Kindling For The Fire

I’ve owned a Kindle ever since it was possible to buy one (which would mean that I’ve owned one since October of 2009). The true measure of a device’s worth can (in my opinion) only be measured when one has spent a great deal of time with it. Reviews are useful, but rarely uncover any flaws derived from long-term usage. That iPhone 3G for example could become, after two years of use, a slow crashing heap of crap that has the misfortune of being inopportunely dropped every so often. Not that I’d know anything about that.

I’d like to focus on the actual reading experience, comparing it to reading actual books. I still buy the print version of every book I read, partly because I still like to occasionally feel (and smell) the pages, partly because sometimes there is no e-book equivalent. While I understand that Amazon’s broad catalogue (at the time of writing far greater than Apple’s iBooks store) has its limits, what worries me more is the fact that (just like DVD’s, streaming video and the iTunes Store) there appear to be regional restrictions on what you can and can not buy. The very idea of this is preposterous. Digital information should be universal and regional restrictions serve only to encourage piracy.

This is however not a rant about the Kindle Store, so let’s leave that subject and talk about the reading experience.

Some time ago I was reading Heat Wave, the novel that ties in with the Castle TV-show (as in: this is the book that Richard Castle is purportedly writing throughout the first two seasons). Having finished that. I moved on to Mechanicum, a book written by Graham McNeill set in the Warhammer 40000 universe. Since I could not get my hands on a digital version of this book through the Kindle Store (‘regional’ restrictions being what they are), I bought the print version.

I might be best to first mention how I read. I usually read late at night in bed with a reading lamp. I usually read about an hour or two or until I fall asleep. I read in many positions: on my side, sitting up, on my back, etc. I occassionally (i.e. when I have the time) read books during other parts of the day, but this is the exception. Take what I’ve mentioned in mind as you read on.

It had been a while since I had read a paper book and picking up the paper version of Mechanicum reminded me why I never really looked back after buying a Kindle. I never realized how amazingly unwieldy a physical book is until I bought a Kindle. You have to hold the page to prevent it from slipping back and you end up playing an endless game of ‘when will my arm give out this time?’ I also forgot how impossible it is to read books one-handed. I had to slip back in to my old ‘thumb and pinky routine’ to hold open my book. I could only do this for about half an hour before being forced to switch hands. A physical book is also immensely fragile. You have to care for it like a baby if you don’t want it ripped up and soiled.

Another thing I missed, was the Kindle’s built in dictionary. I didn’t realize how often I’d look up words while I’m reading. I missed being able to annotate or highlight with ease. The recently released 2.5 firmware also adds social highlighting, meaning you can see what others have highlighted in the book you’re reading. It seems a little silly at first, but it’s actually really interesting and fun to see what others think of your chosen literature.

Suffice to say, I didn’t enjoy the experience. I still liked the book but the frustration factor of actually reading a physical book was larger than I ever could have imagined

Compare this to reading a book on the Kindle. The Kindle is light and can be held with one hand (one reason I still have some scepticism towards the iPad). Turning pages is as simple as lightly pushing a button (over and over again). I see no appreciable difference in quality between e-ink and real ink. You can adjust font-size on the fly and the whole experience is just much more smooth and simple. You can also use the Kindle in combination with Instapaper, which converts webpages to e-book format and sends them (weekly or daily) to your Kindle (also iPhone, other e-readers or other compatible devices) The essence of the book (the words, the message) remains the same, it’s just that the experience of reading has been freed from the frustration of the print medium.

I know it might seem silly, me complaining about holding a book and turning paper pages. Just trust me. Try to read even one book on a Kindle (or any decent e-reader) and you’ll be convinced and never go back.

That’s not to say I’ll stop buying paper books. Besides the already mentioned reasons is the fact that I consider paper books to be the ultimate back-up solution. Digital media is fickle and can be easily lost if not backed up properly. With music I’ve already made the leap to purely digital, but e-books are different. The market is young and a lot of it is still straining under the yoke of DRM. Unlike music there isn’t really a healthy ‘gray market’ of e-books you can access. Sure they turn up on torrent sites, but not in the quantities music used to. As long as e-books groan under DRM, I’ll keep buying paper books.

Just don’t expect me to read them.