From the Trenches: Preliminary Kindle 2 Report, or, ‘My Ansible and Me’

From the Trenches: Preliminary Kindle 2 Report, or, ‘My Ansible and Me’

Before I offer anything like a review, a quick sketch about where I’m coming from with regards to all this :

  1. Even though Tofu for Mac is great, still, I absolutely despise reading on-screen — CRT, flat, whatever else there is (though I guess I’ve yet to try near-eye). And this kind of complicates the whole being a novelist thing. So, what I’ve been doing since I graduated from my two-line, LED display Brother word-processor, which at the time I pretty much considered the pinnacle of technology (a digital display on a typewriter? how can this be?), to Microsoft 95 and whatever version of WordPerfect my roommate could scrounge for me — what I’ve been doing is simply greying out the background, muting every color I can (there seems to be no dial anymore for burn rate), keeping the font-while-drafting pretty close to black. Serif fonts, of course, as I have at least some sense of mental hygiene. And, the result: hours and hours of worthwhile eyestrain. Hundreds of thousands of words of fiction written, to say nothing of blogs, bulletin boards, and some thirty-five thousand or so emails sent.
  2. Though I’m a hundred percent all over the tablets Jean-Luc Picard reads his books on, still, the simple technology of the book, that’s where it’s been for me. Reason it hasn’t changed for hundreds of years? Because it works. So, no, I didn’t jump on Sony’s hot eReader when everybody else was, and didn’t backorder the first Kindle either. However, flying around as much as I seem to, I do often get hit with extra charges at the airline scales — either books I picked up, wasn’t able not to buy, or books I was sure I was going to need, should I get shunted into some side-dimension for a few years, mid-flight (it happens). So, like everybody, I was reading the specs for this Kindle 2, just for that pleasurable eyestrain of reading off a screen, when I caught that you could actually — this is the same kind of revolution a typewriter with a display had been — put your own notes in the digital margins. Now, couple this absolutely necessary feature with the fact that I’m not wholly blind or particularly resistant to the way publishing’s going, and bam, it was seeming more and more like the time to see what this is all about. I mean, these newfangled digital readers, they’re the iPod more or less, and the iPod — mp3’s everywhere, now — have changed the music industry forever, totally restructured how it works, how it can work. So might this generation of digital-book ‘players,’ even if Jobs isn’t getting involved. And, if there’s even the chance of that, of these digital readers changing everything, and I want to at least pretend I’m involved in some way, how could I not nab one of these Kindle 2’s, right? I don’t want to get left behind, after all.

And that’s probably all that matters about me here. On with the review, now:

What’s working:

  • Most important, I guess, is answering the most obvious question: Does it read like a book? Yes. Even better, I’d argue, for the simple reason that every page you’re reading, it’s the verso. The facing page, the one open on the right. This means you don’t have to change position when reading to accommodate that tiresome recto page, don’t have to endure the awkwardness of a new angle, or allow for the shadow that hump of pages can throw.
  • Next would be eye-fatigue: none. And I consider myself particularly sensitive, here. After staring at my own words on a flickering screen for who-knows-how-many hours, ‘retiring’ with a book also on a screen, it’s a good test, I think. And one the Kindle 2 passes. Over the last few days, I’ve read a lot on it1, until the device itself actually kind of disappears, and I find myself thumbing for pages on the top of the device, thinking it’s a ‘conventional’ book. And that’s success. Sure, the format will sometimes eat tabs, jack with the dialogue, spread a TOC over a few pages, all that, but, too, you can change the font size so easy. That itself more than makes up for formatting discrepancies. This is my preferred way of reading, now. I feel naked without my Kindle 2. A complete surprise to me. I didn’t go in to un-naysay, I mean.
  • The five-way joystick rocks. Very intuitive. Thank you, Amazon.
  • Navigation through the text. Check. The search function is great, even with the tiny keyboard. And the dictionary being always right-there: again, thank you, Amazon. And not having to jack with all manner of bookmarkery? Love that. With the Kindle 2, I can just stop reading, and that’s a bookmark. Super-convenient. Maybe my favorite feature, really.
  • Those notes, that user-entered marginalia. It’s not quite scribbling, circling words with grand flourishes, making stars or inscribing question marks by a paragraph (where size of the mark can indicate your objection to the passage), but it’s a good first step, anyway. So long as the next version has a touch screen of some kind, so we can use a stylus to mark the text up in the way those of us unadept-texters are used to, and have those scribbles of course be saved. Maybe even generations of scribbles, each rendered in a different shade or color.
  • These free samples you can nab on Amazon. Excellent idea. So, so functional; because of them, I’m buying more, I think. I’m a marketing victim, yeah. Very willing one. Hard to resist carrying all your favorite books around with you.

