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Dances with Kindles

June 27, 2011

So I got a Kindle.

Many of you will remember how much I sighed and rolled my eyes and swore up and down I’d never buy myself an eReader.  On that note: still haven’t!  A family friend sent one my way as a graduation gift, though, and I have to say that the earth didn’t crumble beneath my feet and toss me into a pit of lava when I downloaded a few public-domain classics and started reading Mansfield Park on the thing.  I’m not about to head over to Amazon and buy every book on my to-read list in Kindle form–but I get the point.

It’s nice to have a huge list of (largely free) literary classics at my fingertips, now that my post-college life doesn’t demand particular or particularly academic editions.  It’s nice to be able to email text files, Word docs, PDFs, and even eBooks from other sources to my Kindle and read them on something even more portable–and sunlight-friendly–than my laptop.  It’s nice not for my clumsy self not to have to (try to) read paper-and-ink newspapers.  And while flopped over on the sofa at midnight, it’s loads easier to read from this little guy:

Than any of these:

Good old friends

Lasting contributions to the fantasy genre and well-loved though they are, they clock in at over 1,000 pages apiece and are hefty clunkers, even in paperback.  So again–I get the point.

I’m still pretty (okay, very) attached to my print library.  If you handed me a free Kindle copy of, say, The Eye of the World, I’d still reread it from the paperback pictured above, which I bought at Blackwell’s bookstore in Oxford, England during my semester abroad.  I’m not about to get that sentimentally attached to a .AZW eBook file.

But even discounting nostalgia and the small pleasures of page-turning and scribbling notes in the margins, there are still things the Kindle can’t do.  I’ll focus on two particulars here: facing-page translations and interactive books.

My college roommate spent a while geeking out earlier this year over the third and final installment of a new OUP-published translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Her Dante nut side was excited about the quality of the translation; her broke-college-student side was even more excited about the $9.99 Kindle edition price tag.  At least, until she downloaded a sample chapter onto her Kindle.  The paper-and-ink version of the book is translated in facing-page style, with the same verses in English and Italian on either side of a two-page spread.

The Kindle, of course, doesn’t have facing pages.  I don’t know if anyone else has successfully sorted out the conversion of a facing-page format to eBook, but this version of Paradiso definitely hadn’t.  Instead, the Kindle treated each stanza like an image file, and put what were once facing-page English and Italian segments one after the other, alternating between the languages in a linear form that didn’t keep them on the same page and made flipping back and forth between them difficult, frustrating, and rather pointless.  Because the Kindle thought the text was a series of image files, you couldn’t even change the text size–which is one of the coolest little customization features the Kindle offers.

Granted, I haven’t conducted an extensive survey of facing-page academic translations on the Kindle, or on any other eReaders.  This could just be a case of a particularly thoughtless eBook conversion.  But until the tech folks at Amazon and/or individual publishers can sort out things like this–and maybe even find a way to let you sync up pagination with your classmates–I doubt we’ll be seeing Kindles in an academic setting, built-in dictionary or no.

The other issue, that of interactivity, is a little more Kindle-specific.  The Kindle is a touch more “interactive” than a conventional book in some senses: it does have a built-in dictionary, and I can easily imagine fantasy and sci-fi writers, for one, starting to take advantage of that feature over the next few years, given the number of shiny new words they like to make up.  Beyond that, though, the Kindle’s natural-light-friendly e-Ink screen just doesn’t meet my Millennial-generation standards for a slick, fast UI experience.  It’s fine for “turning pages,” such as you do on the Kindle.  But the screen refresh rate is a touch slow when navigating menus or moving the cursor to highlight a word or phrase–and navigating the Internet on the experimental web browser is painfully awkward.

This isn’t really being fair to the Kindle, though.  Interactive eBookstravaganzas aren’t really what it’s for.  As this article from Publisher’s Weekly pointed out last week, eBook sales thus far are dominated by precisely the kind of linear, block-o’-text fiction the Kindle and company handle rather well.  You don’t need glossy full-color illustrations, neat infographics, or interactive video content in The Help or The Hunger Games, both of which hover near the top of the Kindle bestseller list this week.

Given the Kindle’s hardware restrictions, I’m not surprised to see nonfiction–which tends to involve charts, graphs, infographics, tables, and all that other stuff we used to be so happy to see breaking up walls of text in our required reading–lagging so far behind fiction in eBook sales.  Lucky for our 2011 addiction to all things shiny and new, at least one device has stepped into that gap.

The Other Kind of eBook

I don’t have an iPad, but as I spend plenty of time staring at my MacBook and my poor, cracked old iPhone, I hear/read a lot about them.  It’s an interesting gadget for eBooks in particular.  It isn’t about to revolutionize ordinary linear fiction and it won’t make a dent in how or in what format I read the next Song of Ice and Fire book.  But it’s already been a little revolutionary in a couple ways–including nonfiction and children’s books.

