Rediscovering reading with the Kindle


— 11:37 AM on March 18, 2011

Today, I finished my first book in a long, long time... probably years: On Writing by Stephen King. While King was one of my favorite writers when I was a teenager—I remember finishing The Stand under the glow of my nightstand lamp, perspiration making the bedsheets cling to my legs—it wasn't On Writing that brought about this renewed literary interest, but the medium on which it was presented.

That medium was, of course, Amazon's Kindle e-reader.

I ordered the Kindle on Sunday evening and, shortly after a visit from the UPS man on Tuesday, downloaded On Writing as a nod to both my teenage infatuation with the author and my present career. Mainly, though, I just wanted to read a whole book on this thing to see if I could pull it off, or if I'd lose interest a third of the way through like I'd done so many times recently.

Those unfinished books on my bookshelves have been a source of continued embarrassment. As someone who writes quite a bit every day, my reading really shouldn't be restricted to reviews, news posts, and the odd New Yorker article. As King himself points out, "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot." I'd been totally skimping on the first part for way too long, and it couldn't go on.

Why the lack of interest in books, though? After mulling over the issue, I've decided to blame the Internet. I'm used to having nearly instant access to pretty much any content I want, you see. When a book catches my fancy, I must head to Amazon, place an order, and wait several days, sometimes weeks, before I can begin to read it. I've gone through the motions over and over again, and I seem to lose interest right around the time the order shows up at my door.

When I force myself to start reading anyway, the activity feels punishingly archaic, almost uncomfortable. I'll sit, hunched over, stretching the book's spine, slogging through sheets of dead tree thin enough to guess the words on the other side but still heavy enough to get uncomfortable when grasped for a few hours. If my eyes get tired, too bad—the type is set. Then, when I leave home for more than a few hours, I have to remember to stuff the right paperback in my carry-on. When I leave home for good, as I've had to do, oh, a good four times in the past six years, I must heave densely packed cartons marked "BOOKS" from place to place.

The contents of those cartons migrate from apartment to apartment, from bookshelf to bookshelf, gathering dust along the way. They sit on those bookshelves because having books sitting on bookshelves seems like a proper thing for someone to have. My dad's two-bedroom house is packed to the gills with books, many of which probably haven't been opened since the 70s. Part of me wants to replicate that collection, until I realize all the other media I consume—media that requires far more effort to turn into ones and zeros—is migrating to hard drives and the cloud.

The Kindle may be my chance at redemption. On Tuesday, I started reading again in a way that makes sense to me, a way that allows me to read whatever I want, whenever I want to read it, without having to deal with those bookshelves and those cartons. (In case you're wondering, most of my paperbacks have now traveled over 5,000 miles each as I've moved from Scotland to France, then to British Columbia.)

Amazon's famed e-book reader didn't turn out to be quite the panacea I had hoped, but it certainly feels like a big step forward. The Wi-Fi version I got only set me back about $165 after shipping and taxes, and it has enough storage capacity for all the books I'll probably ever own. Those books are stored in the cloud, too, so I can read them on my iPhone, on my desktop PC, on my MacBook, and on any future Kindle devices. I can even lend my e-books to friends—and those friends don't have to live anywhere near western Canada.

The Kindle itself feels thin, compact, and shockingly light, like it's inviting you to take it outside the house. An e-ink display makes the Kindle usable in just about any setting, provided there's a light source nearby. I do wish there was a display backlight for those late-night reading marathons, but that would surely take away from the rated battery life of one month with wireless networking off. If I had really wanted a backlit screen, I probably would've bought an iPad; but I don't want to have to seek out a power outlet or a USB port every few hours. That, and the iPad is too bulky and heavy to read in bed, plus its screen has a lower pixel density and is less comfortable to stare at for hours on end. Oh, and it costs $500.

The Kindle is a better e-book reader than the iPad, no doubt, but if Steve Jobs and Jony Ive had designed the thing, it would also be a better Kindle. There would be more room to hold the device around the screen. The keyboard might not be there, and if it were, it probably wouldn't have an inexplicably misaligned bottom row sure to frustrate any seasoned typist. (Did you try to type in Ernest Hemingway? Sorry, here's a blank page showing no matches for Ermest He.imgway.) There wouldn't be back and forward buttons on both sides. (I can't tell you how many times I've tried going back a page by hitting the left "forward" button.) I expect the typesetting would have some hyphenation going on, because unhyphenated justified paragraphs can be downright ugly unless you enjoy rivers of white space. The on-screen user interface would probably seem less klunky. And the device wouldn't feel the need to remind you that it is, in fact, an Amazon Kindle with that big logo right above the screen.

In many ways, the Kindle looks like a device that might have come out in the mid-90s. It has that sort of smooth, rounded graphite finish and monochrome display that reminds me of Apple's first PowerBooks. The default typeface, Caecilia, was designed in 1990 and would look right at home in an early issue of Wired magazine. The sluggish, low-tech user interface completes the picture. All I need to do is load up The Silence of the Lambs, put on Nirvana's Nevermind, and it'll be like the dot-com bubble never burst.

I'm already loving this thing, though. As a workaholic with no social life, I've spent many Sunday afternoons sitting at my computer re-watching old Arrested Development episodes, wondering what else to do with my time. Now, I expect I'll spend that time reading—surely a better use for a Sunday afternoon. When the summer comes, I'll take the Kindle to the park or the beach and read there, far away from my home office and the boxes, PC components, and FedEx shipping receipts that populate it. I'll take it on flights to trade shows, too. I might lose it along the way, but that's okay; my address is in the settings screen, and even if nobody returns it, I can just buy another one and have all my purchases automatically synced to it.

With On Writing finished, I've already purchased and downloaded my next book: Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, a classic I never had the chance to read even when I wasn't completely spoiled by the Internet. It cost $3.75 and it's now mine wherever I happen to be. All I need is my Amazon account password.

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