Kindle offers the new book, but am I the new reader?

By June 10, 2011

“I always take three books when I fly,” a friend said. “The first is the book I’m finishing. The second is the book I plan to read next. The third is in case I don’t like the second one.

“It gets heavy.”

This friend had a birthday and now owns a Kindle, Amazon’s e-book reader. Kindle came out four years ago for $399 but is now available, smaller and lighter, for as little as $114, if you’re willing to let it display ads.

“It’s not perfect for flying,” I warned her. “They make you turn it off, like a cell phone, and if you sit on the runway for a long time, you’re stuck with nothing to read.”

I’ve started making my own luggage heavier again by bringing a magazine or a book — just in case.

But how about non-airplane situations? Can a mild-mannered newspaper columnist find happiness with a Kindle?

I’ve owned mine since February and in that time I’ve read seven books — not a huge number, but enough to appreciate that several things become easier with Kindle.

The lightness and convenience are wonderful. My Kindle slips easily into tiny spaces, like the front compartment of my backpack, where even a 200-page novel fears to tread.

The only feature I value more than lightness is the ability to adjust font size. My aging eyes prefer bigger type and I can read for longer stretches of time when I have it.

The Kindle not only makes reading easier, but also shopping for books. In the past, if someone recommended a book to me I would forget the title in five minutes, unless I wrote it down, and then I would lose my note.

Now if someone recommends a book, I can download it immediately to my Kindle — for about $10. Sometimes I check reviews first, but not always. In this way, I acquired Steve Martin’s “Born Standing Up,” which turned out to be a delightful read.

I anticipated these positive things about Kindle, but like a newlywed, I didn’t anticipate the negative.

One winter night when I was alone in our cabin in Lotus, the power went out. Kindle does not have built-in illumination. This means you don’t have to charge it very often — about once a month, which is great — but with no light to shine on my Kindle, I couldn’t read at all.

Even when I do see the Kindle, things go wrong.

I downloaded “Bossypants,” with author Tina Fey on the cover, arms crossed, looking bossy. Only when I happened to pass the book in a bookstore did I realize that the cover was a gag, the arms far too large and hairy to belong to Tina. In the gray world of Kindle, not everything comes clear.

My own mind is part of the problem. I never realized, for example, how putting a conventional book down and leaving it around the house implants an image of the title, author and cover into my brain. Now I often forget them, because when I open Kindle all I see is the last page I read.

Here’s a typical post-Kindle conversation.

“What are you reading right now, Marion?”

“Something really funny. Uh. I can’t remember the title.”

With conventional books, I remember not only the title and author but also individual pages. Often, I amaze myself by being able to flip back 100 pages and locate a particular passage within seconds.

Kindle, unfortunately, removes me from direct contact with the part of the book I’ve already read. If I want to reread the passage where a character was first introduced, for example, I can’t flip through pages and find it. Kindle provides a search process, but it’s cumbersome.

I can mark passages — Kindle helps you do that — but it’s not as easy as using a pen and I rarely bother. Kindle also (optionally) shows you passages marked by other readers, but what do I gain from learning that 1,421 people marked “Wasn’t that the definition of home? Not where you are from, but where you are wanted?” (From Abraham Verghese’s “Cutting for Stone”)

No matter how much I enjoy a book on Kindle, physical questions distract me. Is this book long or short? Am I in the middle or near the end? With conventional books, excitement builds as I near the end, and it isn’t the same to read on Kindle that I have 9 percent left. Recently, two books suddenly ended on me, leaving me annoyed in one case, bereft in the other.

Knowing when the end is coming is an essential part of reading for me, like keeping track of how much ice cream is in my freezer.

Everything about Kindle is more amorphous and less tactile. Who knew that touch was such an important part of reading? I don’t miss turning pages — it turns out that wasn’t an essential part of the experience — but I do miss skipping around to investigate one character, paging through a volume for nuggets I underlined, or thumbing back to re-read the racy parts.

When I finish books now, I don’t feel as if I know them as well.

Reading with Kindle is like talking on the phone with someone you’ll never meet. You might get everything you want: convenience, reliable information, a comfortable experience. But for me, at least, something is missing.

— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected] Her column appears Sundays.

Marion Franck

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