I Got a Kindle

I got a Kindle for my upcoming trip to Cambodia. Actually, my parents got it for me as a delayed graduation present.

The logic went something like this: “Hm. I read a lot. I’m going to a place where the primary language isn’t English. They probably won’t have many English-language libraries there.” At that point a family friend suggested getting a Kindle (she already had one). “Hm…yeah!”

Like a good nerd I tried to feature-compare, but really there was only one contender besides the Kindle: Barnes & Noble’s Nook. The Nook has actually gotten better reviews than the Kindle, and is supposed to have a more responsive display. And it uses a touch screen instead of a tiny keyboard. Say what you will about touch screens—on a device that doesn’t require text input, having a keyboard is kind of silly.

But I went and tried a Nook at a Barnes & Noble store, and it was too small. And that was that.

Aside: Why Another Device?

What’s the advantage of a Kindle or Nook (or other e-reader) over another tablet, smartphone, netbook, laptop? The e-ink screen. Most screens these days work by shining a light at your face and then putting filters in front of it, which means that working on a computer (or tablet, smartphone, netbook) is basically like staring into a projector all day. No wonder your eyes hurt afterwards.

E-ink, on the other hand, works on the same principles as paper, or, say, an Etch A Sketch: whatever light’s around in the room bounces off of the surface and into your eyes. This is a lot more comfortable, especially if you are on the computer the rest of the day like me. Also, it takes a lot less power—think of it as running your computer with the screen backlight off. And all it has to do is read PDFs and text files.

(It used to be that e-ink had an awful refresh time, where you had to wait several seconds to go from one page to the next. Moreover, everything that got refreshed had to flash through black first. The latest e-ink devices, though, have a refresh rate of less than a second…and they’ve gotten the hang of not redrawing the whole screen if only part of it changed. So that’s okay.)

Print

As much as I might seem like a technology freak (I am a CS major, after all), I’m very much a throwback in my field. I still have a dumbphone. I don’t put everything on the Internet (he said in a blog post). And I love books.1

I grew up reading, starting before kindergarten and working through The Hobbit in third grade, I, Robot in fourth grade, and dozens and dozens of Star Wars books (not to mention the entire Animorphs series…which my mom read as well). I’ve been “writing” about as long—creating and dictating stories to my parents and grandparents and teachers, often with my brother. So “literature” is certainly a big pastime of mine, if that makes sense.

Some physical books are great, too. Some are just okay, but some have nice paper, nice illustrations and printing…nice typography, even. The feel of a new book (even a paperback) is one of life’s pleasures, and libraries and bookstores are at least a bit sacred.

In my last semester at Berkeley I took a class called History 200X: “The Hand Printed Book in its Historical Context”. This is a wonderful class in which you not only get to see exemplary samples of typography and printing from before Gutenberg all the way to the present day, but you also get to learn to use a hand press. By the end of the class, the seven of us had set and printed about 70 copies of a pamphlet.

Not at all practical in this day and age. But amazingly cool.

…In Your Pocket

(Okay, my pockets aren’t really big enough for a Kindle.)

If I care about physical books so much, why would I get a Kindle? The simple answer is what I said above: Cambodia’s probably not going to have English-language libraries. And in fact, if I wasn’t going, I wouldn’t have gotten it.

But the thing about the Kindle is it destroys typography. Anything where you can resize the text or rotate the screen means it has to reflow the text for you, which means no static layout. You can put PDFs on the Kindle, but then you lose some of its features. (They work fairly well, though.)

What that means is that I’m never going to use the Kindle for anything where the typography might matter. For example, I wouldn’t want to buy Alice in Wonderland because I’d miss out on the illustrations. Actually, given the choice between a physical book and a Kindle copy, I’d almost always prefer the physical book. At least with a physical book someone has put effort into how the text looks on the page.

Kindle text isn’t even justified (flush left and right). Pick up a real book near you—95% chance it’s justified alignment. It bugs me.

(This is also a trick for your next paper; see how much less/more professional this page looks when you turn justification off and on.)

I’m not really a typographer…I’m not instantly offended by Comic Sans and I don’t think Helvetica is the Messiah. (Although I have learned to dislike Arial.) But…it’s the little things that matter, right?

It’s worth noting that I haven’t actually bought anything yet, although I will before I get on the plane. My Kindle currently has the C and C++ standards, IVHQ’s Cambodia information guide, a free copy of The Count of Monte Cristo (which I’ve never read before), and a copy of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. In storage, waiting for my return, I have over a hundred physical books, paperback and hardcover…most of them science fiction and/or fantasy. For me, physical books are still going strong.

The Death of the Book?

In the long-term, though? I think books are going away. There’s no need for textbooks or reference books to be on paper anymore. We’ll probably even be able to get nicely type-set editions of paperback throwawy books soon. Sure, there are plenty of disadvantages for real readers: inferior highlighting, bookmarking, and note-taking, plus a loss of spatial information (“it was about three-quarters of the way through the book on the upper-right-hand side…”).

But things like that have never slowed the march of technology. Selling another copy of an e-book costs almost nothing—the marginal cost is basically zero. E-books don’t eat trees (though the e-waste of discarded e-readers may turn out to be worse if we’re not e-careful). E-books are cheaper for the consumer, too.2 Digital books are searchable. And you can buy them without going anywhere and without waiting for delivery.

The biggest thing is storage. Ten years ago, buying a digital copy of a book might not have been worth it, because hard drives have a lifetime of…ten years, maybe? Without being careful about backups, you could lose your files. Well-made books, on the other hand, have already lasted for centuries. Modern books are not particularly well-made, of course, so you might give them a couple of decades. That’s still better than digital storage.

But these days, your data is stored in the Cloud, at least for the Kindle. That means Amazon is responsible for keeping your books. And even if they go out of business, you can put the files in your own storage online. Data doesn’t have an inherent lifetime anymore—it’s always in multiple places and transferred to your new devices.

The downside? If Amazon does go out of business, other e-readers can’t read your Kindle books. This is the big issue about “open” formats. In theory, anyone can make their own PDF reader, or plain text reader, or even Microsoft docx format reader, because the format is documented online. But you can’t make a Kindle book reader, because Amazon keeps the format a secret.

Also, if a book is damaged, you can usually still read part of it. If a file gets “damaged”, you may not be able to open it at all.

Conclusions

Still, I think the book, as great as it is, is on the way out. It’s going to become a luxury item and an art form. And as much as I like books, typography, printing, as sorry as I am to see it go, I’d rather have people keep reading and writing stories than worry about their medium.

And even so, I’ll keep buying books myself. I’d much rather have the analog medium, the spatial association, no power requirements…and the look, smell, and feel of a book.

Thoughts?

  1. I think this is not uncommon, actually…many computer scientists, software developers, graphic designers, etc. seem to be fascinated with past technology, past information storage, and past design. ↩︎

  2. At first I was going to point out that that’s ignoring the cost of the e-reader itself, which is definitely over $100. But that’s paying for a lightweight and fairly portable bookcase…and in the case of the Kindle, one with basic Internet access when you need it. ↩︎

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