Kindle Surprise

The news the other day that Amazon now sells more e-books than physical one didn’t come as a surprise. I got a Kindle for my birthday, and it has quite rejuvenated my reading habits. I’d slowly fallen away from the written page since moving to Arizona, in part because I was no longer commuting on the train to work and around town on public transport. That was a perfect opportunity for a book, also helping to ensure you never committed the ultimate faux-pas of making eye contact with your fellow travellers. But in Phoenix, the car is king, and it seemed terribly rude to ignore Chris and bury my nose in a tome on our way somewhere.

Also, let’s face it, my tired old eyes aren’t what they used to be, especially given the time since my last eye exam (I’m not saying it was a while ago, but the eye-chart started sphinx, ankh, sphinx, pyramid). They can focus at computer screen and TV set distance – just don’t expect them to switch with any degree of rapidity faster than a mid-80’s camcorder (and about as much grinding and whirring). Indeed, they also function about as well as said camcorder in low light conditions – and by “low”, I mean anywhere not appropriately lit for brain-surgery. Standard book text in standard conditions where I want to read e.g. our bedroom, is legible, but only with enough squinting to take the fun out of it.

The Kindle, however, lets you adjust the print size to whatever you want. It’s also supremely easy to use. Two buttons: one to go forward, one to go back – they’re duplicated on each side so you can operate it with either hand, depending on circumstance. There’s a small QWERTY keyboard, that I hardly ever use, and some menu and setting buttons. Loading up content is a snap. Connect to your PC, it appears as an external drive, and you just drag and drop your e-books or other documents, and you’re good to go – it’ll sort through them and automatically list them by title, author, etc. Select a title and start reading; it even automatically keeps your place when you shut it off.  Marvellous.

Of course, you then have to find stuff to put on it: that Kindle User’s Guide isn’t exactly great literature [while the plot is quite interesting, the characterization leaves a lot to be desired…] There are two ways you can approach this. You can painstakingly assemble a collection of e-books, paying out for another copy of books you already own and effectively rebuilding your entire library from scratch. Or you can find a nice fat torrent collection of e-books in the appropriate format, and download it. I have surprisingly little guilt over saying I did the latter.

I certainly object to having to cough up multiple times for the same content, especially when, as with e-books, there is no discernible difference. It’s not as if you get a better experience, as with, say, VHS < LD < DVD < Blu-Ray.  Indeed, the Kindle is specifically designed to imitate the reading experience as closely as possible – sensible since, after all, it has been perfected over several millennia of the human experience. Buying a book, then being expected to pay for the e-version is like buying a CD, and then having to pay extra for the MP3 so you can listen to it on your iPod. I’d be more concerned about authors and publishers getting nothing if it weren’t for the existence of a) publicly-funded libraries, and b) second-hand book-stores. If I get a book from either of those, neither receive any additional recompense.

Taking the moral justifications as read (for the moment), I found and downloaded a nice torrent of e-books, in a format suitable for Kindling. It wasn’t that big, about 1.4 Gb, which is roughly the size of two standard movies. But it was only when I whacked it onto the Kindle, that I realized what a kick-ass device I had – and how far storage capacity of modern devices has out-paced the written word. My Kindle, previously a barren wasteland of emptiness, now contained 1,425 titles. Even excluding the Kindle User’s Guide, that meant that, if I read a book every week, this small device still contained enough to keep me going until approximately the end of the year 2039. When I’ll be 73. Odds are, given a more credible reading rate, I’ll die, with books on it left unread.

Of course, I can’t say that I intend to read every book on there. While the titles were skewed more than satisfactorily toward the genres I like, let’s be honest – The Color Purple is not exactly leaping to the top of the list. But this is one of the other aspects about such a bulk acquisition, and it’s a positive one for authors and publishers. The first two books I’ve read on it are both by writers I would almost certainly not have bothered with, under other circumstances. Admittedly, the two books in question have been a bit of a mixed-bag. A.J. Jacobs clunkily-named The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible is sporadically amusing, but comes over as mostly self-righteous preening. He comes to the conclusion that the only way to follow the Bible is to pick and choose which bits, since it’s so contradictory. Well, duh. I could have told him that, without needing to live for a year without mixing my fibres [Deuteronomy 22:11].

However, Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes reminded me of why I love reading to begin with. It’s a lovingly-crafted story of a war in a fictional medieval-ish world, between the Union and the North; what makes it particularly interesting is it’s told from multiple viewpoints on both sides. You get to see things unfold as seen by a career fighter, who is fed up with the whole thing, and also the scheming wife of an officer on the opposite side, plotting advancement for her husband. It would make a great, epic movie with its gritty battle scenes that you can see unfolding in your head, particularly the one that starts off following one character, until he dies, then moves on to follow his killer, until he, too, pop his clogs, and so on.

It’s great stuff, which I’ve been reading everywhere from the bathroom to the projection booth at our film festival, and has certainly got me interested in reading more by Abercrombie. Enough to pay cash for his other books? Probably, actually. But even if there’s only a (say) 20% chance of such a purchase, that’s 20% higher than it would otherwise have been. But to finish by going back to the moral aspects, is this kindling – hohoho! – of my interest in an author, any different from borrowing the book [electronic or regular version] from a friend? I’m largely unconvinced that it isn’t exactly the same.