of the ideas and the stories we find inside them; books solidify an otherwise fragile medium.

But can a Kindle enrich any reader’s life? My own experience — so far limited to 1.5 books, I’ll admit — suggests that it can. For a while I was very aware that I was looking at a screen and bopping a button instead of turning pages. Then the story simply swallowed me, as the good ones always do. I wasn’t thinking about my Kindle anymore; I was rooting for someone to stop the evil Lady Powerstock. It became about the message instead of the medium, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

— “Stephen King: Books with Batteries — Why Not?“, Entertainment Weekly, January 23, 2008

And now, of course, the necessary disclaimers or caveats: Yes, I’m aware of the problems involved with Amazon’s insistence on using their proprietary, DRM-protected .azw e-book format instead of something that’s cross-usable like e-pub. Yes, I’m aware of the financial problems they’ve caused for book publishers by pricing most e-books at $9.99. Yes, I’m aware of the valid concerns about their odd new semi-incarnation not just as a bookstore but as a by-God publisher or publishing adjunct, which seriously muddies the waters of the publishing world, and especially the part having to do with the role, status, and ultimate fate of authors.  Scott Turow, who’s currently serving as president of the Authors Guild, talked to NPR two days ago about Amazon’s shocking new deal with the Wylie Agency. He called Amazon the “behemoth” behind the current turmoil in the publishing world, and identified them as the entity that really needs to get sand kicked in its face instead of the authors whom he says are suffering.

So all of this is duly noted. But nevertheless, I think a long-term e-book revolution is clearly inevitable — barring, that is, a (semi-possible) return to pre-industrial technological conditions within the next century or so — and so it’s great to know that a behemoth like Amazon is helmed by somebody who actually respects and loves reading in itself, and disdains the possible corruption and devolution of the printed word into a mere adjunct to whiz-bang digital videos and music and such.

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Image credit: aamazon_0622, used under Creative Commons from TimYang.net

Impressions and advice from a new Kindle DX owner

The Kindle DX

The Kindle DX

A few weeks ago I announced here that I had decided to get an e-reader. Well, I’ve gone and pulled the trigger and am now the owner of a new Kindle DX, which I bought as a gift to myself for my birthday. (Clever man that I am, I asked family members who intended to give me a gift to make it cash in support of the purchase.)

And I’m here to tell you that currently, these three weeks in, I’m completely delighted with the thing.

Please note that I say this as somebody who for years has loathed reading e-books on a computer screen, to the point of wanting to slit my wrists or someone else’s. I also say it as someone who, although he lives half his life on the Internet at this point, is possessed of a red-hot Luddite impulse when it comes to techno-evangelism, and a tendency to regard modern digital media culture through a dystopian lens.

But as a book reviewer I often receive pdfs instead of paper books, and for personal and professional reasons I also read vast amounts of articles and essays on the Web. I’m talking about scores of them per week. This has become not just a pain but a biblical millstone around my neck. And I’m here to tell you that my experience with the Kindle has been like a liberation from prison. I’m now a believer. If this is the Matrix, then plug me in.

IMPRESSIONS

I think the Kindle’s salutary effect may come from a combination of two things: the device’s portability, since it effectively serves as a book, or actually a compact library of texts, that I can carry anywhere instead of being chained to my laptop computer; and the E Ink technology that makes the visual experience qualitatively different from reading text on a backlit computer screen, and more like (although not identical to) reading print on paper. For me, at least, reading books etc. on the Kindle really does substitute quite nicely for reading text from a printed book, although I’m certainly not about to abandon the latter.

So now my take on e-books is radically changed. I have always hated them without measure, but it turns out it was the interface (my chained-ness to a computer plus the pixelated backlit visual nightmare) that accounted for the hating. I had half-suspected this might be the case, and had been told as much by a few friends, who have now been proved right. Of course, I’m sure a Sony Reader or another device using the E Ink technology — and there are several — would achieve exactly the same effect. I researched the market heavily before making my purchase, so I know there’s more than one worthy e-reader out there, and the market is getting ready to explode with new competition. Personally, I’m most eager to see how the forthcoming Plastic Logic and IREX readers perform, especially given their new partnerships with Barnes & Noble.

But for now I’m thrilled with my Kindle DX, whose large screen I wouldn’t want to trade for even a second for the smaller Kindle or Kindle 2 (or Sony Reader), and nearly all of whose features — page turning, bookmarking, note taking — are wonderfully intuitive. The thing really and truly promises to “reinvigorate my reading life,” as I have heard a few other owners describe their experience of it. I’m presently using it to reread Dracula — the e-book version of the Modern Library edition, which I got cheap-cheap from Amazon — as well as a host of essays, studies, and papers about vampires and vampirism in preparation for writing my essay about religion and vampires for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of the Vampire: The Living Dead in Myth, Legend and Popular Culture (Greenwood Press, 2010), edited by S.T. Joshi. And the experience from both a scholarly and a readerly-enjoyment  perspective is truly excellent.

