To read, perhance to Kindle

At a recent dinner party I aired my impression that Kindle books weren’t much cheaper on Amazon than real books. Friends looked at me like I was crazy. I can see why now, if they go only to the Kindle store. On Christmas day, my own new

Great novel, not yet Kindled.

Kindle in hand, I priced Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel The Help in hardback: it’s listed at $24.95—while the Kindle version is only $12.99! But wait. Visiting the regular Amazon store on my laptop computer, I saw that the actual discounted Amazon price for the physical book was $12.84—a whole fifteen cents cheaper than the ebook. And as an “Amazon Prime” member, I get free shipping, so there’s no extra cost to get a hard copy.

All around, the electronic version of The Help would cost me more, especially since I can’t resell a digital book but could unload my used copy for a few bucks. Plus, The Help is in paperback for only $9.99, so the Kindle version costs three dollars more than what I actually would buy. (There appears to be a bigger spread on Amazon between some hardbacks and the Kindle price: Bruce Marchart’s stunning debut novel The Wake of Forgiveness, not in paperback yet, was $16.57, while the Kindle copy was $14.30.)

I’ll get beyond my common, kneejerk notion that ebooks ought to be much cheaper than physical ones. And in theory, more money will flow from digital sales to publishers and writers. In practice, I’ve read, a bigger cut is going to middlemen like Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Anyway, my main idea in having Kathy give me a Kindle wasn’t to save money but to stop amassing books. I’m not good about reselling or otherwise moving them along, truth be told. Our bookshelves and basement are jammed. Plus the Kindle seems great for travel, during which I often lug at least four books.

Shopping for my Kindle, I noticed, I paid more heed to Top Sellers. Stieg Larsson’s thrillers lured me more strongly, as did the crowd-pleasing (but reportedly also fine) The Help. The Kindle makes me want to get with it rather than seek out quirky masterpieces. But am I really a reader if, buried in thirty-year-old books, I miss one sensation after another? What about living, and reading, in one’s own time? Lately I’ve wanted to read more bestsellers anyway, partly to keep up with my friends who aren’t writers but are readers. They scarf the bestsellers, and the best of those books are pretty darn good. Hey, Laura Hillenbrand’s new nonfiction blockbuster, Unbroken, is sixth on the Kindle Top Sellers list!

And yet on Christmas day, trying to decide the first book I’d read on my Kindle, I defaulted to a classic American novel long on my list and again in the movie theaters: True Grit. Sorry: Charles Portis’s classic—forty-two years old—hasn’t been Kindled yet. Finally I downloaded Jonathan Franzen’s celebrated novel Freedom and J.H. Moehringer’s acclaimed memoir The Tender Bar. I dipped into each and quickly quit because the reading experience just didn’t feel the same. I’ve since realized what’s missing is, um, the humble physical page. We grow up with the convention of the 8.5 by 11-inch page, which publishers shrink and yet honor. We unconsciously gauge any publication in terms of its size in relation to that measure. The reason I can write happily on a computer with electronic words probably is because Microsoft gives me a mockup of the page upon which I bonded, so to speak, in grade school. Ereaders’ words are pureed from that highly evolved structure.

Then I realized at the gym how nicely my Kindle would have nested above the handlebars of the exercise bike I was laboring upon in acute boredom. And the other night in the car, Kathy driving, I whipped out my Kindle and, pulling a nifty nightlight antenna from my Kindle’s fragrant leather case, I read the first part of Freedom. I heard the narrator’s voice and was swept along by the story. Yet I realized what I really miss about the physical page is being able to dog-ear it. I understand there’s various ways to flag things digitally, but that’s not the same as my practice of immediately marking the pages at section breaks. I want to know how a writer structured the story, and I want to see and feel how many physical pages were allotted for each act. I enjoyed the first section of Freedom, but have no sense for how long it is in relation to the whole book. Reading as a writer, this bugs me. It may matter less for certain books, like collections of short stories or essays, because the Kindle would preserve their internal structures in the form of paragraphing and line breaks.

Maybe one can develop a sense for length in relation to the whole with ereaders, though I doubt it. Perhaps I’ll read mostly collections. My Kindle may be the ticket for reading Montaigne’s essays (albeit probably not in my favored translation). I’ve loved listening to audio books while driving, so maybe this is yet another issue of using each medium in its proper place. And I have to admit that I feel strangely suave and au courant when I gaze downward upon the sleek Kindle. Like I’m a model posed in some strangely compelling future. The device brings out in me a misplaced and curious vanity.

