Reading Becomes Electric: The Amazon Kindle

By Ragen, Brian Abel | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Reading Becomes Electric: The Amazon Kindle


Ragen, Brian Abel, Papers on Language & Literature


The Amazon Kindle Wireless Reading Device. Amazon.com. $399.

When I bought my first cell phone, it flipped open just like a communicator on the original Star Trek. I admit to feeling a bit like Captain Kirk the first few times I answered a call by flipping the huge, heavy thing open. It was weeks before I realized that there was little practical need for the flip. A simple button would have done fine. All the same, I think the flip design served an important function. The very familiarity of the Star Fleet Communicator made the cell phone seem not so much futuristic as familiar. Not long after we bought the gizmos we had seen Bones and Scotty use, we were ready to move on to other designs. After all, Star Fleet itself had switched to Comm Badges by that time.

We are now at another point where life imitates Star Trek. Especially in the later series, we see how Star Fleet officers read as well as talk. While in the original series we see only glowing screens in fixed positions, later Star Fleet officers read pads, which can display not just reports, but all the literature of many worlds. (For some reason, their recreational reading tends to focus on Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, and Shakespeare, which some doubtless read in the original Klingon.) The pad has the advantages of the book without its drawbacks--the bulk, the limitations on how much text can be made to fit into a single volume, and the problem that annotating a paper book means, in some ways, ruining it.

Amazon has just released a "Wireless Reading Device" that should be familiar to those who have watched Captain Sisko read his pad. The Kindle, as they call it, is most of the things the ideal reading device should be, but its design could be improved in a number of simple ways. Still more importantly, the books available for it have not been prepared for the new platform with sufficient care. In fact, little attention seems to have been devoted to what matters most on paper, on a glowing screen, or on a reading device: the text itself.

The virtues of the Kindle are many. Most importantly, its screen does not show a glowing, flickering image--as even the best computer monitors do to at least some extent. The screen is not lighted at all, and the text on the page remains perfectly stable until a page is turned. It therefore presents the eye with no tasks that a printed book does not. A computer screen demands that the eye look into a light source and ignore the perhaps unnoticeable but real changes inevitable on a screen that constantly refreshes itself. It is hard to pay truly close attention to a glowing screen, as anyone who has proofread a manuscript on both a screen and a hard copy knows.

The Kindle is very light and easy to hold. The reader can move it, adjust its distance from his eyes, and do all the other physical things that reading experts say are part of truly engaged reading. That is a great advantage over bulkier reading devices. The buttons that move a page forward are easy to reach with the thumbs, and moving a page takes only a bit longer than turning one. The "Previous Page" button is well-placed, easy to reach, but farther away since it is used less often. It is easy and pleasant to read on the Kindle even for extended periods. And it is possible to add annotations, bookmarks, and highlights from a well-designed menu with a rolling button. (The physical clicks of the "Next" and "Previous" page buttons and the menu roller are, to my tastes, a great plus. I am reassured that my command has been registered, and that is something I don't feel with a touch screen.)

The battery life is quite long, and the Kindle can be put to sleep to extend that even farther. Otherwise it will put itself to sleep after a time. While asleep it displays a random image from its collection of "book covers." (The resolution for images isn't particularly high, but the Kindle is a reading device.) Its memory can hold many, many, many books--and still more if an SD card is installed. …

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