A Riff on the Kindle Fire

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1. I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas this year, and have been using it for about a month now. I’m not sure how to go about “reviewing” this product, so I’m going to riff a bit.

2. Let’s get the whole Amazon-as-Evil-Empire thing out of the way up front: Yes, Amazon’s business practices are unsavory; yes, attempting to decimate the publishing industry as it currently exists is Not Good; yes, their practices threaten brick-and-mortar stores (the kind that actually pay local and state taxes!); yes their practices work to undermine key figures in the publishing industry—y’know, people like editors.

3. Picking up on that last clause: self-publishing (and the self-publishing “revolution” that e-readers like the Kindle Fire entail) may seem fine and dandy cotton candy, but there’s a reason that editors (and publishers and publicists, etc.) exist. These people make books better. These people make books. (And no, by the way, I’m not interested in reading your self-published ebook, so quit sending me email blasts).

4. Seems like I’m riffing out a lot of context, so let’s keep going: Perhaps you read whinypants Jonathan Franzen decrying the impending moral failures/societal breakdown that will result from ebooks replacing print editions. Franzen’s position is, of course, reactionary and conservative, and deeply rooted in the fear that the perfect Platonic permanence of books will be subverted or decimated.

5. Franzen’s reaction is rooted in part against a (common, teleological, utopian) misconception about the longevity and stability of digital content. Simply put, many people are operating under a dramatic misunderstanding of just how unstable digital content is. Where will all these books be stored, and in what format? Who will be responsible for archiving these materials?

6. A simple thought experiment, germane to item 5 above: Think back on all the obsolete media that you have used in your lifetime. I am in my thirties; my list would include cassette tapes, VHS tapes, laser disks, floppy disks, minidiscs, CDRs . . . (I don’t include vinyl records in this list. I still own hundreds of them and play them regularly).

7. To recontextualize: Printed books are a far more stable format than ebooks.

8. To wit: Ursula LeGuin in her essay “Staying Awake” from a 2008 issue of Harper’s:

The book itself is a curious artifact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries. It doesn’t have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it to you again when you are fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you’re reading a whole new book.

9. Points 2-8 seem like so much hemming and hawing, so much reticence to discuss what I seemed to promise at the outset: Some sense of what reading on the Kindle Fire is like.

10. Some things I like very much about reading on the Kindle Fire:

It creates its own light for night reading.

It’s easy to highlight and annotate passages (and then open up a new screen to look at just those highlights and annotations, isolated from the text proper).

It’s lightweight and ergonomic and, when I read with it over my head, my wrists don’t constrict and go tingly.

It holds a lot of books.

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11. Some things I like about the Kindle Fire that I would think I wouldn’t like about the Kindle Fire, were I to read such a list from another person:

I can determine how far I have read into a book as a percentage.

I can stop and browse the internet in the middle of reading.

I can look up words or even wikis as I go by simply hovering a finger over a word or phrase.

12. My daughter loves the thing. Loves loves loves it. She is probably the primary user. She is four and a half. I think the interactive books she adores are marvelous.

13. Some things I don’t like about the Kindle Fire:

No book smell.

One texture for all books: This is probably the biggest problem I can see with the Kindle Fire.

It requires a battery charge, so there’s a built in level of accessibility; a sense that one must needs “prepare” ahead of time to read, perhaps (unlike our old friend the print book, which only requires a light source).

No bath time reading.

I can’t read it around my daughter, because she will attempt to take it, or, at minimum, curl up in my lap.

It is not possible to have like three or four books open at once.

Can’t read .cbr files. Why? Why?

I had to buy a USB micro B cable to connect the Kindle to the computer that I use to store digital content. Why not include this cable, Amazon? (It’s almost as if the company wants consumers to be solely reliant on Amazon’s services as a content provider . . .)

14. I’ve found it nearly impossible to read an electronic book on the Kindle that I started as a print book. For example, I’m about half-way through Teju Cole’s novel Open City; the kind publicist who sent it to me also sent me an electronic version of the text. I began the print copy in earnest, but the other night, after reading a bit of Hawthorne on the Kindle, I found myself wanting to sink back into Cole’s Sebaldian orbit. When I found my place in the text though, I felt alienated, bleak even, as if I were not reading the definitive version of Cole’s book but instead its cheap ghost. There is no intellectual or objective justification for this feeling. Call it a vibe or a habit.

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15. Books that I enjoy reading on the Kindle Fire:

David Markson’s The Last Novel, which perhaps begs to be read on such a device.

Anything by Nietzsche, but his aphoristic works especially.

A .pdf version of Luigi Serafini’s rare and expensive book The Codex Seraphinianus (one of many verboten tomes on my Kindle, but remember the name of this site if you please . . .)

Anything by Whitman, especially letters and other non-essentials that I would not normally pursue.

Ditto Hawthorne.

Ditto Dickinson.

Ditto Melville.

Oh, and beyond the overlooked and underfamous works of certain American Renaissance faves: Moby-Dick too, which seems looser, freer, more aphoristic on the Kindle. (Why?)

Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, which seems simultaneously dated and futuristic. Like William Gibson with a strong streak of Pynchonian sillies.

And Gibson: Rereading Burning Chrome. Had forgotten how good some of these shorts are.

Houellebecq’s Whatever: its brevity, its succinctness gels with my nascent Kindle habits, or perhaps instructs my Kindle habits, or more likely creates my Kindle habits.

