Friday, June 12, 2009

Something Old on Something(s) New

I always appreciate when someone uses a simple idea to make a point. Dean Ann Kirschner of City University of New York does just that over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. The premise of her short article, well worth a read, is that she read Charles Dickens' novel Little Dorrit (rather her...) in traditional book form, on a Kindle, and on her iPhone, and listened to an audio version, so she could compare each format. Simple, but effective.

The beauty of this kind of article is that Kirschner is being openly subjective - she loves audio, for example, unlike many of us. (My mother summed it up best in referring to how much she enjoyed her time in the car on the way to work, listening to books: "I guess I just like being read to." I appreciate her translating a book format into some kind of luxury, like a spa day.) And as it turns out, Kirschner really can't stand her Kindle, which leads her on a bit of a tangent:

I've been dreading this, but let me get my prediction out now: The iPhone is a Kindle killer.

I abandoned the Kindle edition of Little Dorrit almost as soon as I read one chapter on my iPhone. Kindle, shmindle. It does almost nothing that an iPhone can't do better — and most important, the iPhone is always with me. Woody Allen had it right: Seventy percent of success in life is showing up. Yes, the Kindle's reasonable imitation of a book is an advantage, but not enough to outweigh the necessity to carry an extra object and its power plugs. The Kindle screen is a permanent dishwater gray, not exactly "just like paper," as promised by the ubiquitous Amazon ads. With free software like eReader or Stanza, iPhone readers have the same capability for customization (font size, footnotes, highlighting, bookmarking) and a more-elegant interface. The new Kindle2 has an intriguing capability to turn any book into an audiobook, but even if that survives the legal challenges from publishers, the computer-generated voice is more R2-D2 than Jim Dale. Worst of all is Kindle's clumsy way of turning pages, only slightly improved on Kindle2. The momentary blackout is a constant annoyance, especially compared with the delicate swipe or tap that changes pages instantaneously on the iPhone (and which even has an option for cruise control, where the pages scroll automatically, though too slowly for speed readers).

The only time I relied on my Kindle was on vacation last year. All the grown-ups on beach chairs seemed to have one, as if we all had obeyed some secret command to buy Kindles and wear sunscreen. In fact, readers 50 or older are the largest group of Kindle buyers. Therein lies the clue to Kindle's short life. Middle-aged readers think that the dimension of the screen is critical. It's not: The members of the generation that grew up playing Game Boys and telling time on their cellphones will have absolutely no problem reading from a small screen. Let us pray that they will. Right now, they aren't buying Kindles — and they aren't reading books.

Nor will the newly announced large-format Kindle DX halt the death spiral of newspapers and textbooks. The days of prearranged and rigid formats are over. Sadly, so is the editorial intervention that authenticated and improved content. The future of all publishing is an open question.

This confirms various suspicions here at SotB, most especially those aired by Christopher. I'm fine with leaving the Kindle behind, or more accurately never going down that path, and my curiosity is piqued about the iPhone. But everytime I think it may be promising, I remember my dentist showing me his iSomething (don't remember - not the iPhone but some similar "i" device), on which he was reading Peter Canellos' book on Ted Kennedy, The Last Lion. It displayed all of 30 words on the "page," which meant that this book, 480 pages in hardcover format, was something like 1200 pages! Oy vey. It made me wonder if this kind of format could make even relatively short books seem daunting. But the display was coupled with my dentist's strong endorsement: "I'm reading now!"

Kirschner's point about the Kindle is of particular interest today with this big news, that Simon & Schuster will begin selling their ebooks through Scribd. "[A]s a Wall Street Journal report details, the S&S ebooks sold on Scribd will be available as Adobe Acrobat files that can be read but not printed out on computers and iPhones and Sony Readers — 'but not on Amazon’s Kindle.'” Take that, Goliath!

(I purposely chose to link to Melville House's excellent and up-to-date blog, MobyLives, rather than a more "objective" news source, such as GalleyCat, because I appreciate the commentary that goes with the news. -ed)

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