Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Looking a gift horse in the mouth

I know you're not supposed to.  But...

A couple months ago I was gifted with a Kindle for my work with an educational group on campus.  Ironically, not long before I got it, I'd had a conversation with my mom about e-readers, and when she asked if I thought I'd ever want one, I said no.

You'd never have guessed that had been my answer if you'd heard my squeals of girlish glee when I opened the box and saw the Kindle.  Apparently, I did want an e-reader!

I've been using the Kindle long enough now, though, that I think I'm ready to weigh in about it.  I nearly wrote that my verdict was "meh," but that's too negative. 

I really do like the thing.  It's especially great for taking to the rec center.  In the past, I've stuck to reading magazines while I'm on the elliptical machine, because they're easier to keep open than a book.  Short of breaking the spine or bringing something to clip or weigh down the sides, there's no way to get a book to lay flat, and holding it open is just a pain. 

 And I love the fact that you can download samples of books--generally, the first couple of chapters.  I've found this especially great for new young-adult books, which I often want to preview as possible texts for my YA lit class.  The samples give enough of a sense of the text to let me know if it's something I want to buy.  

But if I do buy those books, I buy hard copies, because I can't imagine using the electronic text in class, unless everyone was using that text.  At a recent book study group I attended at a local high school, several folks had read the book on their school-provided Nooks, and it was hard to pinpoint specific quotes or passages, since their versions didn't have page numbers.  

E-readers do offer some impressive advantages for course readings, since most allow you to bookmark or highlight text, add notes, and see what other readers have highlighted.  But not being able to get everyone on the same page, literally, is a serious disadvantage.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my family got together at a cabin in the Hocking Hills of southeastern Ohio.  I'd brought the Kindle along, since I had a couple books on there that I'd downloaded, and wanted to have plenty of reading material.  When I went to grab it on the first night, thinking I'd read in bed, I couldn't find it.  After a prolonged search, I concluded that I must've left it at home after all.  In desperation, the next day I drove into the nearest town and bought a couple of books at WalMart.

I chose two that I ended up loving:  the latest in the Wimpy Kid series, and Rhoda Janzen's memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.  

The first, a sort of hybrid traditional/graphic YA novel, just seems like something that wouldn't work on the Kindle, given the importance of the juxtaposition of the pictures and the text.  The other, of course, would be perfectly adaptable to e-reading, but I loved the book so much that as soon as I got home I passed it along to a friend...something you simply can't do with an electronic book.  

And therein lies my big problem with the Kindle and other e-readers:  they strike me as being inherently undemocratic.  You can't pass books you read on them along to someone else.  And at the moment, most texts are in proprietary formats, so since I use the Kindle, I can't buy or download books from Borders, or the new Google Bookstore.

I've also had some technical problems with the Kindle.  One book I purchased (Scott Westerfeld's Pretties) was so badly formatted it was almost unreadable.  My suspicion, from the kinds of errors it had, was that it was created by scanning the actual printed text.  Nearly every page had some kind of weird glitch like “Urn” for “Um” (as in “Urn, kind of”); “Fm” for “I’m”; and missing periods and other punctuation problems, as in the line "I know that was an unpleasant experience Tally But it was necessary We needed to take our children back from the Smoke, and only you could help us.”

But there were other problems that were less due to formatting and more just, well, unbelievable in a book put out by a big publishing house like Simon & Schuster--to wit, "The icy water crushed her like a vice.”

If it had been a free download, fine.  But I'd paid $9 for it.  Fortunately, Amazon's Kindle site allows readers to report formatting problems with books, and removes them from the store until they're cleaned up.

The bigger problem developed a week or so ago, when a vertical white line appeared on the screen, running all the way from top to bottom.  Initially, I assumed this was a problem with the particular file I was reading, but it turned out to be ubiquitous.  I tried to read past it, but it was really annoying.  After trying the troubleshooting tips Amazon mentions on its site to no avail, I called, and customer service said I'd need to return it.

Again, to Amazon's credit, they were incredibly helpful and generous about it.  I received a new Kindle the very day after I called, and Amazon sent along a link to print a postage-paid return label to send back the defective unit. 