What’s not working / what the Kindle 2 needs:

  • Having to shoot stuff to to get it converted. Sure, there’s a convertor already out there for PC, but nothing for Mac yet. Supposedly there’s some way to use and the Stanza Desktop, but still, can’t Amazon give us something that’s surefire? Just, mailing my files in to get them made up for the Kindle 2, I feel like I’m both burning bandwidth and playing a part in some usage survey (surely Amazon’s keeping stats on all the conversions, hopefully not with an eye towards establishing a ‘subscriber’ base to woo advertizers with, because I don’t need banners on my Kindle 2). I mean, I understand the impulse towards proprietary file formats as protection against piracy, I guess, but, too, piracy’s going to happen, DRM or not. Best bet’s to find some other part of the process to ‘tax.’
  • Removeable storage. So you can have a ‘beach’ chip, ‘school’ chip, ‘work’ chip, etc. Like Sony’s eReader, yeah. Seems so obvious, or, conversely, such a trick from the Apple playbook, which is kind of a study in paranoia.
  • A print function? Or at least a viewer for our desktop/laptop rigs that we can print from? With our marginalia? For teaching purposes mostly. Just, please, don’t make us buy both the digital, for reading, and the paper, for teaching. Dealing with that, we’re likely just to do something different altogether. Caveat: I’ve yet to study that Kindle 2 Cookbook in-depth; supposedly it tells how to print, and do about everything else I’m complaining about in here (yep, it does — just checked. it’s via screenshot tricks, however, so no marginalia. but you can always draw on the print-ups.
  • If we get a stylus to draw on the text with for the Kindle 3, then why not go ahead and put a clicker on it, like on the back end of a retractable pen? A clicker to turn pages with remotely. Or, click it fast-twice to start/stop the text-to-voice, the mp3 player, whatever. And yeah, like with the Nintendo DS and all those, these styluses would need to be cheap and replaceable, please, and easily mated with one and only one device, lest chaos rear its head at the coffee shop, where everybody’s brought their status symbol to read in public.
  • Buttons that, simply put — and I’m no wimp, I don’t think — push easier. Or that at least push evenly. The ones on the Kindle 2, at first I thought they just needed some breaking in, had stiff springs for the long haul, but then I lucked onto the probably-obvious thing going on: if you depress the side of them that’s closer to the screen, then they push a lot easier. Which may be a safety thing, I don’t know. But it takes some effort anyway. And maybe I am a wimp. Or, yeah, used to just turning paper pages, which, though they tear sometimes, still never weigh that much.
  • More about buttons: the placement of these is perfect for reading when sitting up. But that’s maybe ten-percent of my total reading time. Which is to say they’re not placed so perfectly for reading while kicked back on the couch. Specifically, wouldn’t it be nice to have a ‘next page’ clicker of some sort on the back/right of the Kindle 2? Though a back/next button top-right wouldn’t be bad either. But then, yeah, I’m right-handed. Ned Flanders would probably have some other idea here.
