“It’s so nice to see you reading again!” my wife told me this morning as we were laying in bed. I can’t think of a better tribute to the Kindle, which I began using yesterday morning. I bought The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini for $9.99 at Amazon’s Kindle Store, and last night I read in bed with her for the first time in a long while. I have been so focused on Twitter, Seesmic, Utterz, and Google Reader lately that I seldom pick up a traditional book except when I am trying to wind my mind down for sleep. But reading the Kindle in bed seemed more fun than hunching over the laptop screen for one more Tweet, so there we were, reading side by side again.
Here’s a point I haven’t seen mentioned yet: The Kindle has a big advantage over a traditional book for reading in bed naked on a cold night. The problem with something that requires two hands for turning the page is that you lose the comfy warmth of having the covers up to your chin. Since you turn the page on the Kindle by pressing the “Next Page” bar, you can read and turn pages with one hand, minimizing the amount of skin exposed to a wintery New England night. Ergomonic/energy-efficiency point to the Kindle.
Here’s another scenario you’ll never experience with a traditional book:
Chapter Four of The Kite Runner begins with “In 1933 the year Baba was born and the year Zahir Shah began his forty-year reign of Afghanistan…” I sheepishly realized I had never heard of a king who had ruled a significant country for forty years. If this had been a traditional book, I would have made a mental note, “Must learn more about history of Afghanistan,” and forgotten about it. With the Kindle, I decided to try the search function. I typed “Zahir Shah Afghanistan” on the dippy little keyboard, pressed “Go” on the scroll wheel, then selected “Search Wikipedia for ‘zahir shah afghanistan.'” One more click on “Mohammed Zahir Shah” brought me to a full account of his eventful life, which I read by clicking “next page” several times, as if I had put down the novel, climbed out of bed and returned with an encyclopedia. With this helpful context in mind, I pressed the “back” button several times to leave Wikipedia and resume reading Chapter 4. Brilliant.
What I think some of the Kindle-whackers (Robert Scoble, John C. Dvorak, Leo Laporte) are missing are the subtle design elements that position the device closer to a traditional book than to a computer. One is the monochrome display which reminds me of how I’ve read for decades on pages in books. The other is the minimalist view of the web, in this case Wikipedia. There is a photo of Zahir Shah in his old age, waving or making a feeble salute, but it’s a lousy image, like what you’d see in a faded newspaper. Perfect. What I’m seeing on the Kindle is different than the brilliant color display on my MacBook Pro.
But the biggest positioning of the Kindle closer to book than computer is the form factor itself, which enables your body to arrange itself exactly the way it would with a traditional book. Sooner or later in any e-book argument you’ll hear the phrase “curl up with a book” and the sentiment, said with a sigh, that you’ll never be able to do that with one of these new-fangled devices. I haven’t had a chance to curl up with a Sony Reader, but it looks as if it has the same curl-up capabilities. I skipped the Reader, partly because I felt that it wasn’t going to break through and partly because I still felt embarrassed about my early-adopter enthusiasm in 2000 when I rushed to buy a RocketBook. You could curl up okay with a RocketBook, but at 20 ounces it became tiring to hold in one hand. The Kindle weighs 10 ounces, and that makes all the difference, not to mention the brighter screen and always-on EVDO connection.
I agree with those who have dinged the Kindle on design. You have to train yourself not to touch the Next Page and Prev Page bars inadvertently, and at first you’re always zooming ahead or back in your book without meaning to. But to assert that anything less than Apple-Zen iPod design is a failure misses the importance of the Kindle NOT feeling and looking like a computer that you hold in your hand. It has its own weird controls, like the scroll wheel and the slanty little keyboard keys. These all subconsciously suggest, “this is something you’ve never seen before.”
I appreciate how the Kindle’s designers programmed the sleep mode so that it brings up pleasing old engravings of books and monks, portraits of writers (Emily Dickinson is looking at me now) or quotes from dictionaries, as well as occasional usage tips. These gestures tell me there were people involved in this project who actually read books and love literature.
The real test of the Kindle is how quickly you forget it. And in the presence of a gifted writer like Khaled Hosseini that happens almost immediately. I would challenge any of the book-cannnot-be-replaced gang to curl up in their favorite chair or bed, read a few pages of something great in print and then on the Kindle, and tell me with a straight face that the traditional book allowed the story to recreate itself in the mind and imagination more engagingly than the Kindle. In my opinion, it actually demeans literature to claim that appreciation of it is so dependent on the delivery vehicle. Its the words, stupid. And when they arrive via a device that so closely honors the look and feel of the traditional book, even to the extent of providing a leather cover, I find that the right words in the right order spark their magic just as they always have.
I do get tired of my life online, which, because of the ergonomics of sitting in front of a laptop or desktop screen, often feels more like consuming words than reading them. My wife is right. The Kindle has renewed my love of reading–in bed, in my favorite leather chair, and anywhere else where I can curl up in the presence of a good writer, just like I did in the old days.