Digital Reading: A Kindle Review (Part 1)

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My family recently gave me an early birthday present — A “Kindle 2” from Amazon!

First off, you gotta understand that I am not a techno-geek. I just entered the late 2oth century by getting a basic cellphone this past year (a “pay as you use” model that I rarely turn on). I don’t have an I-Pod (only a cheaper Mp3 player). But I was convinced to take the Kindle plunge after holding and using one for a few minutes by a friend who had one.

In the next two posts, I’ll provide a bit of a review of the Kindle. This first post will be pretty practical–a basic pros and cons of the technology. But in the second post, I’ll try to make some theological observations on e-reading and theology. Here’s some practical thoughts on the Kindle in no particular order:

1) Try it before you buy it. If you are thinking of taking the Kindle plunge, try to find someone who has one first and give it a try. I admit I was skeptical until I tried it. Once you try it, you have to admit, it is pretty cool. It is easy on the eyes, and for those with some minor sight problems, you can even expand the font incrementally to make it even easier.

2) Remember, the Kindle is an e-Reader. It’s not an “e-Researcher”; it’s not a “mini-laptop”; it’s not even a cheaper version of the I-Pad. It has very few features beyond what it is designed for: READING. If you expect anything else out of it, you will be disappointed. (Yes, it has free basic web features and I have even used it once to find an address of a restaurant in a city, but I wouldn’t use it for much else than that).
However, as an e-READER, the Kindle simply EXCELS at helping you to read more than you may even read now. I am an avid reader, and I have read a ton more since getting my Kindle than ever. The downside is that it is a bit addictive!

3) The Kindle is lousy for research. I wondered at the outset if it might be an useful research tool, but I quickly found out it isn’t, for a couple of reasons. First, oddly enough, there are no original page numbers on the texts. Yes, you can quickly return to a particular “location” but the Kindle editions are not paginated to the original book editions. (It also keeps track of each book you are reading and returns exactly to the spot where you left off). So citing a Kindle, in my mind, is kind of useless in research writing. Second, if you are at all like me, a book enables you to flip to certain sections quickly, and to scan forward and backward with ease. Yes, you can take notes with the Kindle, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be bothered with its minimalist keyboard. Again, the Kindle is a READER, not a research tool.

4) Tons of classic stuff is available free. I wanted the Kindle because I was intrigued by the MILLIONS of classic texts available in the public domain and wanted to do some more reading in these areas. For example, I had never read Aesop’s fables (at least not all of them) and I found a free edition with an introduction by G. K. Chesterton. (By the way, his erudite distinction between a “fable” and a “legend” is fantastic!) This was one of the first books I’ve read. (By the way, not all of Aesop’s Fables are that insightful, in my opinion. But there are a lot of good ones!) Within the first couple days, I also finished War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells and I re-read Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

5) For skeptics, remember that you are reading this review on a blog. If you are skeptical about the Kindle, you were probably also skeptical (as I was) about blogs. Those who thought “blogs” were going to replace book reading were wrong, and those who think the Kindle (or other e-readers) will replace books are also most certainly wrong.  I really don’t believe the book will disappear,  nor do I wish that it will. Like committing to reading newspapers on the web, or reading blogs, committing to reading on the Kindle is a commitment to reading on a new medium. You don’t have to be a “book anarchist” to enjoy the Kindle. I still love my books, especially the old ones. Nothing replaces the smell, feel, and look of a book. (I happen to own what was previoulsy Brevard Childs’ set of Karl Barth’s Kirchliche Dogmatik, including one volume signed personally by Barth! You can’t replace that with a Kindle!) But frankly, I don’t have to own a “hard copy” of The Invisible Man (another H.G. Wells classic) to enjoy the story or even Augustine’s Confessions to benefit from reading through it on an electronic reader.

6) The “free sample” feature is great, but could be better. If you do want to buy Kindle books, of course you can do this wirelessly wherever you have basic cellphone access. This is one of the best and most amazing features of the Kindle and there is no additional charges for using the service. Along with that, most of the Kindle editions available at Amazon are cheaper (some much cheaper) than the print versions, and you can ask for a free sample to be sent. Within seconds you receive a good number of the first pages of the book, often enough to get a sense of whether you’d want to buy the full edition, though sometimes they just don’t send enough to decide–this is where standing in the bookstore looking at the full book has greater appeal to me and where the Kindle just doesn’t cut it.

7) The Kindle is superior for reading in bed. Seriously, it just is. Maybe it is just me, but holding a book open while laying on my back is tiresome, but the Kindle makes this a non-issue. The only thing is: If the turning of pages bothers your spouse when he or she is trying to sleep, the “click click” of electronic pages turning is probably no better! (Hint: Wait ’til he or she is asleep…then Kindle away!)

8 ) The Kindle was made to travel. One of the appeals of the Kindle is taking your reading with you while travelling. I’ve already traveled once with the Kindle and loved having it on the plane. Amazon  tells us that the Kindle can hold 1500 books on the thing. I’ve only got about 60 on it so far and it seems to be a long ways off from even making a dent in the memory. So it is nice to know you could bring that all along with you.

