Monday, February 01, 2010

The Pros and Cons of Kindle Reading

My girlfriend got me a kindle for Christmas, and having had the chance to read a few books on it so far, I feel it's time to weigh in on what I think of the delightful little gizmo.

The pros:
  • It's the one thing you need to bring with you when you want something to read. It's lightweight, gives you your whole (digital) library, and lets you pick up where you left off in any book you want to come back to
  • Pro: It absolutely minimizes physical effort and distraction in the reading process, you don't have to turn pages, or go from one side of a bound book to another, you literally hold the book in one place and hit a button to change pages. It's faster and more convenient than traditional reading.
  • Pro: I'm starting to think it's the easiest way to read pure text, scrolling on a web browser is awkward for keeping your place and has uncomfortable margins, and it's easier to pick up and set down than a normal book and start reading just at a push of a button.
  • Pro: This is more of a lack of a problem, but the battery life is well-nigh infinite if you're not downloading books, and can be pretty much forgotten about 99% of the time.
  • Pro: Having spent so much time reading and watching backlit screens, the digital ink of the kindle is much more comfortable for reading, it feels like reading a normal book. It not being backlit means you need a light source like any other book, but I'm convinced it's the most comfortable way to read, it's essentially a book with one page that keeps changing.
  • Pro: In theory, you can search for specific text or phrases and annotate, although those seem to be more experimental and less-refined. Skipping to individual chapters from the table of contents is much simpler

Now for the cons:
  • A number of books have had spotty support for kindle features, pull quotes which are images have ended up in the wrong place depending upon your text size, there are minor transcription errors or incorrectly placed text, and viewing footnotes isn't always as easy as it's supposed to be. Not every book seems to be set up with the same level of quality
  • Con: Not every book is available in kindle format, it's great for picking up new books or best-sellers, but it's a way to get books on a going-forward basis, while most popular titles I looked for were there, not all were
  • Con: Amazon is currently fighting over the future of e-books thanks to the iPad promising 15 bucks for an ebook, and publishers not wanting to sell their content cheaply. Amazon tries to push a 10 dollar price point with possible discounts, I think trying to sell a digital book for more than a standard paperback is really unfair to the consumer who doesn't necessarily know how long he can count on a particular format sticking around.
  • Con: While the size of the device is ideal for what it is, a portable reading device, you are sometimes made aware of the limitations of the smaller screen size and the correspondingly smaller amount of text it can fit before you hit the next page button, I've chosen to go to comparatively smaller text sizes to bite off larger chunks at a time
  • Con: Picking up where you left off is very easy, but I'm not completely sold on the merits of searching by text or location, paging through a book is still faster than hitting next page even if hitting "next page" is faster than turning a normal page. In one book in particular, the index at the back of the book was useless, non-hyperlinked and the page numbers offered no correspondence to how "locations" were laid out in the book, you had to rely on a text search or guessing by section
  • Con: You can't lend out a book as easily that I'm aware of, and at the moment trying to show someone something in a book quickly turns into a kindle tech demo as the device overshadows all
  • Con: It's unsuitable for certain types of information: magazines, strategy guides, comic books, graphic novels, and newspaper articles you might want to tear out or pass on to another person.

Essentially, the kindle is optimized for a very specific process: reading a book, leafing through it one page at a time, and periodically setting it down to pick it up later. It helps accomplish that process better than any invention since Gutenberg. It is significantly less optimized towards the other ways in which people use books: leaving margin notes (although annotations are possible they aren't as intuitive as in a book), skimming through a book and trying to take in large sections at once, or representing other types of content rather than just pure text. (images are possible, but limited)

That said, going off of purely empirical data, the kindle has been an incredible success for me. It's successfully subsumed my normal book reading (excluding graphic novels, and online stuff like the wall street journal), and I'd say it's even increased the rate at which I read books because of its incredible convenience for normal reading, and the ease of just picking up a book where you left off and diving in. Reading books on the kindle is addicting, it gets information to you incredibly fast and you're less intimidated by the size of the tome in question, your progress is tracked at the bottom with a bar but you only ever have a well-measured chunk to deal with.

So while I may not have had the courage to attempt this experiment on my own, I'm sold on the kindle for basic reading, and I'll continue trying to find ways to make it better at the things I want it to do like searching and scanning, and hope it continues to grow in support among publishers. I'm undertaking a certain risk in committing part of my future library to this format, but hopefully it'll prove more resilient than the cheap paperbacks it's effectively replacing.