Tag Archives: Kindle

A Kindle tragedy

Oh no.

Setting my new Christmas Kindle atop the mound of books on the nightstand beside my bed last night precipitated an avalanche. Books and Kindle took a tumble onto the hardwood floor.

The books, of course, were fine. None the worse for wear. But this morning when I launched my Kindle, something was very wrong indeed. The screensaver image—a bird, some warbler or meadowlark gripping a reed—stayed pasted over half the screen.

I’d been deeply engrossed in Jonathan Franzen’s amazing blockbuster novel Freedom, careening through the book’s last act like an overloaded West Virginia coal truck with cooked brakes. And thanks to my Kindle’s Progress Bar, or whatever it’s called, I knew last night when I paused for sleep that I ‘d reached “89 %.”

Not anymore. The coal truck crashed. I called Amazon, and for a small fee (not so small, actually, but Kathy’s reading my blog so I’m gonna be vague) they’re rushing me a new device and I’m sending mine back to the Kindle mothership.

I’m going to refrain from pointing out, again, that a thirty-inch drop left real books unfazed but left me holding my Kindle in a painful state of reading interruptus. After all, I’m lovin’ my ereader, especially while riding an exercise bike, and feeling so thoroughly modern at last.

Oh, Kindle, I hardly knew you!

This reminds me of my Computer Incident two summers ago just after I’d finally, proudly, migrated to a laptop. In that case it was the dog’s fault for knocking my Mac off my bed onto the hardwood and breaking the motherboard. Though, as with any disaster worth the dignity of that name, multiple factors were involved. As one of the great characters in Freedom says in her memoir, Mistakes Were Made. (What happened in the case of Jack vs. the Mac is fascinating only to me and my family, but too tedious to relate here, even for me.)

This time it was a pile of books, destabilized by a slender paperback, Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy—really—that was the proximate cause. And my latest new Kindle is going to take care of that problem. Right.

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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.

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Reading & writing in the digital age

When Steve Jobs presented the iPad recently, The New Yorker reported, “The decision to enter publishing was a reversal for Jobs, who two years ago said that the book business was unsalvageable. ‘It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,’ he said. ‘Forty per cent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.’ ”

In fact, computer users have been shifting their non-book reading the screen, but it’s too soon to predict the impact of the digital age on the physical book, according to Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, in A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (Oxford, 2009). I came across Baron’s well-written book while browsing at my local library and was intrigued by is examination of the effect of the digital age on reading and writing.

“As with other technologies that facilitated textual production, the computer is giving both writers and readers the opportunity to produce and consume massive amounts of text,” says Baron. Although computers don’t help us read more quickly, unlike their impact in making writing physically easier, “they allow us to find things to read more quickly.” Baron predicts, “The ebook audience won’t grow until that technology evolves to a point where digital text is as easy to access and as inexpensive as an MP3 player or a paperback. . . .[Meanwhile] the conventional book continues to thrive. ”

Newspaper, website, and blog reading strike me as the chief use of the flashy Apple iPad. I’m concerned about its computer-type screen for book-length reading, and hear reports pro and con about that issue. While I don’t yet own even a Kindle or its ilk, I probably will, and hope that such dedicated readers will prove useful for those who buy many books and for those who like to read multiple books while traveling.

In A Better Pencil, Baron tries to put the e-issue into the perspective of five thousand years of literacy history. “[T]he digitized text permeating our lives today,” he writes, “is the next stage, not the last stage, in the saga of human communication” and “it’s impossible to tell from what we’re doing now exactly where it is that we will be going with our words tomorrow.” While the digital world may not have changed fundamentally our reading process, it has made readers more obvious collaborators with writers. Baron adds:

Reading is in itself an act of rewriting. As our minds process the words we read, we create meanings that a writer may never have intended or even imagined possible. In addition, from the days when words first began to be inscribed, readers have always been able to physically annotate what they’ve read, and this too is a kind of textual revision. . . . [T]he invention of the highlighter in the 1970s encouraged readers to take up annotation big time, despite the fact that critics of that new technology griped that highlighting was quite different from marginal comments that actually dialogued with the author. . . . Not only can readers now mark up a [digital] document for their own use, they can also actually remake what they read, seamlessly revising it, transforming it into something completely different, even unrecognizable, even doing so without leaving visible tracks.