The downside is that the person beside you on the plane may ask a lot of questions about that “thing” you are reading from. I even had to let a fellow sitting next to me on a recent trip hold it and read from it a bit because he was so intrigued! So at least for a while, you might not get much reading done on the plane after all!

9) The Kindle’s screen…isn’t. The Kindle is called an “E-Reader” and so you might assume that you are reading off a “screen,” which isn’t exactly technically correct, especially if you think of a screen in the way you think of a TV or computer monitor which uses electrical current to create the image. In contrast, the technology on a Kindle is called “e-Ink” which you can think of as somewhat the reverse of an “Etch-a-Sketch.” Electr0statically charged particles of ink “stick” to the “screen” so it really does like look ink on the page. (It is called “electronic paper“). The “screen” has very little glare as well, so you can read even in bright light without interference. So, if you think of an “Etch-a-Sketch” as having a screen, then Kindle has one; if you don’t, then it doesn’t.

10) Uploading and converting documents is easy. I’m currently working my way through a doctoral dissertation related to an area of my own theological interest. I was also recently at a meeting where I uploaded the documents and just had the Kindle in front of me for reference. The Kindle allows you to upload personal Word docs, PDF’s (even images and MP3 files) to a free Kindle address which converts the file to Kindle format and can either be set to deliver the document wirelessly to your Kindle (for a small charge) or email it back converted, allowing you to upload via a USB link.

11) Bells and whistles? There aren’t a lot but there are a few. There is free access to the Web (using the pda adapted websites for use on cellphones and Blackberries is best), but don’t bother trying to watch Youtube! There is an electronic voice that can read documents back to you, but you’ll probably tire of it in about 27 seconds. You can take notes and highlight documents, but again, to me at least, this is just far too clunky to be useful. You can listen to Mp3 files either through built in speakers or through headphones. You can subscribe to major daily newspapers. You can back up the whole thing to your computer just like a USB flash drive. (Drag and drop).

That’s it for the practical perspectives.

In my next post, I plan to go a bit deeper and give a theological reflection on the nature of e-Reading.

P.S. For those of you in Canada, Chapters-Indigo has recently released their version of the Kindle called the Kobo e-Reader. It is a fair amount cheaper and I played with it a bit in Chapters a while back, but I was glad I made the Kindle plunge. I think the Kindle format will win out, mainly because the capacity of the Kindle is much greater and the wireless is unavailable on the Kobo.

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6 thoughts on “Digital Reading: A Kindle Review (Part 1)

  1. Dustin

    Really helpful stuff, David. A friend of Jolene’s has one and she uses it extensively when she travels.

    How heavy is it? I suspect it could be good for folks with arthritis who have a difficult time holding heavy books for extended periods of time.

    Do you find you read differently on the Kindle than a regular book?

    Do you miss turning the pages and otherwise “feeling” the book?

    Do you notice if it feels comparatively “static”?

  2. Dustin, the Kindle 2 is 10 ounces (apparently a bit less than a standard novel). But with the heavy duty leather cover I also got with it, I would suspect it is closer to about 20 ounces. And yes, I could see it as being useful for a person with arthritis, except for the 5-way switch which is somewhat like the little mouse some laptop computers have in the middle of the keyboard. The page forward and page back keys are very accessible though.

    I do seem to read a bit differently, but I’m not sure yet how to describe it. I do know I tend to tire less quickly on the Kindle than a book. And because of the way the words appear, you tend to move your eyes less than on a page of text (which might explain why there is less fatigue and why also I seem to be able to read faster).

    I don’t miss turning pages at all, and the weight of the Kindle is close enough to a book (including the leather cover) that it actually feels like a book.

    Not sure what you mean about it feeling static…If anything, I’ve tended to switch back and forth between various books that I’m reading without even getting up! So maybe it makes ME more static!

    • Dustin

      Helpful. Thanks.

      What I meant about “static” is if you are doing less movement while reading the Kindle than a book. It is like when we switched from typewriters to computers. We were faster, but other ergonomic problems developed because of the speed by which we did things while stuck in a static position.

      I’m not asking these questions to be critical, but I am wanting to explore the somatic aspects of the new technology…

  3. Gotcha. Yes, I think (though not entirely sure) that the E-reader lends itself to being a bit more static. The only body part you have to move is a thumb, and that less than a millimeter at a time to push the page advance bar. It’s certainly not a calorie burner!

  4. RougueMonk

    Duct tape it to a treadmill, and will become a great calorie burner!

    Blessings, RogueMonk

  5. You can switch back and forth between reading and listening, and your spot is automatically saved. Pages automatically turn while the content is being read, so you can listen hands-free. You can choose from both male and female voices which can be sped up or slowed down to suit your preference. In the middle of a great book or article but have to jump in the car? Simply turn on Text-to-Speech and listen on the go.

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