02 December 2011

On damp kindling

I got a Kindle for my birthday.

I didn't buy one for myself for many reasons, chief of which was that it purported to be a solution to a non-existent problem (leaving aside the relatively trivial sustainability argument--clearly it is trivial when Amazon, pleading VAT regulations, can charge more for a virtual edition than for a lovely case-bound hardback).

Granted, I discovered that I could download free sample chapters from some prospective purchases, which may be a step up from bookshop browsing. And there is a substantial back catalogue of free or almost-free texts; most of them could be found on the net, but I have to concede that they are easier to read on the Kindle.

The flicker of a constantly refreshing screen is subliminal, but even so it is there on a monitor, and although the kindle screen has a way to go, it is more comfortable for prolonged reading. Indeed, its font and format options are great for anyone whose sight is at all impaired. The days of the large-print book may well be numbered.

There are nevertheless limitations to the display. The contrast and grey-scale, and apparently limited standard templates, restrict the layout and formatting, not to mention the graphics. Of course, embedded links to colour graphics and even video can be incorporated, just not implemented in this incarnation.

I have just made my first proper purchase.

(Yes, it is legitimate to ask what right I have to pontificate on this on the basis of one purchase. But sometimes it is useful to remember the first time for technical reasons... Oh, get over it :-)  )

It is frighteningly, seductively easy. My security system requires me to register specific items of kit with the wifi router via their MAC address; that took less than five minutes from a baseline of total ignorance. And I already had one-click enabled.

So I can find any Kindled item on Amazon, and buy and dowload it to my Kindle with three clicks. They say it takes a minute, but that's pessimistic.

At one level that is brilliant, but I can see myself acquiring a backlog of unread stuff because of momentary impulses. I do that now, of course, but at least I can see the reproachfully growing piles of unread physical books, prompting me to make inroads,

I checked out the hard-copy version of the book I had downloaded, courtesy of Heffers in Cambridge (not that I asked them. But they only had three copies, and none in the front of house displays)  I was disappointed by the referencing of the Kindle version, and had wondered whether it was dumbed-down for the digital market. It wasn't--but then it would require more editorial effort to do so than to leave it as it was... and even more to plug it in to the infinite net.

But of course Kindle couldn't have an index, when the pagination is dynamic, could it? Well, yes, with one-click links. And a search function--which has a system of identifying "locations" within a text; I have not yet worked out whether those remain consistent despite formatting changes, and whether they can be shared. A blogger I follow has just posted a link to a key passage in a kindle text, but the link just took me to my own notes page rather than his... this is not yet intuitive practice.

So the annotation/ highlighting/ mark-up facilities are limited and a pain to use at the moment--in the case of the Kindle 4 in large measure because of the clunky virtual keyboard. But they do exist, however rudimentary the form. And since a substantial proportion of users will never use them, and older versions of the kit do include a basic keyboard, and there is at least the opportunity to share annotations, which is a great idea... Amazon is on a good track. 

OK, I'm 67, from a receding generation, and I'm hooked on physical books; books do furnish a room after all. I can't see myself adopting Kindle as my default reading format. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I don't read the page in quite the same way as a book. The line length is shorter, by default, and so I don't have to scan as much as I do on a normal printed text. I can skim more easily. That's good for some things and less so for others.

I have not mentioned that the Kindle is not restricted to displaying Amazon material, and the fraught question of online availability is one I shall leave aside here; but it is easy to transfer rich text files so that you can readily have to hand all the documentation for a meeting without a single piece of paper. I very rarely do meetings like that any more, thank goodness, and there are other ways of achieving the same end, but for the moment this is an elegant solution.

Somehow I suspect that just as the afterthought of SMS messaging became the unexpected killer app. of the mobile phone, the e-reader may find its niche far from the novel-reading commuter who is its present target.

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