My other concern about e-readers has to do with privacy.  On the one hand, the sort of "plain brown wrapper" nature of the readers themselves allow folks to read whatever they like in public (for example, see this interesting New York Times article about the popularity of romance novels on e-readers).

On the other hand, Amazon knows exactly what I've downloaded, and when, and whether it's still on my Kindle or not.  And because I can only buy books from Amazon, they have comprehensive knowledge of my Kindle library.  

I don't mean to be paranoid about it, but this does make me a little nervous.  In 2002, the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver fought a police order to hand over a particular customer's purchasing history.  This person was wanted on drug charges, and the cops thought they could bolster their case by demonstrating how the books he'd bought at the Tattered Cover incriminated him.  The state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the bookstore, and the case is often held up as a precedent for later decisions that protect the privacy of patrons' library records in terrorism investigations.  

I'd like to say I believe that Amazon would be as vigilant about protecting its customers' right to privacy as the Tattered Cover was.  But I'm not sure I can.  (Ah, Tattered Cover!  How I miss you!)

But for all my trepidation, I still love the Kindle.  And the main thing it's shown me is that all the "e-reader revolution" rhetoric is overblown.  Will they change people's reading habits?  Sure.  Will they replace paper books?  Heck no.  Each format has its own particular functions and aesthetics, and I suspect that people will sort out for themselves which one works best for them in specific contexts.

After all, as devoted a computer user as I am, there are still some things I'll only write by hand:  thank-you notes, grocery lists, comments on student papers.  

And nothing, nothing will ever replace for me the pleasure of browsing through a bookstore--looking at covers, picking up things that look interesting and flipping through them, finding a used copy of an out-of-print mystery that I've been looking for for years.  

But you'd better believe that the next time I go on a long trip, I'll take an equal amount of pleasure in downloading weeks' worth of reading onto a slim device that only weighs a few ounces.


--S. said...

This is a timely post, because I've been thinking about upgrading the Kindle I bought last year to this "next-generation" one that you have. I really, really enjoy reading on the Kindle, but have been equally frustrated by the inability to share, the lack of a(with a nod to Mike here) tangible thing to hold, flip through, smell -- and some of the privacy stuff is starting to irk me, too. I've read some badly-formatted books, as well, although none that sound as annoying as the example you cite.

But I love, love, love! how I can get samples, get a book anywhere, at any time, *and* -- the flip-side to *electronic* privacy issues -- the anonymity of it. I read the Kindle in a case, and there are times I'm sure no one knows what I have is a Kindle; no one knows what book I'm reading. I also like having the Kindle app on my phone; people think I'm all super-important at work, reading email after email, but really, I'm just engrossed in a novel.

Beth said...

Did you see/hear the segment on NPR yesterday called End of Days for Bookstores?

I recently borrowed a Kindle from our library and hated it. I'm a decidedly non-linear reader so these devices, at least the older models, are not well adapted to my way of reading. I really wanted to like it, but I'll have to wait for a while for the technology to improve (and prices to drop).

The OCR issues are a problem as you mention and this is an economy-of-scale (and location of scanning operations) issue. It's good to hear Amazon is willing to stand behind it's product (both the hardware and the quality of the digital files). I believe, too, that the sharing of titles between devices will improve as more people use e-readers. The Nook allows you to lend a title, and as more libraries adopt e-readers the lending model will have to be improved.

To me the real issue with e-readers is platform specificity. Until vendors adopt an open access policy you will be tied to a vendor/e-reader specific model. Yes, it forces you to be loyal to one vendor, but do you really want to force people to be loyal to your company? shouldn't that loyalty be cultivated through good products and customer service? just asking.

Beth said...

Oh, and my favorite quote from Gary Frost, conservator and author of Future of the Book on e-readers (he loves his, btw, but...)

"Real book reading is also not intended to addict us to a consumerist agenda based on format obsolescence."

