I'm not the biggest reader in the world, but I read. I read a lot on the internet, here and there; I subscribe to a couple of magazines and pick up a few more at the newsstand every month (I'm pretty dissatisfied with the state of my magazines right now, but that's another subject); and I read every day—sometimes not for long, but every day. I kept count for a few years in the Naughts, and it turns out I manage to get through 40 to 60 books a year. That's a lot to some people, not a lot to others.
I also have a house that is nearly full of books. For book-lovers, "full" is a highly variable word (and believe me, I've seen some houses that were full of books. So full there was barely room for a human to move around). To a real book person my house qualifies as half-full, or one-third full. Still, it's enough that I've considered putting another wall into the living room (dividing it in two) so that I have more wall space to put bookcases against. Wall space is at a premium in my simple rectangular 1,000-sq.-ft. ranch house; couches and windows hog precious wall area, heating vents have to be left open and outlets have to be left accessible, and there just isn't enough wall. I currently have ten full-sized* bookcases and one half-heighth one, and there isn't an obvious free place to put an eleventh (when I installed my glass-fronted, custom-made case made for oversized photography books, I had to get rid of an armoire to make room for it). I suppose if I were really a fanatic—and willing to put some resources into the project—I could double the bookshelf space in my house, but it would require getting rid of some of our normal furniture and doing semi-oddball things like putting bookshelves behind the couch. And of course I am also, as you know, a photographer—I like to hang pictures on walls, too. So bookshelving doesn't get exclusive priority for the available wall space.
For all these reasons, I've looked at electronic readers for years. I've always been skeptical and fascinated in about equal measure. The idea of having a whole library in a tiny electronic device is like catnip to Sylvester. But when it came to a buying decision, high prices and limited content was, until now, enough to tilt the balance toward "no." I dislike buying electronic gizmos (including digital cameras) because of the quickness of their cycle to entropy—they go from being the latest, greatest thing to being mildly toxic junk too quickly for me. (I currently have to upgrade my computer and I am procrastinating furiously. And if there's one thing I'm good at, it's procrastinating.)
But when the price of the Amazon Kindle 3G went to $189 not long ago, I knew it was only a matter of time. So I dispensed with my usual long drawn-out period of purchasing perserveration (well, unless you consider that I'd been perseverating for ten years already by that time) and just bought the thing.
So that you don't have to skip to the end, here's the conclusion: the Kindle is not perfect, and I love it.
The not perfect parts first: the Kindle should almost be called a "fiction reader." Not quite, but almost. The reason is that there are some things the Kindle is good at and some things it's not good at. It's really best for a) books of pure text that b) you want to read straight through from start to finish and won't want to refer back to at various selected points in the text, and that c) don't rely on a specific visual look or exact formatting, but can have their formatting reflowed with no loss. The ideal Kindle fodder? Thrillers. Or romances, if that's the way your taste runs. You start thrillers or romances at the beginning, read straight through to the end, never encounter footnotes or endnotes, never need to quickly go back to paragraph seven of chapter ten to get a quote or check a fact, and, once you're done, you're done...you don't need to read it again. Literary fiction comes a close second, and "popular" nonfiction (I'm reading Oliver Sacks' The Mind's Eye on my Kindle right now, and it's a perfect Kindle book) after that.
A lot of rights-free literature is available for the Kindle for free or at very low cost. Since it appeals to me to have a reference library of literature, and seems like such a sudden liberty to have such a library without paying a space penalty, my tendency was to go a little wild with the free downloads at first. However, it turns out that there are a lot of implementation problems with the free material, at least in my small sampling so far.
Indifferent typesetting ranks foremost for me; I like typesetting, and it's one of the pleasures of reading old books. As a book reader I have a cutoff date of publication of about 1820, because I don't like reading the old-fashioned "s" that looks like an "f" with a descender ("ƒuffering ƒuccotaƒh," Sylvester would have said, in 1810, in a book printed in, say, Dublin). But other than that, old books were often made with care and artfulness, and are often a pleasure to encounter. The opposite is unfortunately the case with many free books for the Kindle. In some of the Checkov I've downloaded, for instance, the paragraph breaks are leading breaks, and yet quotations aren't indented or set off by leading breaks. Quotation marks aren't curly- or "smart" quotes; elipses are three periods separated by spaces; em dashes are two hyphens, like in an email. The small, nagging problems go on and on, and are enough to create a persistent low level of annoyance that interrupts the reader's concentration on the flow of the words. When a file has been carefully prepared by the publisher, it's a pleasure to read. Bill Bryson's Shakespeare is set well throughout, with real dashes, curly quotes, and proper leading and indenting, and was a quick and pleasurable read. But the free books are less than satisfactory, for the most part.
