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TAGS: lit-tech

The Kindle

Part One: Reading It


Some weeks ago, I finally broke down and bought a Kindle. I’ll here share my impressions of it as a reading experience, and in a second post talk about hacking the device (I recently jailbroke it to install my own wallpaper - not hard to do, thanks to Yifan Lu and others).

Despite being a life-long serious reader and also interested in technology and a user of gadgets, I held off for a long time. I really like old-fashioned books and libraries. But now, the cost was low enough, and I read a lot of digital documents; also, I travel as much as I can and on long trips I have had time to meditate on the utility of an e-reader.

I feel the traditional book has no competition. It’s an intrinsically different kind of object from an e-book, not just a competing word-delivery technique. It didn’t take me long to find an afternoon leaning back in a sunlit room where I could feel some love for the e-paper, appreciate this reading experience on its own terms, get lost in a book (Ai Weiwei’s Blog was the book, and it’s pictured above) and every now and then notice the quiet beauty of a screen that emits no light. It’s totally different from a computer screen; it doesn’t feel like one at all, even though it is one, strictly speaking. Time with my e-reader is not counted, in my mind, as “screen time” where I spend all too much of my day. It feels different. It’s “book time.”

E-books are quite a phenomenon, and I’ve been interested in the design possibilities for a while - I posted a link roundup on Creosote Journal about it last year. As the price of e-readers like the Kindle come down and accessibility improves, I see a lot of promise in these devices for opening literacy to every corner of the world. I was lucky enough to grow up near some great libraries, but I’ve traveled to many places in the developing world where the absence of libraries, and the cost of books compared to other things, like food, makes them prohibitively expensive.

The nicest surprise about the Kindle for me has been using it to read things of medium-length, in between a short news piece and something of book length: long articles from a variety of online sources via Instapaper, and Kindle Singles.

Instapaper is an incredibly useful free service that I can’t recommend enough. You use it to send stripped-down versions of webpages you’d like to read later to your account; your mobile devices sync and when you have a moment to put your feet up, you can really go deep into something it would be uncomfortable to sit at a desk and read in a web browser.

I only heard of Kindle Singles recently, but they’re growing in popularity; the New York Times even took notice and gave it highbrow approval. This is a cool format: at a length between a long magazine piece and a very short book, the Kindle Single is brief but substantial, and gives you an easy way to support a writer (most cost $1 - $3).

The last one I read was William T. Vollmann’s Into the Forbidden Zone: A Trip Through Hell and High Water in Post-Earthquake Japan. It’s the usual Vollmann: subjective, digressive, dwelling on uncertainties and the difficulty of knowing what’s actually going on - frustrating at times, but motivated by warmth and humanity. At this length, it’s a Vollmann piece I could recommend even to people who wouldn’t have the patience for his longer stuff.

Lastly, it goes without saying that the Kindle, or another e-reader, offers limitless opportunities for reading old, out-of-copyright works for free or nearly free - all you can read, and more, of Melville, Twain, Marquis de Sade, St. Augustine or Herodotus… go crazy, the list is endless. There’s also book piracy, which is another topic entirely so I won’t open it here. The out-of-copyright classics are really worth the price of an e-reader on their own, but I wasn’t sure about reading on this e-paper surface.

I’m happy to report that paper isn’t necessary for a beautiful reading experience. And that’s good news, if you ever might want to throw a Kindle in a backpack and disappear for a while - always having plenty to read, but with hardly anything to carry.