Monday, 1 March 2010

How I Learned to Start Worrying and Hate My Kindle

This entry is going to be a bit more personal/auto-biographical than my usual work. This past summer, I received a Kindle as a graduation present. My mom’s fiancĂ© (who is a standup guy) got it for me with the best intentions; he knew I was a bibliophile and thought I should try out the much-discussed “next generation of the written word.” He and his intentions unwittingly paved my clichĂ© to hell.

I was hesitant to use the Kindle. Why? Because I’m a clumsy fuck. In fact, only a few weeks after receiving the Kindle, I was at the foot doctor. I won’t go into my medical history, but I needed to get a cast of my foot made. The process required the following ingredients: my Fred Flinstone-sized extremity, the doctor’s assistant, a tub of water, some little-paste-like-cast-strips, and 45 minutes. Naturally, I brought a book. It was The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins and I had purchased a copy of it at a used bookstore for $4.50. As you can surmise, this wasn’t a first edition. Good thing too since during the process, I dropped the novel and watched it plummet in that real-life slow motion that is only attainable when you drop something and know you will not catch it.

That was when I knew that I could never really use a Kindle. Blow-drying a Kindle won’t do you much good. The Kindle also probably can’t withstand being dropped 10 feet onto concrete or a wood floor and I’m not sure how it will hold up against the sand at the beach. Your average paperback is incredibly more durable, for about 1% of the cost. Also, while I’m relatively certain that neither the Kindle nor your average book can withstand your everyday fire (because I’m sure literature-related accidents happen while camping), at least replacing a book (even if it is a new hardcover) is far less costly. Also, when I lose a book, I lose a book, not my entire library (and while you can redownload a book – for now – you lose all your precious notes, which are big for an English major).

Furthermore, I just didn’t see the point to a Kindle. Yes, with music, I can only burn so-many CDs and tend to enjoy switching back and forth between songs and artists quite often. However, my mind is not so addled with ADD that I need a constant cornucopia of books from which to choose at all times. Someone once said that he likes having a Kindle for 14-hour flights. Let’s see. A page a minute seems like a pretty generous average, especially for an Oxford or Penguin classic. A book is about 450 pages, so that means that at most, you only need two books (and that’s if you do nothing but read instead of, you know, sleep, watch something on the chair in front of you, stare out the window, complain about the crying infant, etc.). Yes, two books take up a little bit more space than a thin Kindle…but I find those extra 50 or 75 or 100 cubic inches not all huge of a sacrifice, considering the drawbacks of the Kindle.

So my Kindle lay dormant for the next few months. Finally, after about 150 days of residency in my room in its box, I decided that I should probably at least give it a chance. I was about to embark on an 18-hour car ride and was aware that (if I read in the car for too long) I had a propensity to get car sick. Normally, this problem is not a noticeable one since I don’t go on 18-hour car rides all too often, but I knew it would be inevitable this time and thought that maybe the Kindle would be better.

Even if the effect was purely in placebo territory, it was there. Score one for the Kindle.

I was starting to grow slightly fond of the contraption. I found the search function mildly useful as well as the dictionary. Of course, I was still not sold. Flipping through a book is just exponentially easier, and I really don’t know if there really is a way to rectify that problem, no matter how much better the technology gets. Writing notes can become easier if they add a pen-esque device, but then I’m sure I’d lose that and continuously spend money replacing that (and the current highlighting/note system is quite cumbersome). In short, the Kindle was not the godsend that many technophiles make it out to be, but it was not completely without merit.

Of course, Nazi Germany had a great highway system, socialized heathcare, and was a forerunner in animal rights. (Hurray Godwin’s Law!) So something can still be demonic without being bereft of virtues.

On the one month anniversary of using my Kindle, I went to turn on the screen and continue to plod my way through Cormac McCarthy’s overrated, self-important, and achingly dull The Road. The screen mostly went on. But about 15% of it would not. Granted seeing “the boy moved ********************* said the man” was about as fulfilling as if I actually got to behold McCarthy’s oh-so-stark prose, but this was a matter of principle. I called Amazon and after about ten minutes on the phone, they sent me a new Kindle.

This, as you may have guessed, meant waiting a few days. Amazon was very lucky I was not particularly engrossed by the molasses-esque pace of the novel or else I would have been most cross indeed. As it was, I was still quite cross. In all my years of reading, I have never opened up a book to find a page malfunctioning (okay, there have been printer errors, but I tend to find those when first looking a book). I felt as if I were living in some work by Italo Calvino, where I was in the middle of a book, only to find an egregious error and be forced to go searching elsewhere for literary fulfillment.

I then got another Kindle. However, lo and behold, it came with broken wireless and quite a few hours of phonetime with Amazon only got me a third Kindle headed my way. In this third Kindle, I experienced the great joy of the Kindle’s autonomy and its desire to purchase a book when I was merely browsing. I must confess, I greatly prefer looking around Barnes and Noble, where I know that picking a book up off the shelf will not mean accidental ownership. Well, maybe if I ripped a page or something, but I would just have to hope that no one was looking. Another angry letter to Amazon, more agita, etc. etc.

The Kindle brings all the faults of technology into the old-fashioned world of books. iPods may have errors, DVDs may have errors, computers may have errors, digital cameras, but all of these are updates on still recent technology. They offer a service you could not get outside of the modern world. The closest you can get is an acted play for a DVD or a Victrola instead of an iPod; one is far too different from the first and the other has a far more noticeable lack of drawbacks compared to its futuristic offspring.

Here we seem to be going from singing a capella to an MP3 of Lady Gaga. The gap is too large to be filled by merely throwing enough marketing and lab work. In the end, the experience and medium is just too different. The Kindle cannot replace the book. At best, it can fill a book-on-tape-esque role, but I think even that is too much. Yes, the Kindle is growing in popularity, but I think most of that is because it is very fashionable right now and attracting both curious readers and people who are only starting to exercise that vestigial skill because it’s trendy. “No one” read books a few years ago. “No one” is still reading books. The only difference is everyone who is “someone” is reading a Kindle.

Recently, someone dug up an article written in Newsweek which may have the title of the worst prediction in history. It essentially denounces any use of the internet. Perhaps this will be another such prediction. I certainly hope not. If I am wrong, I cannot imagine it being due to the victory of a superior being…merely a triumph of marketing.

[special thanks to Ryan Oliveira for the photoshop]

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