Other problems with some of the free books I've downloaded: No table of contents; no identification of the translator (a global problem on Amazon's website, and one that drives me crazy); mistakes; and frequent confusion in the website listings, such that the reader reviews under the Kindle edition listings don't always refer specifically to the Kindle edition, making them inaccurate or even misleading. The latter problem means it's almost impossible in some cases to make an intelligent choice as to which free Kindle version is the best one to download. Not the kind of confusion I want to have to deal with.
There are exceptions. As with most things, the things people value the most have been lavished with greater attention. So, for instance, the Kindle Shakespeare is pretty good. And there are some undeniable advantages: a few rarities that are quite costly as physical books because of their lack of currency or popularity are possible to get for the Kindle for free, or for very little cost. (While I'm on cost, though, there are some things that are just too poor a deal on the Kindle. I looked up a William Trevor book of short stories that costs $15 as a printed paperback and $12.99 as a Kindle file—a savings of $2.01, for a book that I can read but can't loan or resell? No thanks.)
There are content anomalies here and there with new material, too. I have no problem with footnotes on the Kindle, generally; they're a little fussy to get to, but the same is true for endnotes in printed books. However, I've been reading Stacy Schiff's biography Cleopatra, and for some reason, whoever prepared the Kindle file (I presume the publishers do this, rather than Amazon, but I don't know) decided that instead of regular footnote notation, segments of the text linked to footnotes need to be underlined like an internet link. Fail! This makes for miserable reading with passages underlined randomly throughout the text. Like buying a used book some fool has underlined. Yuck.
My conclusion on this issue is the opposite of that of most reviewers. Most people complain that there's not enough material available for the Kindle. Not me. I say there's too much. Or rather, too much that's been hastily and carelessly prepared—which is not what I want. I'd rather have one perfectly prepared volume of Turgenev, with content indexing, the translator identified, and a good scholarly introduction, than ten volumes that look like they were OCR'd late at night by college students who say "whatever" a lot.
The poetry problem
And for poetry—especially modern or recent poetry, where text-setting is often crucial—I'm not sure I'd even trust the Kindle. How would you know whether the setting you saw was deliberate, and part of the artistic statement, or random, caused by the Kindle's electronic accomodations and its motile free-flowing text? I don't see how you would, except where the errors were egregious or in cases where you know what the page is really supposed to look like.
Jim Schley, the poetry polymath now at Tupelo Press in Massachussetts, told me that there is a kind of poetry called "field poetry" that uses the page as a canvas and depends for part of its notation on a precise layout of the type. In those poems, it's not only syntax, line breaks, and punctuation that matter, but leading (the spaces between lines), indentations, and justifications (how the beginnings or ends of lines line up). He's even working with a poet right now who he's indulging with inconsistent dash types, as a means of reproducing the visual gestalt of her manuscript.
As a random example, take this poem by Lynn Emanuel from her book Noose and Hook, called "Dear Final Journey." This is the way it's supposed to look on the page (click on the image to see it larger):
Here is the way it looks (with my normal formatting settings) in the Kindle file of Best American Poetry 2010, edited by Amy Gerstler:
Okay. So the Kindle file has conflated the title and the first line (they're the same, but not the same thing), messed up the line breaks, split the poem over two screens, and concluded with what appears to be a greeting from your good friends at the Boston Review.
Not good. Not good at all.
Now here's the same poem from the Kindle file of Noose and Hook, with the settings changed to approximate the printed book page as closely as possible:
To get it to look like this, I changed the text set to the smallest size. I also had to change the type style to "Condensed" in order to avoid the last bad break in the longest line, so that "Oily Waters" wasn't widowed.
