BY MICHAEL HASTINGS
You can curl up with the Kindle 2. I’ve done it. On the couch, in bed, stretched out in my favorite chair in the living room. I’ve fallen asleep with the Kindle 2 resting softly on my chest. It’s even passed the critical bathroom test, a must for any serious reader. (I’ll spare you the details, but I’m more careful about not getting it wet than a book.)
I’ve had my Kindle for three weeks. It’s my first ereader. I haven’t tried any others. I got it because: A) I wanted to see how the reading experience compared to paper; B) I buy a lot of books for research, and carrying them around while I travel is a hassle; C) from an obnoxious writerly perspective, I’m interested in questions of style—that is, if writing a book that might be read primarily on an ereader would require or lead to any change in how one writes, and if those changes are at all desirable or necessary; D) I’m a book addict; and, similar to A, E) can reading ebooks give the same soul impacting, consciousness transforming, altering-the-way-you-see-the-world kind of experience that the greatest books I’ve held in my hands and read cover to cover have provided for me during my lifetime? (For this post, I’m going to just stick with talking about A.)
There have been quite a few objections to ereaders, and I can appreciate the concerns. So far, though, my impression is that ereaders and ebooks, in the end, will be great for readers, publishers, and writers. I don’t think it’s a question of “either/or” of ebooks versus paper books, but “and/in addition too.” My guess is that ebooks and paper books will comfortably coexist for at least the next few decades. Bookstores aren’t going anywhere. Literature and democracy and civilization shall remain intact. But I’ll leave the crystal ball gazing to others, and focus on what I’ve enjoyed so far with the Kindle.
The ereading experience, I figured, would work best for nonfiction, gathering information or political commentary or whatever, more like using the Internet than reading a novel. I didn’t think I’d be able to “get into” a book, or “lose myself in the story,” those states of being one achieves with the best fiction and the occasional nonfiction. So the first book I downloaded for a trial run was a work of journalism, Matt Taibbi’s The Great Derangement—he’s an author I know I like.
Result: I read it quickly, enjoying it as much as had his two previous books I’d read on paper (Smells Like Dead Elephants and Spanking the Donkey). I then decided to put the Kindle to the extreme test—Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Didn’t make it very far, but I usually don’t make it very far with Tolstoy. (I swear I will someday.) It was strange, too, to tackle a novel so noted for its sheer heft—perhaps it did seem a little less impressive when eTranslated.
A day later, I noticed Amazon was offering a promotion, giving away a few genre books, each one the first installment in a series. I downloaded all of them (they were free, after all) and started in on Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson.
And, with Mr. Robinson, I was off to that blissful otherworldly readerly place. I lost myself in his book, couldn’t wait to pick up the cool looking white tablet and find out what happened next, and read all 376 pages in two days. The promotion worked too, because as soon as I finished I purchased the second book in his trilogy, Green Mars. (There’s something fitting about reading sci-fi on an ereader; it adds to the feeling, as John Scalzi mused about recently, that we’re living in a sci-fi novel right now. Cue music from A Scanner Darkly.)
I credit Amazon here with designing the Kindle to be an actual reading experience. It blew away my expectations. It’s not like looking at text online, on a computer screen (I got my ereader as a gift, so hadn’t done much looking into what ereaders were supposed to look like.) It’s something different. The digital ink technology gives it a print feel and look. I didn’t feel or act rushed like I do when I read online; I could take my time with each page.
The fact that it’s a device dedicated to reading is very important—not surfing, scrolling, checking email, instant messaging. There isn’t that same hectic multitasking, attention-deficit-disorder feel that one gets when scanning the Web. (I’ve never been able to get into any fiction that’s been published online.) The device recognizes (and respects) the fact that reading isn’t just digesting information. (A nice detail: whenever you put the Kindle down, it goes into a rest mode after a few minutes, and sketches of great writers appear on the tablet, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, etc.)
I know that reading an excellent sci-fi novel probably doesn’t pass the “serious literature” test in some folks’ eyes. (Though I would place Kim Stanley Robinson’s book next to any of the so-called serious literature being written today.) But so far, the Kindle 2 passed my nonfiction test, and it passed my reading great fiction for entertainment/escapism/fun test. Are there books that I’ll probably always want to read on paper? Yes—books that for whatever reason I want to hold, books for the shelf, books that have an important visual element to them (like this strange but fascinating book called Hollywood Bablyon that I just finished, which has all sorts of great tabloid like photos in it.) And books that I just feel like buying when I see them, as I’ll always continue to go into book stores–I love books, I love reading. And for those who seem to think the coming of the Kindle is the death of reading, I have to disagree. Anyone who’s willing to pay $359 for an electronic reading device probably loves reading quite a bit, too.
There are movies I love to watch on the Big Screen, and I’ll pay more and go out of my way to make sure I see them there. There are other movies that I’m content to wait for the DVD. Either way, I’m still watching movies, still supporting the movie biz. A similar kind of thing is probably going to happen with books—sometimes you’ll want to hold a book in your hand, have a copy for your bookshelf. Other times it’s just as cool just to read the book on the tablet.
I hope to pick up on some of the other themes I mentioned above in the weeks to come. If anyone else is thinking along those lines, would be great to hear your musings. A few random thoughts before signing off. For the record, I’ve found some faults with the Kindle. Not enough books available is my major gripe —I’m always clicking the “Tell the Publisher! I’d Like to Read This Book on Kindle” button). And, there’s a chance my enthusiasm will wane after it loses its newness factor. But as long as I can keep curling up with an ebook, I’ll stay converted.