Novelist Nicholson Baker touches on this odd egotism, amusingly calling the Kindle the “Bowflex of books,” in his testy 2009 New Yorker essay about his ereading experience. He hates words on Kindle’s gray screen. And:

Photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well [either]. Page numbers are gone, so indexes sometimes don’t work. Trailing endnotes are difficult to manage. If you want to quote from a book you’ve bought, you have to quote by location range—e.g., the phrase “She was on the verge of the mother of all orgasms” is to be found at location range 1596-1605 in Mari Carr’s erotic romance novel “Tequila Truth.”

He liked Sony’s e-reader more, and ultimately Apple’s iPod or iPhone with Kindle app (now, presumably the iPad, too). He favors their bright backlit screens, since he reads in bed when he awakes in the middle of the night, and says it’s sharpness of type that readers truly crave, not freedom from fatiguing glare. In this jibe, of course, he strikes at dedicated

Finally lovin' Franzen for Kindle.

ereaders’ proudest claim, that they’re not backlit, so they can be read in sunlight, or read longer, or something. Eventually, however, he loses himself in a novel on the Kindle. He never says a darn thing about the structural issue that irks me.

As my children noted without sympathy, I might have foreseen this obvious difference instead of getting all high and mighty about the fact that, although electronic images replaced paper and typewriters for me as a writer long ago, it appears impossible for ereaders to ape the way I maul physical books. Anyway, I’ve since gotten engrossed in Freedom. (The Kindle’s Location Bar, or whatever it’s called, says I’ve read “34%” of Freedom, a dispiriting and unhelpful factoid that only reminds me I’m flying blind through its structure.) I’m totally smitten with the novel—maybe I’ll buy the paperback when it’s issued and reread it. And maybe I’ll learn, or be told by better users—like those who bothered to read the owner’s manual—there’s a miraculous workaround for my own idiosyncratic objection.


Filed under evolutionary psychology, fiction, MY LIFE, reading, structure

14 responses to “To read, perhance to Kindle

  1. Beth Sears


    Have you looked at Joe Konrath’s blog? He’s selling e-books like crazy, with pricing anywhere from free to 5.99.
    I’ve learned a lot from the phenomenon reading his thoughts, but I still haven’t bought an e-reader. If I do, I think I’ll go with the iPad. I’m already hooked on the iPhone, so it shouldn’t be too painful to adapt.

    When I asked my technologically savvy 14-year-old what he thought about getting an iPad he told me he ‘books give him a break from screens’.

    I aplaud your open mind and I do think we as writers should be prepared to publish digitally.

    Hope you’re enjoying the holidays.


    • Thanks for that lead, Beth! That’s exactly the sort of tip I hoped to get, since I obviously didn’t do my homework. I’ll check out Joe’s site. I had expected to find tons of free and cheap older books for Kindle on Amazon, but the company keeps them rather hard to find, it seems.

      I’ve broken my son’s heart by getting a Kindle instead of an iPad . . .

  2. I would’ve voted for the iPad, too, but really I vote for books. I know, as a writer with a remaindered book, that publishers have more freedom to choose things for deliciousness rather than sales potential when they’re working with e-books, but writers of them will have to write way more of them, I think, to get the kinds of advances one can get from an old-fashioned hard-bound book.

    I agree with Beth’s son. I can’t get in the bathtub with an e-book. I dropped a signed first edition in the tub, but for me that makes it more valuable, not less. My books are well loved if they follow me into the tub. And, if they follow me into the tub, they must love me back.

    • Ha! You are a demanding mistress to your books, Leslie. But I’m sure you make it up to them, somehow. I like adding your notion of them as water-stained warriors to usual the battle-scarred metaphor. I mean, a look at how a kid’s beloved books end up looking! And a book that looks like that has done the reader some good. No plastic ereader can come close to gaining that kind of character.

  3. David Bailey

    Like Darwin, I often tear books apart as I’m reading them, especially much-used paperbacks and Author’s proofs, a habit I got into traveling so much. A half a book weighs, well, half of what a whole book does. Stories and articles from magazines are ripped out regularly. And the white-pages section of the huge ungainly Greensboro phone book becomes a manageable pamphlet after you separate the yellow pages and surrounding cities. Try cutting a Kindle in half, eh?
    Nice, personal and fun essay, Richard. I still haven’t bought a cell phone, luddite that I am.

