Monday, November 29, 2010

Kindle is loaded with surprises

A couple of weeks ago I caved and bought a Kindle reader. I’ve been using this little slab of hard plastic about a week and am ready to pronounce preliminary judgment.

I have found the Kindle experience surprising. And it has been an “experience,” entailing hours of reading.

The things I thought I would like, I don’t. And the things I like — a lot — are advantages I hadn’t even considered.

You need to know that I’ve always been a slow reader. I’ve never been able to take in quantities of text at a glance or two. I don't read ideas; I read words. One by one. On a good day after a full night’s sleep, I’m phrase by phrase. But that’s changed with the Kindle because it allows me to increase (or decrease) the size of the type and bump up (or down) the line spacing. Larger type alone results in shorter and fewer lines per page. You can even set the number of words per line.

With the Kindle I find that I’m able to absorb a single electronic page in two or three glances and then click on to the next page. I’m as fast as

Moreover the Kindle has led me to wonder whether my slow reading all these years had something to do with being mildly distracted by being able to see two pages at once. The one-page-at-a-time Kindle keeps me focused right where my eyes need to bed.

Sure, the pages have less text, but I know I’m reading faster, a lot faster.

Of course I like the idea of being able to carry around hundreds, even thousands, of books in a device about the size of a thin slice of bread. So far I’ve loaded my Kindle mostly with free books. There are hundreds of them, mostly classics. “Meditations” shown in the photo is an example.

I also like being able to sample a book at my leisure before I decide to buy it. Hit “sample” and you are given 20 pages or so to check out. Call it electronic book browsing.

The device has all kinds of features that I have yet to master. The Kindle User’s Guide, which, of course, is preloaded into the machine as a “book” is something of a slog, mostly because you keep wanting to try out what you’ve been instructed to do.

Believe me, the User's Guide pages can’t be comprehended in two glances.

My experiments with the features have at times left me baffled. Once I wanted to find out more about King George VI and put my cursor in front of the “King.” Silly me. The Kindle told me first about BB King and then about Billy Jean. I still have to figure out how to group the three words together to get what I want. It has to be possible.

Which brings us to the Kindle’s negatives. Strangely, this sleek little reading platter seems ergonomically cumbersome. I find it hard to find a comfortable, safe place to hold it without inadvertently clicking one of the narrow “next page” or “previous page” pads that run along both sides. And strangely enough I don’t like the slimness of the Kindle, which is advertised as an attribute. I miss the heft more akin to, well, a book.

While the type itself is very sharp and easy to read, the slight grayness of the “page” strikes me as a touch dim.

The little “five-way” navigation tool in the lower right corner is too small. For someone with larger hands than mine, it could be unnavigable. The little button-keys on the keyboard are minute pebbles. With time I’ll probably become accustomed to the Kindle’s miniaturization, but I’m not there yet.

This Kindle, a third generation WiFi-only model, is clearly a work in progress — a transitional machine. But isn’t that true of all technology? At $139, Kindle 3 seems a good entry point for jumping into and enjoying the electronic reader experience.

And think of all those free books you can download.

By the way, the books you buy (or get free) are stored on an Amazon “cloud” so that if you want to buy the next Kindle iteration (certain to have a touch screen and color), you will be able to load what you have already bought into the new device. Oh, and if you have two or three Kindles on the same Amazon account, you can share the books between the family’s readers.

I was surprised that several books aren’t available in electronic editions. One of my favorites, Gerald Durrell’s “My Family and Other Animals,” apparently didn’t make the Kindle cut. For shame!

One final note, owning a Kindle comes with a dollop of guilt. I fear that our local bookstores are going to go the way of the the blacksmith, the typewriter repair shop and the video store. Browsing on a Kindle, while fun, lacks the ambiance of a musty bookshop presided over by a bookish, graying book monger who knows exactly the book you want and can lead you to it.

No scrolling, clicking or downloading.

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