Thursday, February 23, 2012

I like my Kindle

Elizabeth Zelvin

As a writer, I have ambivalent feelings about Kindle, its parent, Amazon, and e-readers in general. As a reader, I like paying a lower price for books and not having to carry bulky tomes around in order always to have something to read at hand. When I finally got a Kindle as a gift, I hoped that I would fall in love with it.

I’d heard a lot of users say they loved their Kindle, whether or not they expected to before they got it. In our era of constantly changing technology, there are some devices that manage not to become objects of widespread if not universal love-hate at best. I love Sadie, my GPS, who’s navigated me through strange cities all over the country to bookstores and libraries on obscure streets and back roads. I love my EZ-Pass, which has saved me endless road hours and upper arm stress that I once would have spent rolling windows up and down and scrambling for change at toll booths on highways and bridges. I love my iPhone, which gives me long distance calls for free, connects me with help when I’m lost or late or stranded, and allows me to show the latest videos of my granddaughters dancing to my friends and anyone else I can grab hold of when the kvelling fit takes me.

So far, to my disappointment, my Kindle has not joined this select company. I like it, but I don’t love it. For one thing, in spite of having heard over and over before I got it how hard it is to format books for e-readers, I’m shocked at the unprofessional quality of the text.

To do the big publishers justice, the traditionally published new novels I’ve seen so far are as free of errors as the general run of print books. But, like many new Kindle users, I’ve been stocking my e-library with classics that are in the public domain and therefore offered either free or at a nominal cost. I’ve been reading my way through the works of Louisa May Alcott (23 books for $1.00) and of L.M. Montgomery (14 novels and numerous stories for $0.99), and the errors in both are downright weird. I don’t know if humans or electronics are responsible for repeated instances of “blas” for “blasé” and “piq” (was was it “picq”?) for “pique,” but they jolted me out of my reader’s trance over and over.

In Agatha Christie’s early books, the drawings and diagrams that are an essential part of the puzzle are missing. Chapter III of The Mysterious Affair at Styles begins: “To make this part of my story clear, I append the following plan of the first floor of Styles. The servants’ rooms are reached through the door B. They have no communication with the right wing, where the Inglethorps[ rooms were situated.” No plan. No indication, eg “[PLAN]”. No footnote. Frustration for the reader.

I’ve managed to learn to use just about all of the features of my iPhone, thanks to tips from other users and the helpful folks at the Verizon and Apple stores as well as trial and error. Not so the Kindle. I have the Kindle Touch, and I can turn the page forward or back with a simple tap on the right or left. But periodically, an inadvertent hand movement sends it skipping whole chapters forward or back through the text. So far, the only way I’ve found to correct this is to go back to the beginning of the book and “leaf” through it (tap-tap-tap-tap-tap....) until I find my lost place.

Electronics manufacturers delight in making their products increasingly “interactive.” Is this really a benefit? Maybe so, to the younger generation who tell all their Friends on Facebook every time they brush their teeth. But not to me. Every time my pinkie accidentally brushes the screen as I read, the ever-helpful folks at Amazon give me a thorough definition of the word, I’ve hit, most frequently “the” or “was.” What makes them think I need it?

At the end of each book, a screen invites the reader “Before you go...” to “Rate this book (on a five-star scale) and “Share you’ve finished.” I live in dread of accidentally tapping the “Share” button. I’m afraid that doing so will broadcast my reading choices to the millions of readers on Amazon, and of course no explanation of the feature is offered, so if I’m wrong, I’ll never know. I wanted a read I could take on the subway—not a permanent relationship with Big Brother.


Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, if you had an iPad, I'm willing to bet you'd love it. It's a little portable, instant-on computer. It displays photos beautifully. You can put the Kindle app on an iPad and access all your Kindle books.

I haven't read much fiction on my iPad yet, but I have a couple of reference books on it in e-form and they look okay to me. However, I downloaded an ARC of a new novel (published by one of the Big 6) from NetGalley recently and was appalled by the wild and crazy formatting. Truly egregious. How can publishers expect reviewers to read that garbage? Bad formatting is fatally distracting to the reader.

Anita Page said...

Liz, we have a couple of things in common. I don't love my Kindle, and one of the first books I downloaded was Little Women.

I use the Kindle at the gym, where it sits nicely on the treadmill's little ledge, and for downloading books I have to read but know I won't want to keep.

Julia Buckley said...

An interesting evaluation, Liz--you bring up some points I hadn't considered, especially about the classics. I have no idea why those spellings would be changed and chunks of the book missing, but it's irresponsible and I feel it should be reported to Kindle. (They do have, in my experience, quite excellent customer service).

I am also rather ambivalent. It's fun to read on the Kindle, but I still probably read more print than electronic books.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I just finished the Tey novel, and it seems to be letters with accent marks that the formatting can't handle, so it just leaves them out. It also made me aware of how many French words Tey used--an example of the Golden Age mystery writers' assumption that their readers were well educated enough to know French. So there's tte tte for tête à tête and cong for congé etc. I hate to think of what Kindle makes of the long letter in French that Lord Peter Wimsey's Uncle Paul writes on the occasion of his marriage to Harriet Vane in Busman's Honeymoon. Sayers didn't even include a translation. Oh, it's a sad day for literature.

Alex Lubertozzi said...


I got an iPad when it first came out and have come to enjoy reading on it almost as much as a real book (the definition, search, and note capabilities are pluses, the lack of the feel of bound paper in your hand a minus). I found the same thing with public domain texts as you did--bizarre errors, awful formatting, etc.--with free and even for-pay ebooks.

I started putting out some classic English works in ebook editions last fall (Great Expectations, Dracula, Robinson Crusoe, A Christmas Carol, and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes) for free on iTunes. It was, in part, a way to attract some notice to our small press, Top Five Books, and it resulted in more than 300,000 downloads so far and some nice attention from readers and even prospective authors.

The major thing I do that the other sellers of public domain titles don't do, is actually proofread the texts(!) Having them properly formatted and including illustrations when available doesn't hurt. And I tried to make the covers a little more attractive than the generic versions, which may or may not matter to most readers.

I plan to release more classics this year, adding women authors and Americans to the mix (diversity is not yet our strong suit). It takes time, but it's worth it just so a reader's experience of reading a great book is not marred by shoddy formatting and typos and other errors introduced into the digital version.

Unfortunately, Amazon and B&N wouldn't let me publish them for free, making the minimum charge $.99 or $1.99, which sort of spoils the whole idea, even though a few people have paid to get them on their Kindles and Nooks.