Which is exactly what Amazon and other vendors are doing by not allowing us to purchase format-blind e-books to read on whatever device(s) we may own.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't consider a single-use device like the Kindle, all my gadgets have to multitask. The iPad is perfect for me, because I can carry thousands of my photos, my iTunes library, and books on one device that also connects to wifi hot spots, gets my email, keeps my calendar and contact database and surfs the net. "There are Apps for that," means I can read iBooks, Kindle books, Nook and Google books as well. Alton Brown says the only single-tasking device he has is a fire-extinguisher; I agree.

The Tattered Cover is still here, three stores now. East Colfax, Lodo and Highlands Ranch. I muss the old Cherry Creek store though.

Rosemary said...

Thanks for the great comments, everyone. It's really interesting to hear about other people's reactions to/experiences with e-readers.

@S.--If one of your considerations about the current Kindle model is its web-browsing capability, don't bother: it's virtually impossible to use. However, I did find out there's a new site that makes using the browser a little simpler. There's a good article about it at

And Beth, thanks for the link to the NPR story. I missed that, so I'll have to listen to it.

I hadn't thought about the "linear/nonlinear" reading issue in those specific terms before, but I know exactly what you mean. I'll often want to "flip" back to look at something that was said earlier, and it's not easy to do on the Kindle (unless you somehow intuited that you'd want to look at a passage again and bookmarked it as you went by the first time).

Interesting that the Nook allows you to "lend" a text to someone--though I assume that someone also has to have a Nook? I have to say, the Nooks the HS teachers were using seemed to have a somewhat more intuitive interface than the Kindle.

But I'm with Freewheeler: if I were going to buy something similar for myself, I'd get an iPad. I have an iPod Touch, so I've gotten really accustomed to being able to touch-screen everything. As soon as I started working with the Kindle, I had to fight the urge to touch the screen to make things happen!

Having said that, though, I should download the Kindle app to my iPod Touch so I can use it as a reader, too. Even though the small screen is a hindrance, it'd be good to have that option.

Rosemary said...

BTW, my favorite OCR problem with the Westerfeld novel was the following:

"The thought of swallowing the same pill that had eaten away.

"Zane’s brain didn’t thrill her, even with the anti-nanos as a chaser."

Yes, there was not only a period, but a full paragraph break where there didn't need to be either. Still, by that point, I agreed with the main character: Zane's brain didn't thrill me, either.


Christy said...

I think you've really gone to the heart of this e-reading revolution, and how it strikes ambivalence in the hearts of many readers. Yes to convenience. But yes, also, to the smell and feel of that paper, to getting lost in the little shop on the corner, to passing along a book, as we would a love note.

And maybe that's the rub. There's simply no *romance* in these gadgets! And maybe that's the hardest thing for us bookworms to part with. I guess our definitions of what constitutes romance will change -- I'm sure no one in the 1950s could've conceived of courting someone with the humble mixed tape, for example. But there we went, cavorting away. Still, I can't imagine ever *feeling* anything for the e-reader apparatus, as I do for the very bookishness of the books I love.

Sure, there will be times in my life I trade convenience for romance (just ask my husband) :-), but there's a loss in it, and I'm glad that at least as a subculture, we're fighting a bit for its endurance.

Rosemary said...

Christy, that's it exactly: the lack of romance. I mean, contrast the picture of the Kindle with the photo of that fabulous used bookstore. Which one makes you want to reach into the screen and explore and touch? Oh it me, or is it getting very warm in here?!?

Beth said...

If, in all of your free time, you are looking for other voices on this issue, Clifford Lynch and Walt Crawford have written and spoken a lot about publishing trends and e-books.

dallas said...

The first time I can drop into my favorite used book store and pick up an Arturo Perez Reverte novel, an Andre Dubus Collection, a Pat Connally novel and two Sci-fi novels for under $15. I will consider an e-reader. The first time I can pass along a copy of a book I love to someone I love complete with my marginal notes, I will buy one. Until then, I think I'll spend my money on books.

Rosemary said...

Tom recently found a ten-dollar bill in a used SF novel he bought for a dollar. *That's* not going to happen with a Kindle book, for sure!