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Thoughts on Kindle

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

I have a love/hate relationship with the Kindle at the moment. It's possible to devour certain books on the device, reading them rapidly yet thoroughly, and with great enjoyment. But I also find some books really quite hard to read on it, although I appreciate the ease of reading, or lack thereof, may not necessarily be a property of the device.

Take two examples. This last week, my interest aroused by the recent Everest 'hype' in the mainstream and climbing media, and by this outstanding blog post by our author Andy Kirkpatrick, I decided to revisit Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, a personal account of the 1996 Everest disaster in which eight people lost their lives in a single day. For purposes of disclosure, I should say I enjoy Krakauer's writing, Into The Wild being a particular favourite. I read Into Thin Air over a couple of evenings and greatly enjoyed it, quite unaware that I was reading it on a digital device – how it should be.

A month or two before that, I read John le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on the Kindle. This was the first time that I had read it, and while I rather enjoyed it, I found the device to be an obstacle in the way of the simple reading experience. In places, where the narrative becomes more difficult to follow, flicking back half or dozen or so pages became a chore on the Kindle – tabbing back through the book, and then forwards again. Adding bookmarks became laborious, and all of a sudden I felt like I was computing rather than reading. I regretted reading this book digitally. 

Things fell down a little with Into Thin Air when I came to refer to the colour plates, which of course aren't in colour. The low resolution black and white e-ink screen of the Kindle is pretty much useless for viewing photographs and images, often a shame when you're trying to picture certain people or places. There's also an interesting postscript in Into Thin Air about the author's account of Russian mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev, who was guiding on Everest in 1996, and Boukreev's response through his own book – The Climb – co-authored by G. Weston DeWalt. I didn't remember this postscript from the first time I read Into Thin Air (late nineties), but I became immediately interested in The Climb – subsequently recommended by a number of friends, so went to search for it on the Kindle store, only to find it wasn't there. Print edition it is. Sadly, Boukreev was killed on Annapurna in 1997, when the exchange with Krakauer was still rumbling on, althought DeWalt appears to have continued the debate with vigour, according to Krakauer.

The Kindle's poor screen (for images), and low tech web browser do have a flipside – there's almost zero temptation to break away from reading to check Facebook/Twitter and the like, and this is surely a good thing. It's a device for reading words, without distraction, and in that respect it's hard to fault. As this Guardian Tech article points out, the Kindle's achilles heel is rather hard to find.

Yet I think it's still early days for ereaders, such as the Kindle. Stats from the book trade predictably point to its uptake being greatest in the fiction market, while printed non-fiction still continues to sell in a fairly solid manner. I think things will get interesting once colour e-ink devices become available, or perhaps before that when devices such as the Kindle Fire are on sale in the UK and Europe (or will that just give us another Facebook/Twitter device alongside our smartphones and tablets?). Together with developments in ebook file format technology (epub), this might finally give ereaders relevance in the guidebook market (waterproof cases and battery life permitting).

Change might be just around the corner: it's reported that Amazon is preparing to launch its Appstore in Europe this summer, a possible precursor to the launch of the Kindle Fire. It's a shame that we're unlikely to see Barnes & Noble's Nook devices over here – that now looks unlikely in the wake of Waterstone's decision to sell (non-exclusively) the Kindle in store from autumn 2012. It will be interesting to see how Waterstone's, authors and publishers might benefit from this deal, but it's clear that Waterstone's hierarchy couldn't afford to go into the Christmas market without some kind of formal digital offer.

I'll keep reading on the Kindle, although I'll keep mixing it up with the real thing – the big pile of books next to my bed aren't going to read themselves. But what to read next? Time to go and find a copy of The Climb.


p.s. If you read on Kindle let us know what you think about the experience in the comments section below, especially if you've read one of our ebooks. 

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