    • Darwin did that too? I’m a piker by comparison with my measly dog-earing.

      I have a cell phone but carry it only on trips and for special spouse-coordinating activities, like running errands, but forget it half the time. I don’t know my own number. I’m like Barney Fife with his lone bullet for his revolver—remember how Andy wouldn’t let him carry a loaded sidearm because he was too excitable? I am similarly inept with my phone. Then I look at our college students walking across campus, three out of four with cell phones at their ears, and feel a righteous wisdom, not to mention impending geezerhood: in my day we had the inner resources to be alone with ourselves for whole hours! And that’s why you always carry a book, too, to spare yourself your own company if necessary but to join the company of someone, like Thoreau, say, who had more worth hearing than your roommate. (I’m haunted by the way he was critical even of letters, snail mail, saying one who rushes to his mailbox “hasn’t heard from himself in a long time.”)

      But we should not be too proud of Luddite tendencies, David. Look how out of it those who still won’t use email seem. All the same, I do think we have to master our tools, in various individual ways.

  4. Anonymous

    The solution for e-reading in the tub: ziploc bags. 😉

  5. What a fun back and forth conversation! I wouldn’t pin my hopes on your Kindle helping you to reduce the rate at which you accumulate books, however.
    I download audio books, plus have a Kindle app on my desktop, IPod and Android phone (no actual Kindle yet). The audio downloads are great for making that treadmill time pass more quickly or making filing more bearable. The Kindle app is great on the desktop because the more I read, the poorer my eyesight becomes, and it’s great to have a large screen and be able to zoom the type to 125%. The IPod or Android are excellent for doctors’ waiting rooms, airports and middle of the night under the covers reading.
    However, all that said, whenever I discover something I really adore, such as Rabbit Run that I am just now finally getting to and listening to via an audio download, I have to have it (and, naturally, the whole series, plus probably everything the man ever wrote). I thought about getting them from the local university library, but the library frowns greatly on the sticky tabs, colored pen highlighting and occasional voluminous margin notes that I scribble all around the pages.
    Updike’s description of the first time he has sex with Ruth is one of the most remarkable pieces of writing I have ever read.

  6. Wow, you have it all goin’ on with the reading modes, Beth.

    Ah, Rabbit, on my list like forever, the whole shebang, the unexpurgated versions that it sounds like you are reading. I had planned to take the series to China and didn’t.

  7. Richard:

    What a pleasurable piece to read as you explore the nuances of books and screens. I don’t own a Kindle and have heard varying reports from folks about their relative happiness with e-readers of different kinds. I don’t feel a rush to judgment coming on, just a wait-and-see-how-this-goes kind of stance for now. I do suffer migraines and am quite sensitive to glare and lighting, etc., so the matte finish of book pages works well for me. I know e-readers are not backlit, but still there is a different color to them that it would take me a while to forget. And I’m probably just as addicted to pagination as you are.

    I heard a fairly fascinating discussion of these from the publishing standpoint on NPR over Christmas; it gave me food for thought as most agreed that books aren’t going to disappear and that e-readers will have situational advantages just like audio books have had and as you astutely point out here.


  8. Richard, Great post (and sorry for your loss>>>reverse blog reading). In addition to the Kindle, I now have an iPad and an iPhone–the latter two with Kindle App. I do the majority of my reading on real books. But I like having an e-reader in case I want to read something immediately or if I need to travel light.

    I have to admit that since I got my iPad, I have not picked up my Kindle. The iPad is a much more pleasant read. And much to my amazement, it’s quite pleasant to read on my iPhone. AND I can be reading a book in the sun on my Kindle, go inside and pick up my iPad, which automatically syncs to wherever I left off on the Kindle. Then I can go to the grocery store, and if I get caught in a long line, whip out my iPhone and keep reading. Don’t ya just love it?

    Still, I prefer the real thing, even though all my bookshelves are sprouting little shelves…

  9. Hi Cynthia,

    Indeed I do love it, in my grouchy way. I got a replacement Kindle in like one day and finished Franzen’s novel. Then read The Tender Bar and Franzen’s two books of essays. Your iPad endorsement is noted, since I’ve broken my son’s heart by not getting that instead, especially since I am a Mac person. Perhaps one is in my future after all. And everyone in my family except me has an iPhone. You have it all going on!

  10. I really like your discussions! You know how to set the stage and follow up.