Friday, 5 November 2010

From Luddite to Kindle Lover

Well, it's been a long time coming. Back on 18 September 2008 I wrote a post, called 'To e or not to e', looking at the appeal of e-readers versus conventional books. The e-readers didn't come out well: I was prepared to say that there was a certain allure about the Sony and the iLiad but that the prices were far too high. This is what I had to say about Amazon's Kindle:

'My gut instinct is a Luddite one, and when I saw pictures of Amazon's Kindle machine my baseline hostility had aesthetic revolt added to it. The thing looks ghastly. Why do gadget producers think white is a practical colour for a gizmo they hope will be in daily use (cf Apple products)? That pristine science fiction purity will not last - the thing will end up fingerprint-tainted and smeary. Yich. The Kindle's whiteness just looks cheap to me and the design is pug-ugly and clumsy. It reminds me of gadgets sold in the Seventies with cheesy tacky adverts - do you remember K-Tel?'

What a difference a couple of years makes! I'm now the proud owner of a Kindle - so why have I succumbed? In a nutshell: style, ease and convenience, portability and access.

When I started seeing pictures of the new Kindle in the late summer I actually found myself thinking 'I want that!' It is smaller than earlier Kindles, in graphite grey with tapered edges, matt in texture so not showing fingerprints. I find it easy to hold - particularly as with increasing problems with arthritis holding a heavy book open is becoming more and more of a strain (I'll be buying Justin Cronin's mammoth 'The Passage' on Kindle, for instance). If I want to read at table (yes, I'm bad-mannered that way), it lies flat beside me and all I do is press the button to change the page. The Amazon case I bought for it was expensive but it's a classy piece of kit: grained leather with a soft lining and a clever device for hooking your Kindle safely into it. The e-ink display is extremely clear and doesn't tire the eye - coming back from London on the coach the other night with poor-quality light to read by, I simply increased the text-size quite a bit and read on happily. I have had a look at the iPad and it doesn't appeal: yes, I know it's beautiful and it does a lot more than the Kindle. But I wanted a reader - and the iPad is too big and far too heavy, the glossy display too bright and I cannot abide when glare gets in the way of what I'm trying to read. Apparently, most iPads never leave their owners' houses - the Kindle tucks into my handbag and is my companion and resource.

Ease: the Kindle really does work straight out of the box. This is brilliant. When it arrived I spent a happy afternoon downloading loads of free out-of-copyright books - the user manual was on the device should I need it, but really every process is crystal-clear. I bought the 3G version and I recommend that if you're buying one you do the same: if a title interests me I can connect with the Amazon store and have it on my Kindle in a couple of minutes. We were in Paris last week and when we visited the Louvre, I connected and downloaded the opening of 'The Da Vinci Code' to compare the description in the novel with the reality. Done in seconds!

This brings me to another delightful feature - you can download free samples of books so that you can make a decision about whether you'll go ahead and buy. Just as with standing in a bookshop reading the first few pages of a potential purchase, sometimes this leads to a purchase, sometimes not. To any of you writers out there, this is a very important feature: when you're submitting your work to agents it's crucial to get your opening right - we all know this. But it's becoming even more crucial when the Kindle purchaser makes a judgement based on a sample. This is how the modern world works: we want to be hooked instantaneously. Go back and check your story's opening - would you go ahead and buy?

I've organised my books into Collections and have made some serendipitious discoveries in the free book section. I subscribe to a blog, Me and My Kindle. I can travel now without that worry that I may run out of reading matter or that the book I've taken with me will bore me - whatever my mood, I can find something to read. Every time I return to an individual book, it'll open at the page I left it at. If I want to I can bookmark passages, annotate them, hover the cursor over a word and get a dictionary definition of it. I can connect to the internet, though that's rather slow - this doesn't bother me as I bought the Kindle as a reader not as a Jack of all trades.

Do I have any quibbles? Yes, of course. It's rather heavier than I thought it would be, to be honest. The keyboard has very fiddly little keys. In Paris I read Ernest Shackleton's 'South' and the lack of maps and charts (it was one of the free books) was irritating. But the biggest problem I have with it is finding my way about as there are no page numbers. This is because the change text-size facility alters the pagination, so Amazon has gone for a 'location' bar along the bottom, which gives you an idea of what proportion of the book you've read. OK, I'm getting more used to that but if I want to flick back to a previous page or reference, I can't - unless I open the search box and type in a term. That's my biggest grouch with it.

You get past that by realising you haven't chosen e-reader over book - the two are complementary. I can load one-read-only books on my Kindle, or old classics, I can try samples and I can carry loads of reading material around with me. I save space on my overloaded shelves. But I will never never never fall out of love with books themselves: here's what I wrote back in 2008 -

'Books, now. Ah, books ... I sniff at my new books like a Bisto kid. I stroke their spot-laminated covers. I browse in bookshops and buy books by happenstance. I find old books I never knew existed and read notes and signature of people long-dead who also cherished these words. I pick up a book, I put it down, I pick it up again - it is still there for me, patient and loyal, ready to give up ideas, knowledge and felicitious phrases whenever I want. It does not run out of charge. If I lose my place or want to find a previous reference, I flick. I don't scroll or jab buttons. I can find my way about it with ease and there is a democracy of pages at work. In my house, books teeter in piles and are crammed on shelves, their spines a display of colour, of changing fashions in jacket copy, an instant reminder, each one, of when and why I bought it, an instant trigger to feelings I had on reading it, what was going on in my life during that first literary encounter. Some are tucked away, shamefast, like old boyfriends you cannot for the life of you understand once had an appeal for you. Some evoke the safety of childhood. Some scream youthful pretentiousness at you. Some are comforts in the darkest night. Some have stretched your horizons. Some make your heart race. Some lull you with the most beautiful of rhythms, the most beloved of words. Some make you cry. And they're all there, eternally waiting without reproach, just for you. So if someone wants to give me an e-reader for Christmas, well, yippee. It'll be fun. It'll be a frolic. But the love of books, real paper books, tried and trusted (bless you, Gutenberg) solid enduring instant-access books - that love is in the marrow of my bones.


Karen said...

I'm still a Luddite on this topic I'm afraid! I did buy an e-reader earlier in the year, with great excitement, and sold it on ebay a fortnight later as I didn't like it.

You make a very good case for the Kindle though so I guess it's never say never :o)

Lane said...

What a fantastic piece Lorna.

I've never even held a Kindle or any e reading gizmo but I can see their place. I love that you can download samples before you buy.

As for teetering piles all over the house? Yes, I have them too and I love them.

Glynis said...

I am not sure about buying one at the moment. My friend is getting one at the end of the month, so I will look at hers.

Your review is a good one, and thanks for sharing. I like the idea of the colour change and cover.

Lorna F said...

Karen - I always thought I'd find e-readers resistible, but I really have had a lot of fun with the Kindle. I think that if you see it as an adjunct, not a replacement, then you can let it play to its strengths.

Lane - thanks so much. Yes, the sample-downloads are brilliant. I have loads of them! On a certain proportion I do follow through to buy - just as in a bookshop I'd read a page or two and make a decision. Some of the samples are a fairly good chunk of the work in question too. And you have teetering piles, too! What we women of a certain age have to bear ...

Glynis - yes, it helps to see one in the flesh, as it were. I've been delighted with its 'handlability'.