  • It really and truly sucks having to load everything as a book on the Kindle 2. ‘Everything’ meaning stories, essays, images. Give us some directory/file control, please? Pretty pretty please? I’m usually pretty good at tinkering around in stuff, getting it organized like I want, so that the TOC doesn’t spill across forty-two pages (which the Kindle 2 then pages through with excrutiating slowness, as if it wants to show each page off), but this time I can’t get anything done. I mean, for photos, instead of loading them individually, even with the same “zzz_” lead-in of a file name or whatever — they’re still considered ‘books’ by the Kindle 2, and take forever to browse — I finally had to just rig together a multi-page MSWord doc, with one photo per page, then get it converted, then load it; at least now I can page through the photos, treat them something like an album (consider them plates if you have to: I know the Kindle 2’s for text, not pictures of your dog). Even then, though, I still can’t seem to crack into how to get that file/album into Personal Docs — can’t figure how to get anything in there, really. But maybe that’s just me. Does the extension tell Kindle 2 where to put the file, maybe? Near as I can tell, no. And, while your file manager will of course let you make as many new directories as you want in there, still, the Kindle 2 doesn’t seem to want to recognize them, even on a reboot. Who knows. Somebody tell me the how here, please (okay, just studied that Kindle 2 Cookbook, and it does have a directory-making trick for pictures, anyway, but the output is still considered a ‘book’ by the Kindle 2, so I think I’ll just stick with my converted MSWord doc).
  • The ability (privilege?) to change the screensaver images. Nothing against Austen and Dickinson and the rest2 of the public-domain literati, but I’ve got my own literary heroes too, yeah? Force a canon on us, I mean, and we, the readers, tend to just go play somewhere else.
  • The option to turn off that ‘download progress’ percentage way of rendering book pages Kindle 2 seems very proud of. That’s not what reading is, is it? I’d much rather have the watered-down version of that, anyway: “p.17 of 459,” something like that. And, yes, I do understand that “p.17” on a reader where you can manipulate text-size is an experience that can go on for screens and screens, but, I don’t know: task somebody smart with a way to ‘qualify’ that 17, such that “17” is sitting in some incomplete circle, how incomplete being a marker of how much of p.17 this screen is. It has to be elegant, I mean, and not intrusive. Caveat/plea: if we do have to keep that percentage dowload progress bar along the bottom, can it at least, when you get to the end of the book, read “100%”? As-is, it won’t budge past “99%,” so I never really feel like I’m done with anything. One last thing about page numbers: it sure would be excellent if ‘pages‘ 17 could by synched up with the print-version — should a print version exist. That way you could be on the phone with somebody, you on a Kindle 2, them lost in a paper book, and you could direct them to a certain passage. Or, direct your class to that passage. I mean, the ‘search’ function that comes with paper books, yeah, it’s not quite as efficient as the one built into the Kindle 2.
  • A backlight. Make it work with e-paper, and come up with some magical battery to juice it. Obviously. Thank you in advance, Amazon. This is the feature that can will make the Kindle-line catch on fire, I think. Even more.
  • And, while I’m making a wishlist: color. So we can read comics3 (or even House of Leaves4) digitally, with no loss. Sure, we’d have to get pretty nimble with that five-way, going from panel-to-panel, but hey: that’s not the worst trade-off. Maybe even integrate some ‘gestures’-system into the touch-screen to facilitate that kind of textual mobility?
  • Also, and this isn’t really an Amazon trick, I don’t think, but what I’d really like is if, at the bottom of news items and blog posts and whatever on-line, there were some “K2” button at the bottom, like the DiggIt-stuff, the I could zap the post to my Kindle 2. Which is what I’m doing now with articles and essays, but it involves cutting them out in rich text, pasting them into Word, saving that document, mailing it to Amazon, that whole process. Simplify it, I say. One-click, an email address, and bam, you’ve got it.