So now you're probably saying, okay, close enough—let's not get too picky. But the point is, how do you know what the poem's layout is supposed to be? Here you know because I've showed you the book page. But if you download a Kindle file of, say, Best American Poetry, you're presumably not going to own the book, and even if you did you wouldn't crack the book, then fiddle with the settings on the Kindle to make the formatting look like the book, and then read the Kindle. The point is this. If you're reading Alexander Pope on the Kindle, fine. You're safe. Everybody knows the man wrote short, rhyming couplets till the cows came home, went out again, and came home again. You know what the lines are supposed to look like and where the lines are supposed to break. But if you read contemporary field poetry on the Kindle, like, say, Charles Wright's Scar Tissue—a book in which publisher and poet have carefully worked together to create a precisely expressive typographical layout—you won't have any idea, from the Kindle, what the words are supposed to look like on the page. Even if it was right, you wouldn't know for sure it was right. Not only by jumbling the formatting, but by admitting the possibility of jumbled formatting, the Kindle muddles the very content. Because it's not just the proper words in the proper order that matters.
A short digression: I mentioned earlier that I read Bill Bryson's Shakespeare on the Kindle. Well, here's the rub with that: just as with his excellent book A Short History of Nearly Everything, there's an illustrated edition of Shakespeare as well (and I'll bet there will be an illustrated edition of the recent At Home, too, sooner or later—that book had me getting out of bed in the middle of the night to turn on the computer and Google various things I was reading about so I could see what they looked like). I liked Shakespeare well enough, and it needed illustrations badly enough, that I'm likely to re-buy it in the illustrated print edition—I'll buy the print version even though I already own the Kindle version.
So what's my point? Only that every Kindle review you'll come across will tell you that the Kindle isn't good for illustrated books. It's obvious. No color, and the grayscale isn't fabulous (although it also isn't too bad). But almost no reviews will tell you that it isn't ideal to read poetry on the Kindle. And yet, you probably are well advised not to.
So, for the most part, fiction works best (or popular nonfiction), and current, recently published books tend to be much better prepared for the Kindle format, and more of a pleasure to read on the device, than older, rights-free material you can download for low, or no, cost. How much you like the Kindle will probably depend in part on what kinds of things you like to read, and what your ambitions are for the place the device will have in your reading life.
Great good news
But now here's the best thing about the formatting. It take only a short sentence to tell, but it's a big deal, and it would be a mistake to allow the brevity of its mention to downplay it: You get to choose your own text size. I like that. I like it a lot. Every book you can buy for the Kindle, for example, can now be a "large print" book if you so desire. There are no fewer than eight font sizes to choose from, so the days of type that's too large or too small for your taste are over, for the books you read electronically. I vividly remember my grandmother's late-life struggles with her vision, and her constant quest for large-print books that she wanted to read. Those who need or prefer large-print books should waste no time in getting a Kindle or some other e-reader. This is a great feature.
There are various other formatting controls, but I find the defaults (serif face, maximum line leading, maximum column width, vertical orientation with the keyboard at the bottom) are best.
I told you the conclusion of this review up front—that it's not perfect, and that I love my Kindle. Which I do, more even than I thought I would. Okay, so those were some of the problems. Coming up in Part II: the love.
*Approximately 7 feet high and 2 to 3 feet wide.
"Open Mike" is a series of off-topic ruminations by Yr. Hmbl. Host that appears on Sundays—as this one would have if the dang thing hadn't taken me most of the day Sunday and an hour this morning to write. This stuff doesn't write itself, remember.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Michael Hultström: "In your paragraph about widows you end with "...for effect.)" and on my first reading, the window size, font size etc. coincided so that it was alone on the last line of the paragraph. I was so impressed, but then I realised that it reformats when you change the window. Anyway, it totally made my day."
Mike replies: The funny thing about that is that when I wrote that, it occurred to me to try to format the paragraph that way—until I too realized that the formatting would be fluid in other peoples' browsers and it wouldn't reliably work. I'm glad it worked that way for you, though—and that you appreciated it! UPDATE: I added a JPEG showing the effect you're talking about. Not as neat, but gets the idea across.
Question from Reid: "Mike, I would be very interested to see a visual sample of the book which is typeset well. I'm also someone who cares deeply about typesetting, and my experience with the Kindle is limited to seeing it in the hands of fellow airplane passengers as I walk past down the aisle. However, even these brief glimpses were enough to show me that the typography was obviously, atrociously bad. Thus, I would very much like to see a counterexample."
Mike replies: I don't know if this qualifies as a counterexample, but it's a typical Kindle page. It's the beginning of the third chapter of the book I'm reading now, The Mind's Eye by Oliver Sacks, described as "case histories of six individuals adjusting to major changes in their vision." Click on the picture to see a larger and hopefully slightly brighter version.