Kindle Smindle

I do not have a Kindle and remain uncertain if I will ever read a Kindle edition of a book. If I saw it or any other e-book as an improvement of reading experience, I would most assuredly. But I await such evidence before taking the plunge.

For evidence, I must rely upon the reports of friends who have the device or writers who have evaluated their own experience reading an e-book. Nicholson Baker, reports in The New Yorker, that his attempt to read books on the Kindle2 was thoroughly underwhelming. “I squeezed no new joy from these great books though.”

He downloaded several classic and contemporary novels and read of little of each one, but not more. The gray screen (“a greenish, sickly gray”) annoyed him and he says some readers claim the Kindle2 is harder to read than the Kindle1. It unsettled him that a Kindle book “dies with its’ possessor.” There’s no book to put on his shelf, even though it is surely overflowing with more than enough already. Baker reports that illustrations, tables and photographs are difficult to read on the Kindle’s relatively small gray screen.

The preservation of a book strikes me as extremely important matter. Jean-Francois Blanchette from the Department of Information Studies at U.C.L.A. takes up this issue in a letter to The New Yorker:

“Nicholson Baker’s excellent piece on the Kindle foregrounds a thorny issue in the shift from print to digital media—that of preservation). … Even more significant, what the preserved items will look like is unclear, as data formats, computing platforms, and reading devices ceaselessly morph into their next market-driven incarnations. Imagine if the only copy left of “Imaging in Oncology” were the Kindle version, with its garbled tables and lost color coding? Or, a more likely scenario, if several copies of the book existed in different formats, each with a different visual presentation? In each case, the authority and usefulness of the cultural and scientific record would be severely impaired.”

I read The New Yorker each week and the Times each day. Both can be read with a Kindle, as well. But the Kindle versions are not exact reproductions of the print editions. In the case of The New Yorker, I understand there are no advertisements, some of the cartoons are missing, and not every article is reproduced. Baker reports that much the same is true for the Times:

“The Kindle Times…lacks most of the print edition’s superb photography—and its subheads and call-outs and teasers, its spinnakered typographical elegance and variety, its browsabless, its Web-site links, its listed names of contributing reporters, and almost all captioned pie charts, diagrams, weather maps, crossword puzzles, summary sports, scores, financial data, and, of course, ads, for jewels, for swimsuits, for vacationlands, and for recently bailed-out investment firms.”

For Baker, the Kindle version of the Times is by no means a savior of the newspaper. Quite to the contrary, it kills the joy of reading it.

When I buy a book on Amazon, I often check to see if a Kindle version is available. More than half the time it isn’t. Baker’s experience is the same for books (at least 25) that he purchased recently for which there is no Kindle version. It all depends on what you like to read. If romance novels are your cup of tea, the Kindle will satisfy all your needs. If you prefer lofty works on abstruse philosophical and scientific issues, you are unlikely to find them at the Kindle store.

Finally, Baker managed to force himself to read a complete book (The Lincoln Lawyer) on the Kindle2. Clearly it was a struggle and done “out of a sense of duty.” He notes “It was like going from a Mini Cooper to a white 1982 Impala with blown shocks.”

Although he has a long history of reading printed books, my sense is that Baker tried to read a Kindle book with an open mind. But in his view it was by no means an improvement on a printed version and my hunch is that is also the case for other long time readers of his generation. Whether or not it will be true for younger individuals, who have grown up peering at small screens all day remains to be seen.