Monday, August 03, 2009

Nicholson Baker on Kindle

I would have been astonished if Nicholson Baker, author of Double Fold and long-time library critic, had been a fan of Amazon's Kindle reader. Thus, his somewhat nasty article in the August 3 issue of The New Yorker reviewing the Kindle 2 e-book reader contained few surprises. Entitled "A New Page: Can the Kindle really improve on the book?", Baker's piece dissects the Kindle and presents a catalog of its shortcomings, starting with its name, which is "cute and sinister at the same time." It strikes me the same way, as a matter of fact--whenever I hear the word "Kindle," I see libraries going up in flames in my mind's eye. Nicholson also dislikes the Kindle's screen, which he characterizes as being of a "greenish, sickly gray. A postmortem gray." Even the typeface is criticized by Baker, who says that "[d]ark gray on paler greenish gray was the palette of the Amazon Kindle." The typeface, Monotype Caecilia, was "grim and Calvinist; it had a way of reducing everything to arbitrary heaps of words." Baker is unhappy with the currently limited catalog of titles available on Kindle, but acknowledges, however, that the number of books offered over Kindle will grow as time goes on. Baker doesn't discuss the recent controversy about 1984's removal from Kindle. He seems particularly bothered by Kindle's poor display of graphics. "Photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don't fare so well on the little gray screen. Page numbers are gone, so indexes sometimes don't work. Trailing endnotes are difficult to manage. If you want to quote from a book you've bought, you have to quote by location range ..." There are problems with the display fading when the device is used outdoors. And he is outraged by the fact that when

[Y]ou buy a Kindle book[,] [y]ou buy the right to display a grouping of words in front of your eyes for your private use with the aid of an electronic display device approved by Amazon. ... [Y]ou can't read your Kindle books on your computer, or on an e-book reader that competes with the Kindle. ... Kindle books aren't transferrable. You can't give them away or lend them or sell them. You can't print them. They are closed clumps of digital code that only one purchaser can own. A copy of a Kindle book dies with its possessor.

I have no personal experience with the Kindle, but if Baker's observations about the quality of the display and of the graphics are correct, the design needs to be tweaked if the Kindle is going to gain widespread acceptance.

1 comment:

marfita said...

As a librarian, I had to try the Kindle. By the time I worked up the nerve, the K2 was available and I was confident that most of the kinks would have been worked out. I don't really understand Baker's hostility towards the font and e-paper color spectrum. In fact, I can't say that I noticed the gray on gray as being "sickly" or "greenish." I stare at monitors all day long and I find the Kindle's screen restful.
The Kindle is not the solution to reading books, but I will say what pushed me over the edge was being able to enlarge the font size. Unfortunately, I can't enlarge the graphics as well.
The Kindle, or any e-reader, is a godsend for travel. No longer is half my luggage taken up with the bulk and weight of the 7 or 8 books necessary to get me through a week away from home, only to be supplemented by what I buy and drag home after I finish what I brought. All the books I want to read are in one place and I can order (in the US anyway, which is fine since I only leave the country once every 10 years) more with great ease from wherever I am (short of on an airplane).
The contents of my Kindle range from fluffy contemporary fiction, to pop science, to classics - these last downloaded for free from the very ether itself! There's a dictionary to look up words (handy when reading Trollope and Hardy or other authors will archaic vocab), a direct link to Wikipedia (what makes that Trollope guy tick, anyway?), and, although it's clunky, I can tweet my progress ("Will this Trollope book never end?!") on Twitter.
No, I can't transfer my e-books to someone else to share them, but I pay extra for that when I buy a hardcopy, don't I? It does irk my librarian's spirit, but this is a new technology and I guess Amazon hasn't gotten the message that everything is supposed to be free now.
Oh, and while I have used the text-to-voice function, it's rubbish, innit? Nothing beats the performance a live reader brings. Can't imagine what the writers got their collective panties in a twist over.