Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Kindle: First e-Impressions

This week, I read my first book on Amazon's remarkable new e-book reader, Kindle. It's not perfect, but it beats many of the other e-book delivery system I've ever tried. Full disclosure: I work for OCLC, which owns NetLibrary, one of the world's largest distributors of e-content.

My Kindle arrived last week after a one-month wait. The packaging seems a little excessive, but at least it wasn't in one of those god-awful unbreakable blister packs. It comes with a number of accessories, including an AC charger, a USB connector, a pretty good instruction manual, and a funky cardboard leatherette cover. The unit ships with two bits of content: a welcome letter from Jeff Bezos, which I accidentally deleted immediately after reading it, and a longer version of the user's manual.

I went to the Kindle store, accessible from the unit, and ordered two books: Steve Martin's Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life and the Oxford edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The first thing you discover as you order Kindle books is that your unit is already associated with your Amazon account, so buying books is utterly seamless and as addictive as crystal meth. The books also download as fast as advertised. The second thing you discover is that the books are not all priced at $9.99; many are considerably more expensive and other, mainly public domain classics, are very inexpensive. Old Huck only cost me $1.29. Given Mark Twain's hatred for the expiration of copyright, he would not have been happy that I could pick up his book that inexpensively. But he would have been enthralled by the technology.

The Kindle is lighter than most paperbacks. The e-Ink technology is every bit as slick as you've probably heard. Without backlighting, there is no flicker to the page. I read the entire Steve Martin book without having to recharge the battery. It's not a very long book, but even so...

None of this would amount to a hill of beans if the reading experience were not there. For me, it is there. In spades.

I found myself getting thoroughly enmeshed in Martin's memoir, as thoroughly as if I were reading the paper edition. It helps that it's well-written and covers subjects (comedy, show business) in which I have long-standing interests. But I've begun re-reading Huck Finn, and I've also begun Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, and I believe that the experience will be carried into other titles as well. In fact, this is the second time I've begun Team of Rivals: the size of the book physically overwhelmed me. I couldn't carry it conveniently in my computer bag on an airplane, and it is too unwieldy to read in bed. Since these two places are where I do 75% of my non-work reading, I knew I was never going to make it through the hardback!

Another great feature is the variety of type sizes from which you can choose. At night, when I'm tired, it is tow clicks to make the type size is bigger. During the day, when I'm more alert, I can go to the smaller size and page forward less often.

As noted, Kindle isn't perfect in my opinion. I still keep accidentally advancing the page before I'm ready, due to the position of the two "next page" bars on either side of the unit. The screen wipe between pages, required by the e-Ink, is moderately distracting, but I'm learning how to time the "next page" button so that the screen wipes just as I've read the last word on the page. With such diversions are small minds made happy.

The proprietary format and the charges to access blogs and other content that are freely available elsewhere are real problems now, although I would expect to see these addressed in the not too distant future. The cardboard/leatherette cover is good for protecting the reader, but you can't actually hold the book to read when it's in the cover, unless I'm doing something pathetically wrong. Not that it would be the first time.

This little reader is a fascinating step forward for e-content, in my opinion. I would love to see textbooks available in this format. I hate seeing my poor 8-year old grandson schlepping a heavy backpack full of textbooks. By the time he hits college, his back is going to be in worse shape than mine is now.

So the question seems to be, what now for libraries? Do we have in Kindle an opportunity, a threat, or a parallel course?

PS: A slightly earlier piece I wrote about Kindle is now available on WebJunction here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Parallel course is my vote. So you like the Kindle experience. I assumed it would be clunky and less cozy than a book. Huh.