Thursday, January 3, 2008


Greg expressed some skepticism about the Amazon Kindle's prominent position on my Archies list. I'll admit that I wasn't entirely enthusiastic about the device when it was announced. I read the middling reviews, and sniffed at the uncool design.

But that all changed when I spent four days in the same house with one over Christmas. My older brother, a former Amazon employee and notorious early adopter, brought his Kindle down to the house the family shared in St. Simons. We passed it around curiously.

First impressions: It's lighter than it looks, about the same heft and dimensions as a trade paperback (although thinner when outside its carrying case. The unlit e-ink screen is sharp and very easy on the eyes -- just as good for long-term reading as the printed page, judging by the length of comfortable time various family members spent reading it. And the screen is readable even when turned nearly edge-on to the eye. You can change the font: bigger for presbyopteric eyes, smaller to minimize page turns. Dwayne had about three list-view pages of full books, sample chapters, and other materials loaded onto the machine, and soon Dad was reading Losers: The Road To Everywhere But The White House whenever he could sneak in some time with the Kindle.

But the best features of the Kindle weren't apparent at first glance. On Christmas afternoon, I casually mentioned that I was looking forward to reading Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power Of The New Digital Disorder, a book that sounded right up my alley. Dwayne pulled out his Kindle. We had no internet access in the house. But the Kindle isn't a computer accessory; you don't hook up to a laptop or an internet connection to get content. Anywhere there is a Sprint cell phone signal -- and that's 90% of everywhere you're going to be -- the Kindle can get new content. No connection fees, no cell phone plans. Turn it on, browse for what you want, and get it. A whole book in less than a minute, a sample chapter -- for free -- in seconds.

Dwayne got the first chapter of Everything Is Miscellaneous instantly. He read it and decided he wanted the whole book. Bingo -- he had it. And by the end of the visit, he had finished the book and was saying it was the best book he'd read in quite a while.

Most Kindle books cost $9.95, not much more than half the cost of the trade paperback. I came to really appreciate the hardware scrolling device -- a dedicated "gutter," separate from the reading screen, where a selection dot is controlled by a wheel. At first glance it's not sleek and integrated. It looks clunky. But what the designers have done here is to decomputerize the machine. All feedback does not need to come through the screen. There's a wonderful analog feel to clicking the wheel and moving the selector, and it's always there -- it doesn't need to be accessed through moving a cursor or finding the scroll bar on the screen.

I became so appreciative of the Kindle's ability to access e-books instantly, deliver them efficiently, and make them pleasurable and intuitive to page through, that I began to covet the device. How's this for another feature? Upload your Word docs and images to your Kindle account and put them on your reader. Anybody can upload a Word document to the Kindle store, set a price for it ($.49 cents is the minimum), and make it available to any buyer. Imagine educators harnessing that distribution channel to get texts to students. Imagine self-publishers putting a polished product on the market without any physical infrastructure.

When we got home, Noel was exclaiming over all the cool features of his iPod Touch, and I let it be known that I'd love to have one, too. "Would you rather have that, or the Kindle?" he asked. And I hesitated. I couldn't choose. I still can't. I can see so much potential for both devices. If the Kindle is as attractive to me as the legendary Apple design and innovation that I have loved for years, then I think it's already accomplished something pretty astounding.


andrés said...

This is really tempting... $400 for an ugly device that will give me quick, cheap access to anything I'll ever want to read? Eek!

I don't know... There's still something magical about actually holding a book in your hands. I sort of feel like I would betray the industry by getting this.

Still, think about the revolutions this device might make in terms of the communication of ideas! Anyone can upload any of their own writings and set a price for it? It's kind of like getting published instantly.

Ali said...

Perhaps I've just heard you prof types exclaim too often about plagiarism, but my first thought was, jeez, the cribbed student papers that will be whizzing around for everyone to pay $.49 for... And Google will not be a useful tool go catch that kind of cheating if the Internet is not involved.

the secret knitter said...

Has Amazon contacted you to do a paid endorsement yet? They should.

I'm still skeptical about the Kindle, but you've certainly made an enthusiastic and compelling case for it.

Meeshell said...

What about graphic novels or comic books? And will the Kindle still send me a hard copy of any books I read so I can put them on my shelves and still look cool?

Donna B. said...

Ali: Documents bought from the Kindle store can't be transferred to a computer, copied, or edited in any way. I suppose plagiarists could retype the whole thing, but hey, they could already do that whenever they wanted. These digital documents don't make it any easier. The rights management restrictions on Kindle e-book usage are retrograde in the sense of property rights and the freedom of information, but they might just be a feature in terms of student temptations.

Andres and Meeshell -- I'm as big a fan of books-as-objects as they come. Yet they are just an information technology -- better for some applications, but in many cases capable of improvement. The "magic" and "cool" of holding and owning physical books -- is it really outweighed by the physical resources required to put ink on paper and get it in your hands? Seems to me that when the best we can do to explain why we resist e-books is an appeal to some sort of mysterious feeling ... that's not real convincing in light of the concrete advantages gained, and the lack of proof that the mysterious feeling depends on pulped pine trees specifically.

Sure, graphic novels aren't ready for this yet (the screen's too small -- page layout is part of the information of the graphic novel and would be completely lost in this format). But ordinary prose, the kind the vast majority of books present as their only information content, is perfect for this machine. It's not one-size-fits-all -- it's an e-book reader, and an e-book is never going to be "all printed material." It's always going to be a very large subset of that material. Let's not damn the machine for not doing what it was never designed to do.