My take on the Kindle

kindlethumbI finally got around to plugging in my Kindle last week.  I ordered my Kindle sometime back in the Neolithic era based on a strong recommendation from a mastodon friend of mine (see that’s a joke because Amazon is having some problems meeting demand…also the mastodon was really more of an acquaintance and not a friend).  When I ordered it I was actually ordering a Kindle 1, although the Kindle 2 didn’t exist yet so it wasn’t called that.  Sometime in the intervening eons Amazon emailed me and told me that I was automatically upgraded to the Kindle 2 since it was now for sale and I was still on the waiting list.  I responded by promptly forgetting all about it.

It showed up a few weeks ago.  Then it sat on a box on my floor for awhile.  My point here is that this was something I knew I should look into, but it wasn’t something that I thought was going to be all that earth shattering.

I was wrong.

I opened my Kindle, charged it up and dove in about a week ago.  In that space of time my entire frame of reference has been altered and I now look at the clunky foolish messes of mashed up trees covered in squid liquids that reside on my bookshelves and wonder how the hell I lived with the primitive devices known as “books” for the past thirty years.

Which is to say that I’m a Kindle Convert.

For those who don’t know what a Kindle is, imagine a device the size of a small paperback with a screen on it that can display text beautifully.

Amazon Kindle

Now imagine that this screen can be erased and redrawn in less than a second and that the device can store and then display, page by page, over 1,000 books.

“Yes,” many of you are thinking. “That’s called a computer.”

Which is a fair point, but the important difference is the screen.  It uses something called e-ink, which I’ve seen described in a number of baffling ways.

I can’t find anyone who uses the nice easy explanation which is this: it’s a magnadoodle:


Granted, it’s a magnadoole with a vast number of cells and a ridiculously complex method of getting the black stuff to stick to the screen. Instead of tracing over the screen yourself with a magnetic pen, the screen magnetizes itself in a precise way which causes pigment to rise to the top in an intricate pattern which creates letters and sometimes draws pictures.

What does all of this mean?

A number of things.  The first, and the biggest, is that the Kindle does not emit light. When you stare at a computer screen you are staring at thousands of glowing crystals (or bits of plasma or diodes) that shine different colored lights at your eyes.  The Kindle does not do this.  It does not glow.  It just sits there like a sheet of paper with words written on it.  This is a much different experience from reading off of a computer. A much kinder experience.

The second difference is that once the page is drawn the Kindle requires no more power.  The first time I powered down my Kindle it flashed black and then this showed up.


At which point I thought, “No, you stupid, stupid device, I want you to turn off.  Now turn off.” And then I hit the power switch a few more times, watching the main menu pop up, then watching another famous author appear, then the main menu, then a famous author, then the main menu and so on.

It took me a few moments to make the leap and remember that this:


is off.  Once the screen gets drawn it can shut down, leave the ink where it is, and use no more power. Which means, assuming you aren’t downloading new books, you can get a couple of weeks of life out of this thing without recharging.  That’s pretty awesome.

Those are the big, technology-ish things that most people talk about.

I’m more of a pragmatist (no I don’t know what that word means) so here are the things I found much more interesting.

First, you “turn” the page by pressing a button which is both conveniently large and located on either side of the device:



The first few times you do this it’s disorienting. The screen goes all black for a half-second before the next page draws.  But you get used to this pretty fast.  Also, it’s odd not to be turning a page.  This also gets forgotten quickly.  It took me up until my first subway ride with my Kindle when I, without even trying, stumbled onto the most astounding aspect of this device.  I was standing there, reading a book, one hand holding my Kindle, the other holding onto the subway pole for balance.  I rode the whole way to my stop before it dawned on me that I never had to let go of my grip on the subway pole in order to turn a page.

I was reading with one hand.

This. Is. Huge.

All you do is press down gently on the button and you’ve turned the page.  This is one of those things that sounds so stupid and seems so insignificant that it’s impossible to convey how revolutionary it is.

Therefore I will say this as bluntly at possible.

Books suck.

They’re clumsy and they’re all different sizes and if you’ve got a hardcover then you have to worry about breaking the spine in order to keep it open if you want to read while, say, eating your breakfast.  If you have a soft cover and you’re reading on the subway in the scenario described above you have to fold the cover over and keep flipping the book around to read the facing page and then the backing page and you lose your grip sometimes and pages go flipping backwards and then to turn the page you have to let go and subway surf.  Even reading on your couch you’re constantly shifting position, not due to any internal need of your own body for comfort, but because of an external need to meld yourself in some better way to the book your reading.

The Kindle, on the other hand, always sits there perfectly flat.  If you’re able to hold it up close then great, if you’ve got to hold it a bit further away, well that’s no problem because you can adjust the font size to enormous proportions and continue reading.

