Compass is an archive of Library news from 2005 - 2008. For the latest Library news check the Library Blogs.
Compass Newsletter Masthead
   Volume IV, Issue 3
February 2008   

Light My Fire: Some Thoughts on the Amazon Kindle

by Joe Lucia, University Librarian

Paperless? Not Yet
Thirty years ago, in his book Toward Paperless Information Systems (Academic Press, 1978), F.W. Lancaster predicted the emergence over time in the digital age of what he memorably called “the paperless society.” Though Lancaster’s vision has resisted easy realization, his view represented a prescient understanding of the power of networked digital information systems to liberate vast amounts of content from physical carriers.

In the intervening decades since Lancaster’s prediction, we have seen a massive transformation of the information environment to the extent that in 2008 more reading probably takes place on computer screens than on paper. Library collections have incorporated an enormous variety of digital resources – e-journals, e-books, textual databases, to name a few. In fact, in the past year Falvey has added 200,000 electronic book titles, in the form of large retrospective historical collections, to its library holdings.

Yet something about reading on computer screens has remained profoundly unsatisfactory for any material that requires sustained absorption and critical engagement. Otherwise, how can we account for the persistence of physical books or for the fact that millions of pages are printed every year on our campus to render the screen-readable digital materials licensed through the Library more comfortably readable?

Most faculty, and even students, will tell you that they prefer to read lengthy texts from paper. I am still uncertain myself if that general preference reflects some physical shortcoming of current display technology in terms of optical or mental fatigue or if it’s a byproduct of reading practices with physical paper (such as annotation, browsing, skipping around, correlating / comparing passages or perusing several books at once on a large desktop) that screens haven’t yet been able to supplant.

We’re Getting Closer
Whatever the explanation, the persistence of paper as the most satisfactory medium for sustained engagement with texts has slowed the emergence of a viable e-book reader technology with the potential to replace bound physical volumes with an electronic display device. Since the mid-1990s, there has been a series of failed attempts to develop and market such devices by companies large and small, from Sony to start-up operations like iRex Technologies.

Late last fall, Amazon entered the e-book reader fray with their much ballyhooed Kindle. The launch of the Kindle has been so successful that there have been waiting lists for delivery of the device since the first day it went on sale.

Many have been taken in by the hype surrounding the Kindle, in part because of its scarcity, in part because it exudes the Internet tech sexiness of an iPod, and in part because it is a notably good attempt to produce a satisfactory e-book reader.

Riding the hype cycle, the Villanova Times featured an article by Lindsay McAuliffe on the Kindle in the January 8, 2008 issue (p. 3). That article provides an enthusiastic endorsement of the Kindle, suggesting that it has “single-handedly revolutionized the world of reading.” I was able to acquire a Kindle myself in early January, and I want to offer here a somewhat more circumspect view of the device and its strengths and shortcomings in relation to physical books.

A First Look
At first glance, the Kindle is an undeniably snazzy little piece of tech candy. It’s sleek and white with a grey screen, embodying many of the design practices most readily associated with Apple machines and gadgets like the iMac and the iPhone.

Turn it on, and the monochromatic display is crisp and readable in all sorts of lighting conditions, including full daylight, which is certainly not the case for most portable computer screens. E-Ink, which is the technology beyond the Kindle display, is clearly a great leap forward in terms of suitability for extended reading sessions.

The Kindle is easy to view for long periods of time, and it can comfortably be read both in bed under lamp light and on the beach in bright sunlight. It features a small QWERTY keyboard below the display screen and it employs cellular wireless (paid for by Amazon) to connect you to the Amazon e-book storefront, making it easy to search for, browse and purchase new content (newspapers, magazines and e-books).

At this writing, almost 100,000 titles are available for the Kindle (though I must add that several in-print titles that I wanted to acquire were unavailable).

But once the initial eye appeal wears off, some of the device’s usability shortcomings become apparent. The controls for moving forward and back through a book are less than ideally placed, and it is easy to “turn” pages inadvertently while holding the unit during reading.

The screen itself is rather small at approximately 3.5 by 5 inches, which means any graphical content that requires a larger scale cannot be adequately displayed. The gray-scale gradations the screen can present are also extremely limited. The actual experience of reading a book on the Kindle is, however, quite satisfactory.

And some functions inherent in such a device trump the experience of a physical book. Being able to use the embedded New Oxford American Dictionary to look-up words while reading is a real boon, as is the ability to search the Web and Wikipedia using the wireless feature. It is simple to add highlights and notes while reading, though these features are a little less satisfactory because the mark-up and commentary require several steps to complete and are effectively orphaned in the Kindle rather than being integrated into a larger personal writing / research environment, such as a laptop.

The Kindle in Use
I’ve now read several books, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns and Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty among them. Reading on a Kindle is undeniably pleasant. The ability to resize the typeface means that you can adjust the display to suit your eyesight. One can get absorbed in a text and the device more or less disappears.

Yet, for me, there is still something missing, and it’s not merely the tactile satisfaction of handling paper. Instead, it’s the tangibility of the book in three-dimensional space, the way those bound pages are permeable simply by flipping back and forth between chapters, from contents page to index, from remembered passages to illustrations, and for quick scanning and grazing. Though the Kindle features a display bar that indicates the relative position of any given page in a book, it fails to communicate the size, complexity or interconnections within a text in any substantive way.

I suspect that this response relates to the “phenomenology” of the physical book and the affordances of the specific technologies that deliver text. The printed book enables certain practices and behaviors, while the e-book facilitates its own distinctive practices and behaviors.

One thing I am increasingly convinced of is the degree to which the material carriers of discourse shape the prospects and possibilities for thinking and discursive engagement. Over time, devices like the Kindle will change what we do when we read. For now, though, the physical book enables forms of textual engagement that, while not irreplaceable, are profoundly satisfying.

The Bottom Line: So What’s It Mean?
While there is much more to say on all of these topics, for the moment here are a few concluding thoughts.

The Kindle clearly demonstrates that the e-book will soon come of age. I actually want it to be better than it is. I suspect that this is version 1.0 from Amazon and that we will soon see 2.0, with real improvements. I would like a touch screen for highlighting and annotation, rather than the clunky interface as it’s currently implemented. This would provide a measure of the tactility I miss in relation to physical books.

Also, I want longer battery life. I was frustrated several times while using the Kindle that the battery ran out. Using the cellular wireless service seems to suck the life out of the battery. During the months I’ve had the Kindle, the battery has run out in less than two hours on more than one occasion. No book ever suffers that failing. Better battery performance is a must for the e-book to achieve its potential as a preferred technology for reading.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think the greatest appeal of Kindle 1.0 is that it functions in many ways as an iPod-like device for textual content. It comes with an integrated interface for searching, browsing and acquiring books from the Amazon storefront.

It integrates seamlessly with one’s existing Amazon account, and all of one’s preferences and prior Amazon book purchases inform the Kindle shopping experience. In addition, books purchased for the Kindle come at a fixed price, most at $9.99 for any current title, emulating the affordable unit pricing of content delivery scheme so well exploited by Apple via iTunes.

Alas, the Kindle also seems to emulate some of the less appealing aspects of the iTunes digital rights management (DRM) regime in that content acquired for the Kindle is more or less orphaned in the playback device rather than being portable across all the potential reading / playback environments at a user’s disposal. But, as with the iPod, that may be a price many are willing to pay for convenience, portability and simplicity of use.

In the end, I have to call the Kindle a qualified success in its current form but also clearly a bellwether of things to come as digital technology reshapes the nature of the book.

Joe Lucia's photograph by John Welsh; Kindle image by Amazon.com