Thursday, February 26, 2009

Kindle and Reader

I saw them for the first time yesterday: the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader. These two devices are the latest technology for displaying and reading electronic books. Sony was first on the market with a display that gives the reader the sensation of reading ink on paper even though it is pixels on screen. Amazon came next, and all the reports I've seen are that Kindle is better than Reader. I imagine both of them have old versions and new versions and that, as everything goes in technology, they are leap-frogging each other in quality of the product and reduction in price.

I saw the Kindle first on a flight from Phoenix to DFW. I had to make an urgent trip to the bathroom (well, I guess you all didn't need to know that), but found it occupied and had to wait about a minute. The woman sitting in the aisle seat on the last row was reading a book on a Kindle, and so I had a few, impatient moments to talk to her about it. She loves it.

I saw the Reader also yesterday on the connecting flight from DFW to NW Arkansas. The man sitting across the aisle from me on the one hour flight had one, and I got to look at it for a while as he demonstrated its features and answered my questions. He loves it.

Both of these devices were a little smaller than I expected, maybe a little less than 5x7 inches, and very slim, very slim. Both have a flip-over cover to protect the screen. Both seemed to show a realistic display of black ink on white paper. The text size is changeable. Neither is back-lit (at least I'm sure the Reader isn't; didn't ask about the Kindle), so you must have light to read it. Nothing wrong with that.

I did not ask to hold either. Nor did I ask about battery capacity, or storage capacity--though I understand both of them have the capacity to download and hold more than 100 books at 500 pages per book. That's a lot less to lug through airports than the equivalent paper. Yet, I won't be rushing out to buy one of these gadgets. The feel of the book in the hand is something I'm not ready to give up, nor the smell of the paper, nor the physical bookmark that I lovingly come back to day after day. I like to slip my finger beneath the right page as soon as I begin turning the left page, even though I've got two full pages to go before I need to flip. On a non-fiction book, I often like to keep the book open at the page I'm reading, but have a thumb or finger in another place, and flip back there frequently to cross-check information. When I start a new chapter, I like to first look ahead to see how many pages are in it, maybe even stick a finger there, making a claim on those pages as I start reading that chapter.

No doubt these all have an equivalent in the Kindle and Reader. But I'm still not getting one. Possibly I'll be the last hold-out among everyone I know. I'm about the last person without a portable MP3 player, so you know I'm not an embracer of technology.

On Tuesday, while waiting for the flight from DFW to Phoenix to board, I saw a man with a paperback version of Team of Rivals, the fairly recent history of President Lincoln and the team he chose for his cabinet sitting on top of his carry-on bag. I have it in my reading stack, picked off the remainders table at Barnes & Noble. I have two or three much smaller books in front of it, one of which I started yesterday on the flight. But, seeing the book, I struck up a conversation with the man and discussed it with him. For about three minutes, standing in line in the terminal and on the jet way, we talked about Lincoln and the specific books and history books and history. We parted inside the plane and I didn't talk with him again.

But suppose he had been reading this on a Kindle or Reader? Would I have taken the audacious step of saying, "Oh, you have a Kindle. What are you reading on it?" No, I likely would not. But having seen the book on his luggage and being able to recognize the title, it was easy to say, "Oh, I've been waiting to get to my copy of that. How do you find it?" So it seems to me that the Kindle and Reader, for all of their benefits, will contribute to the growing digital isolation. And I can't see that as a good thing.

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