Friday, December 30, 2011

2011, A Year in Reading: Kindled

Whatever the opposite of early adopter is, I'm it.  I tend to stick with what works, and am rarely in a rush to discover how a new gadget might improve my life.  I started this blog in 2005 when the format was already starting to get a bit stale (and am still plugging away at it going into 2012 when it's become positively antiquated).  I've only had a Gmail account for a year.  I got my first smartphone last week (and by "got," I mean that my mother, who is an early adopter extraordinaire, was first in line when the iPhone 4S became available in Israel and bequeathed me her old iPhone 3G).  Accordingly, it took a while for me to wrap my mind around the notion of an electronic reader as a viable alternative to paper books, and as something that I might enjoy and get a lot of use out of, and it wasn't until Amazon announced the Kindle 3, at a price point that seemed reasonable for what still felt, at the time, like a dubious endeavor, that I decided to take the plunge.  That was a year ago (in the interim Amazon has released a whole new Kindle, and the Kindle Fire), and the end of 2011 seemed like a good time to summarize my reactions to this device and the ways that it has affected my reading.

Before I say anything about my reaction to the Kindle, I should probably explain my choice of this particular device.  Even given that I prefer electronic ink to backlit displays, there were other options (albeit none that are as easily accessible in Israel).  Amazon is in such bad odor these days, both for its hardball tactics against authors and publishers, and for clinging to DRM in the face of the public's disdain, that one feels the need to justify buying into their model rather than anyone else's.  Or maybe I do, because though I do understand and accept that Amazon are now the Evil Empire, and that they may very well be doing real damage to authors and the publishing industry, I can't shake my love and loyalty to that company.  It is in no way an exaggeration to say that Amazon changed my life.  Without it and the access it gave me at a time when my local bookbuying options were severely limited, I would not be reading the books that I read today, and I would certainly not be writing this blog, or going to conventions, or editing the Strange Horizons reviews department.  Amazon made me the reader--and thus, the blogger and reviewer--that I am, so when the time came to pick an e-reader there was never really any question about which one I'd choose.  And it doesn't hurt that the Kindle is a really great device--comfortable to hold, easy to navigate and read from--and that the bookbuying end is as convenient as buying from Amazon has always been.  I'd be happier if Amazon had different business practices, but nothing they've done yet is enough to overcome the combination of my loyalty and their fine engineering.

On to the device itself, perhaps the biggest change that the Kindle has made to my reading habits is that it has made them more spontaneous.  I've been buying books from Amazon since 1996, but for most of that period, the costly, time-consuming physical process of getting those books to me imposed a calculated, bean-counting mentality on the way I purchased books.  Before the Kindle, I would hear about an interesting book, and if I couldn't find it in local bookstores (which was usually the case) it would go on my Amazon wish list.  The next time I placed an Amazon order (three or four times a year, usually), that book would vie with all the other books that had caught my eye in the previous few months, and the ones that had been on my wish list longer, to be one of the six or seven actually ordered.  Then several weeks would pass before I actually had the book in my hands--a procedure, all told, almost calculated to either cool my enthusiasm for a book, or stoke it so high that there could be no chance of satisfying it.  By removing the issue of shipping, the Kindle has short-circuited that entire process.  Niall Harrison started rhapsodizing about Kameron Hurley's God's War in early summer, and I was able to buy an electronic copy and see what all the fuss was about almost immediately.  Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad won the Tournament of Books, and instead of waiting two months for the paperback to appear in Israeli bookstores I just bought the Kindle edition.  Access and availability have been the bugbears of my reading life for the better part of twenty years, and even more than online bookbuying, the Kindle has helped to eliminate them.

There are several caveats that should be mentioned here, the first and most frustrating, to me, being that my access is still not complete.  Some books don't have Kindle or other ebook editions.  Worse, some have Kindle editions that are not sold in my region.  For newer books, stores like Weightless and Baen, as well as publishers like Angry Robot, help to plug some of the holes, but there are a lot of older and out of print books without electronic editions.  Especially with so many other books readily available to me, it's hard not to fly into a foot-stamping rage when the one particular book I'd like to read is still limited to dead tree form.  Another caveat is that for all that I'm pleased with my Kindle and enjoy reading with it, I'm still reading a lot of physical books as well.  In fact, only a third of the books I read in 2011 were ebooks.  Partly this is due to the fact that around the same time that I purchased a Kindle, I also bought my first car, which has made my commute infinitely more convenient but also cost me a lot of reading time.  And when reading at home, the Kindle found itself fighting for prominence with my TBR stack (seen here, amazing as it may seem, in its younger, smaller days).

This will change in future years, I'm sure, but I think that it will be a while yet before ebooks make up most, or even half, of my reading.  And that's because one of the strangest and most unexpected effects that the Kindle has had on my reading habits is that it has instilled in me a new respect for the book as a physical object.  I've never really cared what my books look like and what condition they're in.  I preferred paperbacks to hardcovers because they were cheaper, lighter, and easier to stuff in a bag and carry around.  For the same reasons, I preferred beat-up, used paperback to new ones.  And I let myself feel a little superior for having these preferences--I care about the words, not how they're bound and printed!  Then the Kindle comes along, and all of a sudden I'm saying to myself: maybe this book I want in paper.  Because as everyone says, when you buy an ebook, you've really just rented it.  This has nothing to do with DRM, by the way--as the old joke goes, the book is a format that has lasted for centuries, while computer platforms and file formats are lucky to live to be a few decades old.  And even if DRM or file formats or the obsolescence of your platform don't get you, the short half-life of electronic storage will, long before the books on your bookshelf have done anything but get a little yellow.