Baron’s focus in his book on writers and writing technology was fascinating, given my preoccupations—I periodically fantasize about writing in longhand, despite my discouraging handwriting, and I fight the urge to return to the manual typewriter because I miss the keystrokes. He has a refreshingly tart perspective to offer to romantics like me:

It’s likely that Shakespeare got right down to writing only after a lot of prep work. . . . Elizabethan writing tools were not exactly plug ‘n play. Writers of Shakespeare’s day maintained their own quills, mixed their own ink, and sprinkled each sheet of paper with a powder called pounce to prevent the ink from being absorbed in an illegible blot.

This fiddling and adjusting is a technological barrier between writer and page, equivalent in its own way to booting up a computer, clicking an icon, or refilling a paper tray. But [self-described neo-Luddite Theodore] Roszak feels that because the quill pen worked for Shakespeare it must be better than the computer. He says, “I’d like my students to ponder the fact that by the time they have located their style sheets and selected their fonts, Shakespeare was probably well into Act One, Scene One.” But it is equally likely that by the time today’s students have completed their assigned computer exercise, checked their Facebook page, downloaded some MP3 files, and moved on to an intense chat session, the Bard was still chasing geese around the yard to get his first quill of the day.

Love that image!

In fact, Baron argues that “the more we get used to any writing technology the more natural it becomes. The computer has already become naturalized as a writing tool for many writers, and one correspondent even writes in a letter to the editor that the computer is actually a more natural writing tool than the pen: ‘For many seasoned computer users, the brain seems to be more at ease sending signals to one’s fingertips to pound the keyboard rather than sending instructions to the same fingertips to write on a piece of paper’ (Kasim 2003).”

Drawing a parallel between lingering suspicion of computers for writing and the fear that greeted widespread typewriter use, Baron quotes from a massive study of typewriting, in the 1930s, in which several thousand typewriters were made available to elementary and even kindergarten students. Teachers were surprised at the results:

The typewriter reduces distraction of writing. In typewriting, the teachers say, the child’s mind is more on what he is writing than on the task of transmitting it to the page in legible form. There is less interference with thinking when writing with the machine than with pen, pencil, or crayon, particularly in the lower grades. This judgment . . . should reassure those who may fear the “mechanizing” influence of the typewriter, for in [the teachers’] opinion the machine tends to reduce and simplify the mechanics of writing, and tends to free the mind of the writer for more effective thinking and composing. (Wood and Freeman 1932, 122-23)

Both the visionaries and the critics tend to miss what the computer is actually doing to the process of writing, says Baron. “[B]ecause of computers, more people are writing more; they are creating new genres of writing; and they have more control over what they write and how it is distributed.” He continues:

Though schools are looking to computers as a way to increase literacy, we have no hard proof that the digital revolution has increased reading. What is certain, however, is that more people are writing, and they are writing more than ever.

In addition, as other writing technologies did before it, the computer is allowing writers to develop new genres and encouraging readers to read in new ways. Moreover, unlike the printing press or the typewriter, the computer gives writers greater and more direct control over what they write. In the office, as writers switched to computers, they began to bypass the typing pool, composing, revising, and printing final drafts of letters, reports, and other business documents on their own rather than relying on secretarial help. In school, computer-generated type is becoming the norm. Children are taking control of the design of their school writing even as they learn to write, and handwriting, which often posed an insurmountable aesthetic stumbling block for some young writers, has been replaced in many curricula by keyboarding.

Computers enable both everyday writers and professionals to exert greater creative control over their text. More and more writers consider fonts, graphics, even sound and video to be integral parts of their composition process. . . . Increasingly, writers find themselves bypassing traditional editorial supervision of publication, and the self-publication of blogs, web sites, and space pages often finds a niche audience.

I suspect there’s a link between the ease of revision computers allow and the explosion in the 1980s of more creative, process-based writing led by gurus like Peter Elbow and Donald M. Murray. Granted, much of that involved handwriting and maps, but computers let you keep moving stuff around once you did type it up. Unfortunately, I sense that composition classes at all levels have drifted back to more punitive instruction (focusing on errors) and to an emphasis on academic, thesis-driven prose, leaving the realm of discovery to creative writing classes. And to the exploding digital world of formal and informal workshops, web boards, blogs, and other sorts of writing communities that may be leaving the relevance of traditional frosh comp in the dust.

Next: Peter Elbow’s vital message for writers about readers.

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