Ivan tumbled from the ladder in the drawing room. I was on the Bergenline bus, where you say, “La parada por favor!” to get off. Ivan was dancing with Princess Trufonova, at the party with too many pastries. I was at Sandy Hook beach with too many people, digging moats for their sandcastles. The pantry boy Gerasim sat patiently with the now invalid Ivan’s legs propped on his shoulders. I was on a bench beside the Hudson River, with New York City propped on the horizon.
This was no paperback romance. It was the kindling of something new: my first long weekend with Amazon’s new “wireless reading device,” the Kindle. Kindle and I went places. We did things. Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich went with us. People stopped and stared.
So is Kindle just another gadget? A fashion accessory for the dwindling number of college graduates who can read? Or is this the machine destined to change our fonts forever? NAS wanted to know. I volunteered to find out.
So I read the Kindlized version of Ivan’s introspective demise at home, on two trains, on a bus, on a bench beside the Hudson River, in the car on a road trip, and at the beach. When I got home from the beach, the ice cream truck outside my window was playing Turkey in the Straw, and Ivan finally gave up the ghost. In three days of reading what would have been a 140-page book, the battery outlasted Ivan, and might have sustained Crime and Punishment. Or a Kindle bestseller, such as When You are Engulfed in Flames (for “the sharp hilarity of our dreary lives”) or a Kindle editor’s pick, such as The Geography of Bliss (“lifestyles of the delighted and despondent”).
People may have glared at me, but Kindle never did. The screen looks like the page of a book—provided you find a book that is the size of a large post-it note, lacks page numbers, and is attached to a control panel. This is not to complain. The letters on screen appear in electronic ink that is fresh and clean. And one of those controls lets you change the font sizes from a Kindle 1 (seemingly intended for gnats or lawyers) to a Kindle 6 (“What big I’s you have Grandma!”) Kindle’s electronic paper may not have the texture of fine paper, but it is a lot more readable than flat panel display screens that use backlight. Kindle pages are readable on an angle and look good in bright light.
Kindle is something like an iPod for books—and magazines, newspapers, and blogs. The device allows you to buy an item and read it at your convenience on the screen. The reader can click back and forth through the pages, and search on keywords. Kindle weighs only 10.3 oz (about as much as a typical paperback book), and has a scroll-and-select wheel and a full keyboard. The screen is modest but a lot larger than an iPod or a whole fleet of cell phones.
It holds about 200 books and currently costs $360. The price has come down several times since Amazon launched it last November.
When I decided to read The Death of Ivan Ilyich I simply typed the title into the search bar, clicked on the book, and one-click ordering sent the book directly to the Kindle, downloading in less than a minute. I “opened” the book and read Tolstoy’s biography, scanned the table of contents, and then started at Chapter One.
In place of page numbers, Kindle instead uses “location numbers” to mark reading progress. Also, tiny dots along the bottom of the page indicate how far along the reader is in relation to the size of the book. Still, there is something spatial about a printed book that I missed in Kindle—the look of a particular page.
The absence of page numbers proved troubling in another way. Like most readers, I like to look ahead to find out when the next convenient stopping point will come along. Do I have only 4 more pages until the end of the chapter or 40? If a new character is mentioned, and I can’t remember quite how the author introduced him, I like to flip back a few pages and see. With Kindle, it’s one page at a time, one button click to go back, one click to go forward. The one-page-at-a-time limit on flipping ahead or turning back imposes a fussy sort of discipline on the reader. Kindle is telling me that I should sit straight and turn the pages only in proper order.
I also realized: it’s nice to have two pages (left and right) side by side, simply to see a broader spread of the text. To read a book is to see a panoramic view; to read a Kindle is more like squinting through a straw.
But that’s not to say it isn’t fun. Clicking through a book with my thumbs felt a bit like playing a videogame, and might have been as addictive. As Ivan Ilyich grew more and more deathly, I became more and more enlivened, though I’m not sure if this was due to Tolstoy or his wireless amanuensis.
Kindles are, at least at this stage, a device for pleasure reading. The limited number of books available (about 1.5 million so far), and the format makes Kindle of no particular use for scholarship or teaching.
Still, I made the most of the studiousness that Kindle will support. Usually I can’t read anything without a pen in hand. In this case, I was able to bookmark pages, highlight sentences, type in annotations, and look up words (the Kindle includes an Oxford dictionary and access to the Wikipedia database). Unfortunately, the Kindle does not help with foreign languages. Perhaps down the road, Amazon will add Babel Fish, Yahoo’s translation service. Kindle is young; it must have its way. Just don’t tell it, “Il faut que jeunesse se passe.”
A last reservation: The Kindle is somewhat awkward to hold. In creating a space-efficient design, Amazon didn’t leave much room for fingers, and it’s all too easy accidentally to press “Next Page” too soon.
One button I was always eager to press. Each time you put Kindle “to sleep” to save the battery, the screen projects a different picture. Black-and-white portraits of famous authors come up etched in e-ink— Alexandre Dumas, Oscar Wilde, or Charlotte Brontë—or moody paintings, scientific sketches, or ancient texts. They reminded me of the cover illustrations lost in this medium. I was especially delighted when sleep mode brought up an illuminated manuscript in Old English, with the lines:
Eyes as Argus be vertuous providence
And circumspect as famous Serpion.
Indeed, I would like to have eyes like Argus, ever watchful and alert. And if, like him, I had one hundred eyes, I might not mind reading through straws.