GENERAL E-READER ADVICE

Before making my purchase I came to really appreciate any useful advice I could find, so I figured I’d pass on some of my own.

Here’s some general advice if you’re considering diving into the e-reader fray:

  • If you can, for Cthulhu’s sake go for the Kindle DX with its bigger screen. I have messed with the other, smaller readers — the previous Kindles and the Sony Readers — and while they are indeed cool, I can tell you that the reading experience is immeasurably enhanced by the larger screen size of the DX, which allows for more words per page and an overall smoother, more satisfying time. Of course, if you wait just a few months you’ll see a slew of new large-screen readers hitting the market, so that’s something to consider, too.
  • There are several really excellent free e-book resources that you’ll want to look into for stocking your e-reader: Feedbooks, Munseys, Open Library, and more. Plus there is, of course, the longstanding universe of e-texts a la Project Gutenberg, the Internet Classics Archive, and so on. All of the texts at these latter sites can be converted for reading on e-readers. (For some specific advice about doing this on the Kindle, see the next section below.)
  • Try to get your hands on one or more e-readers so that you can actually test drive them before making your decision. Short of that, avail yourself of the really excellent online resources — especially the sites offering comparisons of different e-readers — that you can find through some careful searching

ADVICE FOR NEW AND PROSPECTIVE KINDLE OWNERS

Here’s some specific advice for those of the Amazonian tribe:

  • Go to the Kindle store at Amazon and check out the top 100 list. You’ll find many free books listed there. Simply click to “buy” them and they’ll be transferred instantly and wirelessly — and free of charge — to your Kindle.
  • Contrary to widespread rumor, the Kindle 2 can handle pdfs. It just can’t do so natively, which means you have to take pdfs through a conversion process instead of dumping them directly to the device. The DX, by contrast, does have native pdf capabilities, which is nice, but don’t pay the extra money for it — and it is a lot! — if you’re thinking that one of the benefits will be the ability to use pdfs, since Kindle 2 can do it, too.
  • If you’re looking to put your own files on your Kindle, bear in mind that all of them will have to be converted to a Kindle-friendly format, unless you’re transferring pdfs to a Kindle DX. You can do this in one of two ways. In the first you’ll attach the file to an email and send it to your Kindle user address, which you’ll be given when you buy the device. The format is “username@kindle.com.” Sending files to this address will cost you something like 15 cents each (charged to your Amazon account) and the files will show up in Kindle format automatically on your device via Amazon’s so-called Whispernet wireless connection. But — and here’s the second method — you can also do this for free by adding the word “free” to the address, thus: “username@free.kindle.com.” This method will cause the converted files to show up in your email in-box, after which you’ll have to hook your computer to your Kindle with a USB cord (provided with your purchase of the thing) and do a manual transfer.
  • Although the Kindle file conversion service can handle many file types, I’ve personally gotten the best results — as in, the most consistent in terms of the resultant formatting — from sending documents saved in Rich Text Format (RTF). Also bear in mind that, as already mentioned, you don’t have to send pdfs through the file conversion service if you have a Kindle DX, since it has that native ability to handle such files. But pdfs are NOT zoomable on the Kindle, and you can’t use the text highlighting and note-adding and read-aloud functions with them. The Kindle just displays pdfs at a single size in a frozen format, as it were, and lets you read them. This being the case, if you’re making your own files to transfer to the Kindle, I really recommend that you save them as RTFs instead of converting them to pdfs, and then send them through the file conversion process in order to be able to take advantage of the various cool features. Also bear in mind that pdf texts can show up as terribly small and difficult to read on the Kindle’s screen, although the DX’s ability to show you texts in landscape format helps to enlarge things. If you have to use or make pdfs for Kindle reading, you’ll want to make sure the texts are plenty big if all possible.
  • Contrary to widespread rumor, the Kindle 2 can handle pdfs. It just can’t do so natively, which means you have to take pdfs through a conversion process instead of dumping them directly to the device. The DX, by contrast, does have native pdf capabilities, which is nice, but don’t pay the extra money for it — and it is a lot! — if you’re thinking that one of the benefits will be the ability to use pdfs, since Kindle 2 can do it, too.
Contrary to widespread rumor, the Kindle 2 can handle pdfs. It just can’t do so natively, which means you have to take pdfs through a conversion process instead of dumping them directly to the device. The DX, by contrast, does have native pdf capabilities, which is nice, but don’t pay the extra money for it — and it is a lot! — if you’re thinking that one of the benefits will be the ability to use pdfs, since Kindle 2 can do it, too.

  • Contrary to widespread rumor, the Kindle 2 can handle pdfs. It just can’t do so natively, which means you have to take pdfs through a conversion process instead of dumping them directly to the device. The DX, by contrast, does have native pdf capabilities, which is nice, but don’t pay the extra money for it — and it is a lot! — if you’re thinking that one of the benefits will be the ability to use pdfs, since Kindle 2 can do it, too.