February 15, 2011

Kindle for a skeptic

I like the smell of books. I like the carefree grip of a paperback, and the sense of accomplishment as the lighter side gets progressively heavier and vice-versa. I love having a bookshelf, with a solemn procession of books with shiny covers, adding to a collection of fond memories. Which is why the e-book revolution was, like Facebook, part of the technology basket that I stubbornly refused to embrace.

Until the wife broke our no-gift pact to buy me a Kindle 3 on Valentines' Day.

Notwithstanding my personal misgivings about ebook readers, the Kindle is a gorgeous gadget. The third iteration of this iconic reader is practically calling out to be held, switched on, and just be read. Everything about it seems natural somehow - the weight, the matte finish, and even the color of the print on the device (it is a dull brown and not a bright white which could potentially interfere with the eye). I couldn't wait to get started.

But about five minutes into exploring the new device, I felt a familiar sense of foreboding. Everything about the Kindle was designed to sell me ebooks from Amazon.com and I wasn't yet ready to ditch their dead-tree cousins. All I wanted to do was upload some of the pdf files I had with me onto the reader and test it out. Instead I had to spend time figuring out the difference between the @kindle.com and @free.kindle.com addresses. Then understand formats, and what could be converted and what couldn't. And most irritatingly, what I was going to be charged if I used Whispernet as opposed to a USB cable to throw files into my Kindle. This precisely is what I intensely dislike about these ‘simplified’ approaches to using something I just bought. I bet the idea was beautifully designed by an engineer, monetized by a suit, stratified by a marketer and documented by someone that did not give any hoots. Yes, in the end it works, but it is not pretty trying to get answers to silly questions when all you want to do is take it for a test read.

There are other, less annoying idiosyncrasies that take a little getting used to. The biggest is the screen refresh when you flip a page. The entire screen goes black, then the letters first appear as holes, and then the holes and print are reversed. Sounds annoying? Well it actually is. And then there is the interface. For the abnormally large number of keys on a reader, any navigating feels clunky. Think blackberry style interfaces without a similar unity of purpose. As I said, these are annoyances. And once you manage to suppress the reflex action of reaching out with the second hand to flip pages things look up quickly.

The screen though quirky, is wonderful for reading. The choice of font (Caecilia) is very eye friendly. You can customize the font size to your heart's content. And it really can be read in direct sunlight, as long as you are not holding it to directly reflect the sun itself. As a reading device, the Kindle is astonishingly well suited.

For me however, the value of Kindle is not in replacing the books on my shelf, but in extending my own sphere of reading. I am and will continue to be nostalgic about my paperbacks. But there are things that a Kindle can do that no dead-tree book can - be alive. Sign up to Instapaper.com and set it to send you daily reading digests makes Kindle the perfect way to read those long articles. Get Calibre and stop fretting about formats. And most importantly, I can now get to services like getabstract.com, click a button and actually have the ability to catch up on the thousands of books people seem to write everyday.

Now if only I could tweet about all the reading I do. Oh wait, I can.

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