And that’s the gist of it for/from me. But an important, maybe the important, question remains: have my shelves stopped growing, now? will my collection stop eating rain forests? By last check (see: ‘last move’), I had twelve-or-so thousand pounds of books I couldn’t even consider tossing. However, with external storage — even just using my hard-drive to archive — I could, were it all digitial, get that total down to half a pound or so, counting hardware. Would I be losing anything, though? The smell of the pages, the heft of one of those doorstops we use as escape hatches5, the surprise of notes from some ‘Myrna’ in the margins, who lived and died before I was even born? The author inscribing the title page?

Yeah, okay, with digital, you don’t get that — though maybe somebody’s working on an ‘old-book-smell’ air freshener right now, I don’t know. But, I mean, this is the way publishing — books — seems to be going, like it or not. Soon, I’d guess, print versions, ‘paper artifacts,’ will be limited runs, for collectors only, and digital will be the main distribution path. Just because, finally, these digital book readers, they just make so much sense.

So, though it’s maybe, at this stage, seeming to hurt the industry that signs my royalty checks, the bulk of my book purchases from here on out are likely to be of the one-click variety6. And, for those ever-important inscriptions on the title page: we’ve already got the technology, at every grocery store across the nation. The same way you can plug an unobtrusive little iTalk, say, into the base of your iPod, and then use it as a voice-recorder, so can some smart person out there rig a signature pad up to the lower port of your Kindle 2, so that you can stand in line with them, just hand the author your little pad7, at which point he’ll twirl his custom stylus across the back of his fingers, smile, and write just the right thing onto the front page of your digital book. Unlike the Bill Gates software model, then, your computer file is suddenly unique — a book again, yes? An artifact, somewhat tangible evidence of a reading experience you treasured, or are proud to have made it through, anyway. The moment that very particular kind of nostalgia can start attaching to digital books, and to the devices that make them available, I’m guessing that’ll be the moment paper books start looking nervously around the room. What they’ll see, likely, is me over in the corner, trying to push a button, finally getting it to click, then losing myself in the page like always, nevermind that it’s not a page I can cut myself with anymore.


1. first completed book: Joe R. Lansdale’s Leather Maiden — highly recommended, as with all his stuff.

2. near as I can dig up, this is them:

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • Edgar Allen poe
  • Mark Twain
  • John Steinbeck
  • 17th century astronomer & his wife w/ giant sextant
  • Hercules constellation
  • Audubon finches-in-a-tree
  • Kindle definition with falling letters (by my favorite; I want the poster-version, but can’t find it to steal anywhere on-line — help?)
  • Agatha Christie
  • Man at table with lion in foreground
  • Charlotte Bronte
  • James Joyce
  • Virginia Woolf
  • Alexandre Dumas
  • Jules Verne
  • Kindle feedback request w/ some sort of coding machine
  • Durer
  • Oscar Wilde
  • Woman with book
  • John Milton
  • Lewis Carroll
  • Medieval illumination page
  • “Albertus” page
  • Emily Dickinson
  • Jane Austen
  • Cathedral floorplan
    and some Copernicus-looking writing in front of a curtain (?)

3. Johnny the Homicidal Maniac at my leisure? This is one definition of happiness.

4. speaking of: can this new/dream convertor have a way to ‘encode’ foot- or endnotes into the Kindle 2 format, such that they show up much as the comments we write into the text show up? And still not get filed in our My Clippings, of course. As slow as the Kindle 2 can be (not complaining about that; I’m sure it’s as fast as it can be right now), paging forward eight-hundred pages for endnote 13, I don’t know — I’d much rather be able to hover over it, hypertext-style, and have it pop at the bottom of the screen. I’m thinking Infinite Jest, yes, though I notice Pale Fire‘s not in the Kindle Store either.

5. I just got Drood, yep, and may be about to nab that Sawtelle as well

6. though, yeah, ask me again after I’ve left my ‘whole library’ in a cab one unfine day, right? And, while I’m here below the text, whispering: no, I didn’t talk at all about the read-aloud robot sleeping in my Kindle 2, and didn’t say anything about the limited browser. Reason: they’re neat features, but not very ‘book-like,’ at least not to this reader. In my in-and-out experience so far, the browser’s connection’s kind of agonizingly slow and the text-to-audio’s neat for something, I’m sure, but I’m also kind of suspicious about it. Not the quality or the rights or any of that — the quality will improve by leaps and bounds, and the rights management will be figured out — but what I wonder is if my brain encodes its reading experiences differenty: those that come in through the eyes, and those that get in through the ears. I don’t know if there’s been lab work done on this yet, but I’d about guarantee the experiences are different, even kind of wildly divergent. Which is to say I’m not sure I’m ready for the kind of rewiring and cross-pollination that’ll likely result when I hit half a chapter out-loud, then read the other half. Very scary, to me, and likely stemming from movies I’ve tried to record but ended up clipping the end from, so that I have to dig the screenplay up on-line, read the last four or five pages. The movies I’ve done that with, they’re all jangly in my head now, won’t stay on any shelf. Too much of that, I suspect, and after a while everything’d just be on the floor.

7. option two, here: the author has the pad, which he plugs into your reader, then, hopefully, ‘signs’ (as opposed to already have his signature there, just hitting Enter, which I think would kind of defeat the whole idea here).

Author: SGJ