Two weeks ago, with a momentous click of a mouse, I entered a new era of reading. I ordered a Kindle reader. To my surprise it arrived at my doorstep only two days later, even though it was supposedly shipped from the US. (Hmm, no customs charges, no obvious postmarks: maybe it came from a warehouse in Laval.)
Here's a bit of etymology, lifted from the device itself:
Kindle: [v. trans.] Light or set fire. Arouse or inspire (an emotion or feeling): a love of art was kindled in me. [intrans.] be aroused: She pressed on, enthusiasm kindling within her. [intrans] become impassioned or excited: the young man kindled at once.
Why, when I heard its name, did I first think of a pile of paperbacks tossed into a bonfire, a la Fahrenheit 451? Reading through a backlit screen didn't appeal to me: it seemed a depressing and unlikely future. But advances in so-called E-ink screen technology have changed all that.
At the risk of sounding like an ad for the device, I now find I enjoy reading with a Kindle more than the average print edition. The font can be made bigger than in most paperbacks, and the page glares less: compared to most print books it's actually easier on the eyes.
This machine leads to instant changes in reading habits: you can download a book within seconds, of, say reading a review of it or hearing a podcast interview with its author. (That should give book reviews and the like a more direct effect on sales.) I find myself downloading the kind of non-fiction that fascinates me but thatI would never want to lay much money on or crowd my shelves – The Trouble with Billionaires by Linda McQuaig, or Moonwalking with Einstein by Jason Foer. Any book published before 1923 can come for free, including thousands of classics, and this has an odd spinoff of bringing old editions and translations back into the currency that otherwise would remain in dusty stacks. Huge tomes are clearly less comfortable to hold or convenient to cart around than this reader, which at 8.5 oz.., weighs in at less than your average paperback. A reader can contain as many as 1,600 books. If, as Marshall McCluhen pointed out, Western individuality was predicated on the portability of the book, how will that be multiplied when one can carry a whole library? It will surely, though, lead to scatter-gun reading habits: taking in 4, 6, or 10 books simultaneously may not be all that uncommon.
The e-book experience has some obvious downsides: the art of cover illustration will likely go the way of cover art on music LP's. The tactile pleasure of handling a finely-made print book is clearly lost. One can forget the title or author of a book one's reading in a way that was never possible with a print edition: once one advances past the cover page (which often, by default, doesn't show when one starts reading) it simply can't be seen anymore without pecking back to the device's home page. Gone may be the day when one can spot someone reading a title and strike up a friendship by asking him or her about it. At the present time there are only two font types and one shade of paper in the Kindle: this reduces the variety of the reading experience, and if this article has any justice, the ease of reading (read skimming) may contribute to heightened forgettability as well. It's more complicated to flip through an e-book than a traditional codex. If you like writing marginalia, it's tougher to do -- you have to peck them out on a resistant miniature keyboard; one's electronic notes and underlinings, though, are conveniently indexed and quite findeable.
Reading on the Kindle can be strangely disorienting at times. Because font sizes can be varied at will, the bottom of the page shows only what percentage of the book you've read. I find myself referring on line to the details on the print edition to get a clear sense of how much reading I have left. Books may be cheaper in the e-edition, but you can't easily lend them to friends without lending your whole e-reader, and by implication, your whole library. I'm sure hackers are doing their best to find their way around that.
While most best sellers only show the occasional typo, some e-book editions are downright sloppy. Edward Hirsch's How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry is rife with systematic errors: frequent missing punctuation and comical substitutions such as die for the, tide for title, fete for fate. Stanza breaks in quoted poems are simply not respected. Had I known, I would have ordered the print edition. In other poetry books, to preserve line lengths, one has to use a rather small font. But Kay Ryan's Best of It, which I downloaded the minute it won the Pulitzer Prize, lends itself well to e-reading due to her short lines. Poetry, for aesthetic and commercial reasons, will probably be last to make the e-book plunge in great quantities.
I chose the Kindle over the Kobo, the other popular Canadian E-reader, because the screen is easier on the eyes. I recommend, by the way, ordering the leather-bound cover that comes with a booklight, powered by the reader, for reading in the dark. Although it makes the device quite a bit heavier, it protects the reader, is more pleasant to hold, and attractive to look at.
A caveat about purchasing the Kindle itself: the literature on the Amazon site misleads readers into believing that one doesn't have a WIFI router at home, that one "may" need the more expensive 3G reader to download books. Nowhere does it say that one can do so by simply plugging the reader into one's computer using the provided USB cord. This manipulative marketing made me spend about $60 more than I needed to, for a convenience I will only rarely need. (Well, I was tired when I ordered it, and it was just a click of a mouse.) Such sleaze scarcely engenders customer loyalty. Although the Kindle reader itself gets high marks, I'll be looking to get my own back, i.e. by ordering from alternate sources when they come available. Two friends have already said they won't be ordering Kindles after I told them about this. Caveat emptor, perhaps, but also caveat venditor.