Archive for July, 2008

Amazon Kindle

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

The Amazon Kindle is great – it’s the first ebook reader that feels ‘right’ enough to be used everyday. I honestly think it’s pointing to the future of books. It frees the word from the constraints of the bound paper technology that’s currently most commonly used. If you think about books in terms of being a technology – merely a medium to preserve the written word, it’s easier to see the Kindle as a glimpse of the future of books.

I’m fascinated by the argument that books are perfect as they are; that there’s no way ebook readers will replace our shelves of books. That argument has more to do with the familiarity and sentimental value of the book form, rather than which format is better.

  • Can you point to a word in a printed book and instantly get the definition?
  • When you close a book, does it remember where you left off without mutilating the book or using a separate item as a bookmark?
  • Can you instantly change the size of the text when your eyes get tired or your eyesight weakens?

With a Kindle, there’s no need to keep a dictionary handy, worry about losing a bookmark, or trying to find a large-print version of the books you want to read.

I have currently only have two problems with the Kindle. I don’t care that its support for graphics is limited, that it can’t do color images, and that every book is in the same stupid font. I’m an early adopter and will put up with things like that for a chance to have bleeding edge technology (and to pretend I’m in the future I read about in sci-fi stories…and yet, we are living in the future, that’s for another post). One problem can be fixed with time, and the other either has to do with my perception or the concept itself.

1. Not every book is available to buy or download. I’d love to read several novels that have been languishing on my wishlist or unread on my bookshelf, but they’re not available yet to download. Sometimes it’s easier to read stuff on the Kindle than in book form. This comes down to the medium that the writing is being presented – a printed book is hard to hold for long periods, and nearly impossible when leaning in bed. It seems, at least in regards to my taste in reading material, that there’s more nonfiction content than novels in the Kindle store (there may be more novels, but I prefer ‘masculine’ novels, that’s for another post too!). So I’ve been reading all the history, business, and economics books I can find in the store that don’t trigger my B.S.-meter (almost every business book I’ve read has had some amount of bullshit).

2. Books can be dangerous. I’ve found, especially for stories and poetry, that there have been things written that have the power to change how people think and live.

For example, reading The Catcher In the Rye as a teenager* can have three outcomes: 1) Nothing; 2) The book wakes up the wrong part of your brain and you go crazy; 3) The concept of Holden Caulfield challenging everything he sees tugs at your inner rebel and helps you to see that things in this world are not as they appear – causing you to grow up a little.

And poetry – the poetry being written today is so absolutely horrific (I’m talking Worst Poetry In The Universe bad), many people today may not be exposed to the good stuff – but good poetry can help you put into words how you feel when things go terribly or wonderfully. It also helps at parties – try inserting “I’ve known fierce invalids from hot climates” into a conversation…if they mention Tom Robbins you’re probably in good company, but if they’ve read Rimbaud’s work – well, hang on to that person. 

Back to the point: it seems to me that a powerful story carries more cachet when it’s an individual item one can possess. I can just feel the weight of Allen Ginsberg’s words when I hold my worn copy of Howl and Other Poems; as I flip though the book’s pages I can smell a waft of the wonder and frustration and the joie de vivre in the words. I’ll have to put a copy of the poem onto my Kindle and try it, but I wonder if I’d experience the fullness of the poem if I first read it on an electronic device – I first read the poem on a website, but the words didn’t ring true until I was sitting in Boston Common one day and reading it surrounded by junkies and students and kids and people who may feel the same way I do. But that may be because I fell in love with fiction when books were the only medium; it’s like how people a generation behind me have trouble using instant messenger and really grokking computer technology (I test my compassion when helping people who don’t understand the concept of cut and paste!).

The technology is just beginning to change; the outcome I see is that printed books will be like vinyl records, there will be die-hard fans, but most people will use ebook readers. And all this is ignoring the Kindle’s ability to download your favorite newspaper overnight for you to read on the train, it’s beautiful packaging, and that the price of ebook readers will only go down. When you can buy an ebook for $50 bucks at an airport and download a trashy romance or goddammit, Atlas Shrugged**, everyone will be using ebooks.

*I wouldn’t recommend reading The Catcher In The Rye to anyone older than 20. It’s just not worth it by then.

**I hate, hate, hate Atlas Shrugged so much that if you want a link to buy the book, you’re on your own. Instead, read this clip from The Illuminatus! Trilogy about a parody of Ayn Rand’s pile-of-shit-disguised-as-a-novel.