Which, given that I read most books only once, is fine for most of my reading, but I've found that there are certain titles and authors that I want on my shelves.  I could have bought Kindle editions of China Miéville's Embassytown and Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector, for example, but I preferred physical ones.  And conversely, after hearing less than stellar reports about Neal Stephenson's Reamde, I bought a Kindle edition so I could find out if it was as bad as all that without being left with a behemoth to clog up my shelves.  Even worse, having enjoyed God's War and A Visit From the Goon Squad immensely, I now find myself wondering if I should buy physical copies of them.  The end result of which will no doubt be a sort of two-tier system of reading, where physical books are still the primary format, and the only reliable means of storage.  As much as I enjoy my Kindle, then, and though I anticipate using it more and more in the years to come, I can't say that it has ushered me into a new era of digital reading.  If anything, it seems to have cemented my loyalty to the analog.


Tamara said...

I feel like i'm not even capable of being really objective about ebooks, being Israeli and having all the same access issues - I can read (almost) all the books everyone in the anglosphere is talking about, as easily as the can! OMG. Everything else pales besides that simple fact. (I have a long commute by crowded public transport besides, where a kindle is easily readable but a book isn't. Seriously, one hand makes all the difference.)

Kate said...

Amazon has just begun the Kindle lending library, which is amazing. The selection is slim as of yet, but the possibilities are wonderful. Will a bricks and mortar library even be necessary in the future? (Our libraries have begun lending on Kindle as well.)

I agree that access is the Kindle's shining feature. I never buy books, but now the process is tempting and easy. This may be, in a strange way, a boon for the publishing business.

MisterMumi said...

I bought an Iriver, and though I'm satisfied with it's background and font, It's not a good option for reading non-fiction I think, since it's tiresone to find the right page and bookmarks when reading. Further more I can't underline or make notes in the margins like i do with the paper editions. Is this also a problem with the Kindle?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Kaffee Beast:

The lending library is actually a prime example of Amazon's shady business practices. It's come under a lot of fire from authors and publishers, and is operating, in most cases, without the permission of either. But more than that, the very concept angers me, because Amazon is a for-profit business, not a public (and publicly funded) service, which is what libraries are. It's using the lending library as a loss leader to tempt customers into buying and using Kindles, not out of civic-mindedness, and doing that while hiding behind the positive image of libraries is unseemly.


The Kindle's bookmarking and note-taking features are one of my favorite things about it, and something I find quite useful while writing reviews. It basically does everything you were asking for - highlight passages, mark pages, add notes to the highlights and bookmarks, and export all of this material. There's also a search function which had been a true godsend.

Maureen Kincaid Speller said...

I was interested to read your response to acquiring a Kindle; it chimes pretty much with mine. I like it too for magazine subscriptions; the convenience of subscribing online and having the things download themselves and not go missing in the post is not to be underestimated. On the other hand, I am similarly irritated by the inability to get US books on Kindle, particularly when publishers who will remain nameless start pimping their special free download offers, only for me to find I can't access them.

I can't see myself abandoning print entirely (not when most of my academic requirements cannot be met electronically) but the Kindle is a great way of satisfying curiosity without sacrificing shelfspace.

Standback said...

I'm a Kindle newcomer as well. Pretty pleased so far, though I'm kind of frustrated that prices are at the paperback level. Also, I can't read it on Shabbat :P

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I haven't done much with the subscriptions option on the Kindle. I planned to subscribe to Locus last year, but after discovering that they had yet again failed to roll back the double votes for subscribers scheme in their awards I just didn't feel like giving them my money. A subscription to F&SF or Asimov's might be interesting (if they offer that option, I haven't checked), though it seems like an easy way of making sure that my Kindle becomes just as clogged with unread material as my physical TBR stack.


That Kindle prices are comparable to paperbacks doesn't bother me so much, since I'm always aware that I would have had to add on a few more dollars per book for the physical version. And I've found that it's worthwhile to comparison shop - publishers or other stores will often sell ebooks for less than Amazon's price, and loading PDFs and MOBIs (or converted EPUBs) on the Kindle is pretty painless.

I hadn't considered the problem of using Kindles on Shabbat. A definite impediment.

Kate said...


The internet (as you know) has changed the copyright business. Dinosaur industries (movies, music, publishing) focus on restricting access so that only the old modes of delivery (plastic and paper) are allowed instead of embracing the opportunities for profit and growth via digital media. That the artists are caught in the middle is a shame and a disservice to them.

I don't mind that the purpose of Amazon's lending library is to hawk books. That's their job. The future of a public library, though, is much more uncertain in a digital world. A publicly financed coffee shop with free wi-fi is the library's current trajectory. At some point taxpayers will begin to question why they should pay for this.

Standback said...

Miser that I am, I tend to get my books in semi-annual shipments from the States, from online used bookstores, via relatives. So the price is... not trivial, though hardly onerous.

F&SF has a very nice and low-priced Kindle version. They've also got a free sample version, one story + all the non-fiction material. I'm debating swapping my paper subscription to a digital one, but the jury's still out.

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