16. To return to a point in #13 above: The Kindle Fire necessarily imposes a uniform texture on every book that one reads on it; this would be true of any e-reader. Sure, you can change the background (white, black, or a sepia color, which is what I prefer), fonts, sizes, spacing, etc. — but there is no sense of physicality, of individual identity, of, dare I say it, specialness, to the texts. I am aware that these are terribly subjective and overtly Romantic terms, but hell, I like physical books. I like their covers and their smells and their discolorations. I like leaving bookmarks in every book that I finish or abandon—I almost always find a new bookmark for every book that I read (the autobookmark on the Kindle is useful, but how can it compare with a photograph of my son or drawing by my daughter or a postcard from a stranger or a scrap of poetry from a discontinued textbook or an old grocery list of my wife’s from years before we were married?).

17. I titled this post “A Riff on the Kindle Fire,” but that’s a bit ambiguous I suppose: I did not compose the post on the Kindle Fire, which I find awkward re: blogging/wordprocessing. I used a laptop (with some help from an iPhone). Maybe the preposition “about” would be more suitable.

18. By way of closing, after four weeks with the thing:

It’s light.

It’s convenient for night reading, but you probably shouldn’t take it in the bath.

No book smell.

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12 thoughts on “A Riff on the Kindle Fire”

  1. I recently got a smartphone with the kindle app and had a somewhat more positive reaction to it than you. In use, it seemed convenient and natural. Unlike reading on a computer screen where my eyes get tired and bored after only a single complete page, the small size of the phone allowed me to keep reading long after I would have stopped on a computer. I’ve read three complete books on the app (two were very short), and I think it worked fine. You raise a valid point, though, regarding the rapid pace at which technology can become outdated. I, too, have a collection of tapes and cd’s and what have you, that I barely ever use. Regardless, ebooks are here to stay, I think, and it will be interesting to see how things play out in the future.

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  2. Your reaction to the kindle fire is a lot like the reaction I had to my kindle when I first bought it. I’ve grown to love it – it’s made it possible for me to continue reading 70, 80 books a year, even though I live abroad and don’t have access to many hard copy books – but, still, I miss book smell and book texture and book covers. It is romantic to say that reading a book on a e-reader strips the book of some of its specialness but…it’s true! I miss lining my books back up on the shelf after I’ve read them, going back to flip through or even just look at the cover, to remind myself of reading it.

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    1. I imagine that the Kindle will be great for travel (I know that I would’ve loved to have this a decade ago when I lived in Tokyo, where I lugged a suitcase full of books only to give most of them away . . .)

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  3. The biggest weakness of the current crop of eReaders is random access. This capability is seldom needed in novels and popular nonfiction works (narratives), so all is well.

    Throw random access — jumping back and forth between pages, consulting an index or TOC — at them and the fit evaporates. The rate of evaporation varies with screen size and a couple of other factors, but the breakdown is huge.

    But for narratives, I think that it’s tough to make cogent arguments about the superiority of paper books. And the more one reads, the better an eBook fits. I love carrying 100 books around with me. I love buying nearly any book instantly and without travel. And to argue that paper books are “compact and efficient” is today ludicrous. Tell that to the tree.

    Now I realize that the zeitgeist of this blog favors the subjective, almost transcendent, qualities of paper books. That’s cool. But paper narrative volumes will soon inhabit the same realm as LPs. And a lot of folks still value the transcendent feel and sound of those.

    Bob

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  4. One of the things you like about the Kindle Fire is one of the things I dislike about it most: that it has a backlight. My brain has some sort of defect that makes it very difficult for me to focus on reading from computer screens. It is a fully unenjoyable experience for me. Were I still in school, I would consider buying one of the monochromatic eReaders with eInk technology due to it being not unlike reading from paper. Whenever I was assigned a PDF or whatever to read, I was always faced with a decision: read from the screen and hate it or print out the reading and waste paper/ink. Being able to just throw the PDF onto my eReader and read it that way would be a nice alternative. However, the eInk technology is unrefined yet and slow to refresh and really not very enjoyable for the actual reading of books. Maybe it’s something I would get used to, but my limited experience with them has been disappointing at best.

    Also, correct me if I am mistaken, but isn’t it true that all eReaders use their own formatting? I.e., any work the publisher has done typographically is completely thrown away? As a person on the anal retentive end of the spectrum, that’s a huge turnoff. Maybe some day when eInk is a little better and I have money to spend, I will purchase one of these items (probably not Amazon’s; I cannot support them anymore). For now, I’m happy with just reading books.

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  5. I like the idea of the interactive books, and I love my Nook, but I still buy a lot more physical books than ebooks. I just get to be pickier now: the cover and layout better really be something I want to own (See Westerfeld’s Leviathan and Dixon’s Entwined). Great review! I’m relieved to know I am not the only one who gets numb hands from holding books over my head.

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  6. The Kindle is great for convenience, but I think its widespread use spells the end for the book as we’ve known it for thousands of years. Look at newspapers and magazines for instance; the price of a copy you can hold in your hand seems to be going up while users of the digital versions are rewarded with lower prices, more apps, more interactivity, etc. Maybe it’s silly, but I don’t like the idea that master copies of great works and great ideas that will be produced in the near future will be stored digitally. We don’t have to look too far into the past to see what happens when powerful forces disagree with the way an idea has been presented and stored. Call me a luddite, but it takes much more effort to burn or shred Huckleberry Finn than it does to simply push the delete button.

    We have the Bible, the Rosetta Stone, and innumerable great works of human history because in analog form they can be easily preserved. Paper and ink sitting in a cave or buried underground won’t go away. You can dig them up, look at them, and decipher their meanings. What happens to the hundreds of books in your Kindle if you drop it or someone steals it. What happens if Amazon’s server farms are attacked?

    What incentive will publishers have for continuing to publish in paper as everyone begins buying e-readers? Digital is cheaper, less permanent, and provides a higher profit margin for those who publish and distribute. In a troubled industry worried about the bottom line, I don’t see how paper and ink will survive. There’ll be a struggle, but “efficiency” always wins.

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