Friday, May 21, 2010

My Kindle review

Here's my quick and dirty and unabashedly biased review of the Kindle.
I have been using a Kindle DX for several days. I've been reading
books for four decades, and I happen to own more than 6000 printed
books. My initial feelings about the Kindle were overwhelmingly
negative, though I liked a few things right off the bat. After a few
days, my feelings about the Kindle are overwhelmingly positive. First
the negative, then the positive:

Design: To say that the Kindle is pig-ugly is an insult to pigs, a
cute and much-maligned animal. An Apple product it ain't. But the
Kindle's design is functional and it's very easy to navigate books and
newspapers on the Kindle. At first I thought that newspapers were a
hassle to read, especially compared with browsing a print newspaper at
the kitchen table. But once I got the hang of it, I reluctantly
changed my mind. Now I prefer reading newspapers on this device.

Display: For the first few hours, I thought the display was much too
dark, so much so that I would never want to read long books and
newspapers on it. In fact, I was ready to throw the thing out (I'm not
someone who hesitates to throw things out). But after a few hours, I
got used to the display and now I like it a lot. The display is not
backlit, which means that you can read in bright sunlight, even
outdoors. Yesterday, I read the Washington Post on an outdoor
restaurant terrace. You don't touch the display to operate the Kindle,
which is a good thing as far as I'm concerned, because it doesn't get
smudged with fingerprints. The text, or e-ink print, is sharp and you
can make the font much larger than the print in printed books. In
recent months, I've tried reading several e-books off my top-of-the
line iMac as well as off a good laptop, with several e-book software
programs, including the Kindle software (which is available for PCs
and Macs). For me, there's no comparison. I simply cannot read and
enjoy reading a 900-page book from a backlit computer screen, no
matter how good the resolution. And it's not for lack of trying. On
the Kindle, on the other hand, I seem to read more and faster than
with a big paperback on my lap. Over the past couple of days, during
which I've read and done many other things, I've read 63% of Bird and
Sherwin's biography of Oppenheimer. Incidentally, with the Kindle you
don't think of how many pages you've read; instead, you think of what
percentage of a book you've read. The paper edition of this
Oppenheimer biography (which I recommend) is 736 pages long, which
doesn't tell us anything useful about how long the book is. Pages of
books, without specifying the character count, don't really mean
anything, as any freelance translator will tell you.

Size: the 9.7" Kindle DX is the perfect size for reading books. I
don't think I would want anything smaller, or bigger. Its weight, 540
grams, feels good in my hands or on my lap. The device also feels
solid and it's easy to handle.

Downloading books and newspapers: very quick and easy here in
Switzerland and presumably everywhere in the digitized world. The
736-page biography I mentioned earlier took less than 30 seconds to
download. Newspapers for which you have a subscription are downloaded automatically as soon as you turn on the wireless download function (called Whispernet), which works like a cellphone. But most of the time, I have the Whispernet function turned off, to save battery life
and to avoid the real and imagined harmful effects of electromagnetic
radiation. I'm currently trying out free two-week subscriptions to the
New York Times, the Washington Post, Frankfurter Allgemeine, El Pais,
Le Monde, La Stampa, and the Independent. (La Stampa and the
Independent are the worst of the lot; El Pais the best in my biased
opinion. The Corriere della Sera is not available. The Financial Times
is available but I prefer the New York Times.)

Battery: With the Kindle, you can read non-stop for four days without
having to recharge your battery, which means that you only have to
charge it once a week if you're a voracious reader and have other
things to do (job, family, butterfly collection...). That's much
longer than any laptop or than, say, the iPad (which Apple claims has
a battery life of 10 hours).

The internets:* The Kindle has a basic web browser, but I haven't
wanted to surf the internet, or read any blogs or newspapers on the
internet, either via my Kindle of any of my computers since I got the
Kindle, because I'm enjoying reading real books and newspapers so

Books: My fear is that I won't want to read paper books anymore. I
have several thousand paper books in my library which I've yet to
read. Old geezer though I am, I find myself reading long books for
hours and hours on the Kindle, and enjoying it more than on paper. A
lot of books I'm interested in, including university press books with
a sinological bent, are _not_ available from the Kindle online store.
But what is available is impressive: more than half a million
bestsellers and in-print books, for about 10 bucks U.S. a pop, and
almost 2 million out-of-print books, for a song.

Conclusion: I think I will spend much less time reading paper books
and surfing the internets* from now on. On a philosophical note, I
would add that e-books are no further removed from a writer's mind and
hand than printed books. When books began to be printed on an
industrial scale, people complained about that too. The 11th-century
scholar Zhu Xi lamented: "The reason people today read sloppily is
that there are a great many printed texts... It would seem that the
ancients had no written texts, so only if they had memorized a work
from beginning to end would they get it. Those studying a text would
memorize it completely and afterwards receive instruction on it from a
teacher... For people today, even copying down a text has become
bothersome. Therefore their reading is sloppy." Zhu Xi may have had
a point. But books printed on paper could not be wished away once they
were widely available.

*Tipping my hat to one George Walker Bush, for his contribution to the
English language. Speaking of which, the Kindle comes with the excellent New Oxford American Dictionary, which is very useful but nothing to brag about, because so does your toaster and your grandma's hearing aid these days.