I get it, you hate Amazon & the Kindle. So what?

Let me state right up front that I am biased on this subject.  I own a Kindle (1) and enjoy it. But on the other hand I don’t think I am such a Kindle partisan that I can’t see reasonable criticisms or recognize hype.  There are plenty of both in discussions of the Kindle and ebooks in general.

But I found Nicholson Baker‘s New Yorker essay incredibly tiresome and rather disingenuous.  Baker spends 6,000 words saying what is rather obvious to anyone who has looked into the Kindle: if you read books for their typogrpahy, illustrations or other visual elements – books as physical objects with all that entails – then the Kindle (like most ebook readers) is not for you.  Oh, and lots of books are not available yet.

Clearly, for Baker reading is a very physical and visual activity.  He wants certain things from a book and the Kindle doesn’t give him what he wants.  Fair enough.  I still love a well designed book and certainly find Kindle’s handling of illustrations problematic.

But Baker completely ignores why the vast majority (at least I suspect) of Kindle owners enjoy using it.  Here are a couple of issue the Baker basically misses:

  1. A library on the go.  If you frequently travel and love to read Kindle is a lifesaver.  You can have a library of books while only carrying something the size of a trade paperback.  So many critics seem to miss this very basic point.  Can they not see how handy it is to have a huge selection of books plus magazines and newspapers at your fingertips without lugging them all around with you?  This is not a question of art but one of practicality.
  2. Instant gratification.  Baker mentions this in passing but doesn’t explore it.  It is incredibly convenient to decide you want to read a book and start doing so 60 seconds later.  Why is it so hard to see how awesome this is? Finish the first book in a series and want to start the next?  With Kindle you can do so without even getting up.  It was the Amazon store and the Whispernet that really gave the Kindle the buzz.  Again, not aesthetics but convenience.
  3. Sometimes it is about the words.  The fundamental problem Baker has with the Kindle is that books are clearly more than mere words to him.  He derisively describes Kindle books as “a grouping of words in front of your eyes for your private use with the aid of an electronic display device approved by Amazon.”  Sure, but sometimes that is all I need.  In fiction all I often need is the story.  The way the author creates a world out of words.  I don’t need illustrations or a book cover or a certain typography, font, type of paper, etc.  I just want to read the story.  The same is true of non-fiction.  I just want the information – the argument, or the history, or the descriptions. I have found reading the Kindle a great way to get what I want from certain books without the need for a physical copy to lug around or to take up more space in my house. It is really that simple.

It doesn’t bother me that Baker doesn’t like the Kindle.  And I think he makes a few valid points – even if they are hardly insightful or unique.  What I found rather silly is the verbose and snide way he goes about making these arguments.

Yes, we get it.  Some people hate Amazon.  Yes, the iPhone is superior to every other device. Yes, Kindle is propietary. Yes, the Kindle doesn’t handle graphics very well.  Yes, the Kindle isn’t a work of art.  Yes, yes, yes.  I get it.

My response? So what? That is not why I have one.  I fail to see why it was necessary to pen 6,000 words to rehash this rather tired cultural argument.

I don’t know if the Kindle will revolutionize books but I am happy just to take advantage of the convenience it provides.

Perhaps that is just too mundane for Baker but it works for me.

Why eBooks are here to stay

I know Amazon isn’t real popular right about now (if it was ever popular with the literary crowd) and the story I am about to comment on is old.  But I wanted to comment on it at the time and never managed to do so.  I think it is worth noting in case you missed it.

In his commentary on the Tournament of Books championship, John Warner echoed my sentiments toward publishing and eBooks perfectly in saying “Let a thousand flowers bloom—only free market, rather than commie-style.”

But he also offered a powerful example of the attractiveness of the Kindle:

The digital/print divide was reinforced for me this weekend after reading the New York Times Sunday Book Review online. The lead review was of Wells Tower’s new short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. It’s a rave and reinforced many of the great things I’ve been reading elsewhere, as well as my own impressions of Mr. Tower’s writing, having read his fiction in McSweeney’s and his nonfiction in Harper’s. It has become, officially, a “book I want.”

In the same edition there is a review of another new collection of stories, Caitlin Macy’s Spoiled. Another positive review, though the description doesn’t make the book sound as immediately appealing to me specifically as Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Still, it became, officially, a “book I’d like to check out.”

This was Saturday, early, maybe eight o’clock. It was raining, unseasonably cool. I’d finished digesting the paper and was working on my oatmeal and I figured I’d see what’s what with these two new story collections. With the weather and the early hour, I wasn’t going to go anywhere, so I turned to the wife’s Kindle and found that only Macy’s book has a Kindle edition. I’d downloaded the first story in seconds, finished it in 15 minutes, and ordered the rest of the book right then and there. Meanwhile, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned remains in my unbought, “books I want” category, potentially forever since I’m constantly coming across books I want. Wells Tower and his publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux would’ve had a sale. Now, who knows? It may just get buried under the avalanche of new books.

That story illustrates one critical aspect of what makes the Kindle so useful and attractive (and dangerous quite frankly).  If you have a sudden desire to read a book, as John Madden might say: “Boom!” you can be reading it is seconds.

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