Take this iPad app, an interactive iPad eBook called “The Elements” that presents a spiffy take on the periodic table of elements.  It’s like the new and improved version of those DK visual dictionaries I used to flip through when I was a kid.  The same company does an iPad book on “Gems and Jewels,” among a few other projects.  This quick video tour is illuminating:

This is different because it isn’t something that you could get in a conventional paper-and-ink tome, no matter how shiny it is or how high the production value.  This is something I can actually see buying as an eBook, whereas I’ll be sticking to Amazon’s free classics offerings on my Kindle for the next long while.

The same goes for some iPad kids’ books, like this aesthetically top-notch iPad version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland:

If there were ever a story made for iPad/iPhone motion sensors and interactive tilting action, it’s the trippy and colorful adventures of Alice.  I’m usually–if you couldn’t tell from the first section of this piece–a reluctant convert to digital books at best.  But this kind of stuff is legitimately exciting.

The Future of eBooks

I see the eBooks of the future heading off in two vastly different directions.  The difference between the Kindle/Nook/Kobo contingent and the iPad isn’t like the format wars of the past: HD DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, to cite the most recent, delivered the same experience regardless of the name on the box.

On the one hand, the multimedia shiny-fest that is the iPad promises some great things.  Especially if you trust your kid enough to hand them a $500 gadget they’re expected to poke and prod (here’s hoping Apple takes a leaf out of Nintendo’s book on durability–those things are usually tough to break).  I can easily see iPad-type interactive touch-screen books as the future of artist’s books, or delivering a new kind of choose-your-own-adventure content that blurs the line between book and video game.

You can argue until the cows come home about whether or not these are “books” as such, as above college roommate and I found out to our peril when we took a class on the History of the Book in our junior year.  The fact remains that they are something we haven’t really seen before–and that’s interesting on its own.

On the other hand, the Kindle camp seeks to deliver an experience entirely divorced from the physicality of the medium.  No touch-screen, no simulated page-turn flicks of your finger, no glossy high-color infographics here.  According to the welcome note on a new Kindle, the device aspires to “disappear in your hands”–to get out of the way of your reading experience.  Instead of taking advantage of the new-‘n’-different capabilities of the digital format, the Kindle wants you to immerse yourself in what you’re reading, and not how.

Today’s mass-market paperbacks, of which I own more than can possibly be healthy, aren’t exactly built to last.  No matter how much I love turning their pages or flipping through them at random or knowing, just from the heft of the pages remaining in my hands, how much of the story I have left, today’s paperbacks aren’t really all that important as material objects.  When I decide to read on a Kindle, I’m not losing all that much–my whingeing to the contrary.

I’d be the absolute last person to advocate the end of the linear, immersive reading experience.  It’s what I love most about my favorite genres.  It’s the point of escapist fiction reading.  But the distinction between multimedia eBook and text-only fiction eBook isn’t going to vanish at a snap of Amazon’s far-reaching digital fingers.  And I don’t know that it should.  It may be that Kindles will be home to the next phase of free preview chapters (they already are), come up with new ways to simulate bookstore browsing from the comfort of your sofa, or reinvent the serial novel.  But they won’t–at least not in their current form–reinvent the nature of reading.  And I, for one, can certainly come to terms with that.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2011 6:22 PM

    So, first I was freaking out because I saw a picture of the Eye of the World in the middle of your post. Awesome. Then I was freaking out extra because you talked about a certain college roommate’s Dante geek-out with an additional mention of the eternal question of what a book actually is. Hurray!

    Nice blog post! I like the end of it, because I don’t think eReaders are really meant to change the nature of reading. They’re just an attempt to make reading more portable to make it a viable alternative to a Nintendo 3DS, iPhone, or whatever thingamajigger those young people cultivate tunnel vision with nowadays.

    I also love the picture of the Kindle chilling in front of the 1000+-page fantasy books. I definitely cried a little inside when I finished WoT 11 on my Kindle and started reading WoT 12 in gargantuan hardcover form. I missed the tininess of the thing, although I did enjoy seeing where I was in the book based on how many pages were left as opposed to the decidedly unromantic percentage bar that the Kindle favors.

    Also, remember that Amazon came out with that software patch that made you able to see real-world page numbers when you hit the menu button while in the text of a book. You can also navigate to certain pages directly. Yes, the loading time makes this more of a hassle than simply turning pages in a book, but it’s an improvement. Maybe you just haven’t seen this since you’re downloading the free books which are pure eBooks with no basis in a paper-based reality and have, thusly, no page numbers.

    I guess I’ll stop rambling now, or I’ll have to set up a competing blog. :)

    • June 27, 2011 7:02 PM

      Thanks! Yeah, I thought you would enjoy all those references to your lovely self. :P

      RE the Amazon page-number thing: I heard that the page numbers only exist in new eBooks (i.e. ones released since the software update), even if we are talking about a digital edition of a print work. That said, I’m glad Amazon made the change. One of my favorite things about firmware/software updates–the potential for companies to act on feedback from their users without making them buy an entirely new device/game/program/etc.


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