Vacation’s over: Did the Kindle make it out of the suitcase?

Breaking News, Opinion July 26, 2011 0 Comments

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of articles that are part of this week’s Summer Technology Issue. Coming articles include a guide to cutting the cable cord, an essay on living with an iPhone and a look at two  new cloud music services. If you can’t wait, get the issue on newsstands on Wednesday morning. Otherwise, stay tuned to chestnuthilllocal.com for a new article every day this week.

By Hugh Gilmore

Back in late November I felt obliged to write about Amazon’s e-book reader, the Kindle. The holidays were coming and many people were considering buying one of these gadgets, either for personal use or to give as gifts.

Parents also wondered if this device, or one of its competitors, might stimulate their children to read more. Some research and a few surveys of Kindle users provided so many ideas that the intended article turned into a four-part series.

I learned that many devoted book readers rejected Kindles based on their love of the sensory qualities of traditional books: their feel, their colorful jackets, the sounds that paper makes when a page is turned, the beauty of a row of books on a shelf, even books’ smell. Not to mention such emotional factors as pride of ownership and the attachment people feel for books as their long-term companions. How could a piece of plastic compare with all that?

The answer depends, I wrote back then, on what you want from the books you buy. The function of a book determines its shape, weight, and type fonts. Historically, once books reached a certain length, dividing them into turnable pages became the simplest way to present a writer’s thoughts to a reader. People fall in love with that format – more power to them – but their esteem does not mean the “machine” can’t be improved.

For sheer ease, the electronic reader is much more efficient than a paper-and-pages bound book. Once you’ve gone through the steps needed to get to “page one” of an e-book, each page is “turned” by lightly pressing the thumb that holds the reader. The e-book is lighter than a wood pulp book, weighing only a few ounces, no matter how “thick” the book it contains. And its weight is not affected by how many books the Kindle’s database contains.

(It’s marvelous how so much of the book-based terminology we know has become metaphoric when used by the new technology.)

So, no doubt about it, the e-reader is lighter and more efficient for reading. But can a longtime reader (i.e. an “older” person) enjoy reading a story on such a cold, bloodless device? I decided to test drive a borrowed Kindle last December by reading three books on it. Two of the books were about American history, and one was a novel meant to serve as a real stress test for the plastic machine: “Madame Bovary.”

I can read a good American history book on the back of a cereal box, if necessary, and still enjoy it, but what about “Madame Bovary”? Flaubert’s classic is a masterpiece of delicacy and irony, expressed in rhythmic and poetic language. How would it hold up? Could I still escape into the world of 19th-century France via a piece of electronics?

My answer turned out to be yes. It cost only 99 cents, was delivered to the Kindle within a minute of my ordering it and took only about 15 minutes to get used to using. After that, “Madame Bovary” was as enjoyable as ever. I bought a Kindle that week.

For my first purchase I downloaded Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” (2010). I made it a point to carry the Kindle with me everywhere and finished the book quickly. I’d say the experience was as good as reading a traditional book.

After that I felt obliged to justify the $119 (plus $35 for a leather carry case) I’d spent purchasing the Kindle, so I ordered another title, envisioning a life of successive Kindle readings. I bought Hank Bordowitz’s “Dirty Little Secrets of the Record Business: Why So Much Music You Hear Sucks” (2007). I ordered this book because I knew the author had also written, “Bad Moon Rising: The Unofficial History of Creedence Clearwater Revival” (1998) one of the saddest rock biographies I’ve ever read.

I mentioned that fact in a column, back in 2009. Soon after, Bordowitz wrote to thank me. (Not a mystery. “Google Alert,” is a command anyone can give Google, which will then notify you anytime that your name, or favorite topic, appears within Google’s purview.) Bordowitz and I corresponded for a while after that, getting me interested in his career and curious enough about his “Dirty Little Secrets” to buy, read it and enjoy it.

Each of these books cost me, I think, $14.95, a fairly standard price for recently published mainstream titles. Bordowitz’ book, however, was the last Kindle purchase I made. That was in February, nearly half a year ago. You may wonder why I stopped using my Kindle.

Basically, Kindle doesn’t offer much of what I want to read. For example, since January I have been researching the world of bullfighting and its role in Spanish culture. Nothing I’ve wanted to read was available in Kindle format. So, I borrowed what I needed from the Free Library of Philadelphia, and bought the rest. (By the way, I don’t think I’d like to have research material available to me only in e-book form. The format is clumsy in terms of jumping back and forth and marginal note taking. And important illustrations are either omitted or lack clarity.)

Another factor helping create spider webs on my Kindle arises from the nature of my pleasure reading this year. I’ve been trying to read every translated book published by Europa Editions. (I wrote several columns about this publishing house back in January and February of this year). At the time, Kindle did not offer any of these books for sale. They do now, but so far I’ve had very good luck getting them from the Free Library of Philadelphia, which offers at least 50 of these titles.

Finally, at the risk of sounding non-supportive of the arts, I find Kindle’s prices to be too high (even though they’re lower than bookstore prices: new releases @ $14.95; Europas: @ $12.00). I know that doesn’t help feed the authors who wrote them, but I don’t want to buy a book I can get for free from the library. Especially a book I’ll probably read only once and not have room for on my own library’s shelves.

Did I take my Kindle on vacation? Yes. But I also took three library-borrowed Europa Editions and bought two paperbacks (at retail!) while up in Maine – my customary vacation spending spree.

Did I take my Kindle out of my suitcase while away? No.

One man’s story. I know plenty of people who love their Kindles. I’d be one of them if they sold what I want to read and sold it cheaper. So far, it’s hard for Kindle to compete with free.

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