I ate a cheeseburger the other day, a big cheeseburger that I had to hold with both hands, and I read while doing so.  Granted we’re not quite at the point where you can just think at the device and the page turns so there was some fuddling to push the “Next Page” button with my elbow, but I got it done with relative ease.  And the Kindle sat there on my ottoman, the pages never blew around when my fan hit it, its spine never decided to return to a previously creased position and flip itself over to an earlier chapter, it sat there unmoving for me to read while both my hands were occupied with a cheeseburger, happily waiting until I pushed the button.

Do I sound like a lunatic talking about the hardships of having to move one hand in order to turn a sheet of paper over? Yes.  Do I care? No. Is this more than superficial prissiness? Yes.

Consider this: since I’ve started reading my Kindle on the subway I’ve missed my stop three times.  I never miss my stop. It’s happened once in the ten years I’ve been living in New York.  This past week it’s happened three times.  Not having to break constantly to fuddle with paper lets you concentrate more fully and more deeply on whatever you are reading.  To the point where I’m missing subway stops.  This is powerful mojo.

Now here’s the second big thing for me.  I live in a small apartment.  Space is precious.  Here is my bookshelf:


Here is the foot of my bed:


Here is a drawer that was supposed to contain not a single book:


Now here are the next 1,000 books I’m going to purchase:


I love this thing.

The third biggest thing for me is how you get your books.  You download them via wi-fi…or something.  Here we run into the limits of my grasp of technologies.  So lets just say that magical, invisible elves bring you your books and implant them into the heart of your Kindle so they show up when you go to your library.  It takes one minute to get a new book.  One.  Plus, as I’ve mentioned, you can store up to 1,000 books. The easiest way to explain the awesomeness of this is to ask you to picture yourself packing for your next vacation.  Do you take a book? They’re so heavy and you’re currently reading the last Harry Potter which weighs roughly as much as a blue whale.  Also, you’re almost done with that so now what do you do? Do you bring that book and another book?  Which one? What are you going to feel like reading when you’re done with Harry Potter?

So you stop and your forehead wrinkles and you think, “Okay, I’ll just have finished a light fantasy book.  So maybe I’ll want something a bit more edgy, like a nice hard-boiled crime drama.  Except I’ll be near a pool which relaxes me so maybe I’ll want to re-read an old classic…but what if there’s a breeze…” at which point your brain explodes as you try and put yourself into the shoes of your future self while debating what sort of influences on your fiction desires a breeze might exert.

Have a Kindle?  Problem solved. Bring every book you’ve ever heard of and take up no more space in your bag than the lightest of paperbacks.

Other little things I enjoy include the ability to toggle a cursor around on the page and get definitions for any word there, as well as the ability to preview available books while you shop at the Kindle store.

Now onto the cons.

Con number one is that the thing is light, which seems like a pro, but to be honest I felt really weird carrying it around without a case.  And it doesn’t ship with a case. You have to buy one extra.  Trust me, you need a case.  The thing is too light without a case to the point where I was convinced I was going to leave it somewhere or toss it onto a stack of books forgetting that it was fragile and break it.

Con number two is that it’s a little clunky to navigate around inside of a book.  If you’re reading straight through from beginning to end (obviously a pretty common occurrence) then it’s easy enough.  The page you’re on gets remembered so if you pop out to the main menu then back to your book you’re right where you were.  But if you want to jump back to something in chapter one and you’re in chapter eight it can get rough.  There’s an option to “sync up to the last page read,” which seems like an attempt at a solution to this problem, but you have to be online (wi-fi elves) to use this for some odd reason. I was on the subway and wanted to jump back to the last page I had read and it told me I had no internet service.  Considering how relatively easy it is for me, a human, to mark a section so I can return to it later I found it odd that the computer inside couldn’t somehow constantly mark the last point I had reached in case I jumped out to the table of contents without thinking and then wanted to find my way back.

I realize that I may have sounded contradictory there saying that it was hard to navigate but then saying that it was easy to mark a spot to return to later, but keep in mind that you don’t always know what spots you’re going to want to return to.  It’s not like at the beginning of a murder mystery you’re going to go, “Oh, that guy is obviously the murderer. I’ll mark the first time we see him now so I can go back and reread it when he gets revealed as the dastardly villain later on.”

You might think that page numbers would be helpful here but keep in mind that page numbers don’t exist anymore.  When you can change the font size at will page numbers become meaningless.  Instead there’s a new number notation system that seems to have been devised by NASA cryptographers. It’s a series of four numbers then a dash then a series of two numbers but, and granted I suck at math, they don’t seem to proceed in any sort of logical order.

That’s it really.  Those are the only cons I can think of while the pros are that it has completely changed the way I read.

If you were on the fence, get off the fence.  Go buy a Kindle.

This thing is awesome for reasons I never would have guessed.

Well, actually I’ll wrap up with one last con.

Sometimes when you shut it off and go to the screen saver it draws pictures of authors whose faces I’d have been perfectly happy to leave shrouded in mystery.

Yeah.  That’s right.  I’m looking at you, Alexander Dumas.