It's Almost Like I'm Living in the Future

I grew up a science fiction fan. I will also gladly confess that one of the reasons I enjoy science fiction is all that shiny future technology, which has always made the present a slight disappointment. No, I'm not one of those people lusting after a flying car or the ability to take a vacation on Mars ((Well, okay, I do kinda lust after the Mars vacation.)). No, my wants are less grand. But just recently one of long dreamed for pieces of shiny future tech has actually been delivered into my hands — I got an Amazon Kindle for Christmas. And I almost feel like I'm living in the future.

Almost.

The idea of a device that puts an entire library's worth of reading material into something the size of the average trade paperback is not a new one to science fiction fans. The first time I really thought about (and started lusting after) such a thing was upon reading a brief scene in the Isaac Asimov novel The Caves of Steel ((Great book - probably my favorite of Asimov's novels.)). Asimov envisioned a gadget that could probably best be described as a portable microfilm reader. A clunky idea by modern standards, but remember, that book was originally published in the 1950s, back in the days when computers took up large rooms, and the idea that everyone might might have a computer of their own (much less several) was too out there even for science fiction writers.

But by the time I got around to reading The Caves of Steel in the late 80s or early 90s, I could begin to see how someday, maybe some sort of computer technology would come along that would make that possible. And after about 20 years of failed attempts and false starts, Amazon has come closer than anybody else at giving me my portable library.

I've had my Kindle for a couple of months now, and I'm floored by how much better a reading experience it is over paper. Yes, that's right. Better. Not, nearly as good, or as good. Better.

It's not a perfect replacement for paper yet. Paper still has a vast advantage in the ability to reproduce graphics and photographs, but text on the Kindle looks just as good to me as text on paper. The Kindle's font selection could be better, but then again, so could the fonts in a lot of paper books. At least with the Kindle I can change the size to whatever's easiest to read. And the Kindle can do things that no paper book can.

There are, of course, the obvious advantages. My Kindle currently contains 32 books, and its modest internal memory is only about 15% full. Having my Kindle with me means I will never be caught without something to read ((Oh, come on, I can't be the only book lover who has an irrational fear of being without reading material.)). Having my Kindle with me also means that I don't have drag tens of pounds of paper with me when I travel just to make sure I've got lots to read if I wind up confined to my hotel room due to terrible weather or illness. My Kindle automatically keeps my place in whatever I'm reading - no more fumbling with bookmarks or trying to remember where I left off. Unlike a lot of paper-based books I find myself trying to read over lunch, I can lay my Kindle flat on a table and it stays "open" without any additional intervention from me. I can add my own documents to the Kindle (provided they're in a format that translates nicely), so it's a viable place to stash my personal reference material. And then there are the less obvious, and more powerful, advantages.

I can look up a word I don't know as I'm reading in the built-in dictionary without putting my Kindle down. This is a huge advance from my perspective. I actually look words I don't know up in the dictionary now as I'm reading. I never bothered before - it was too much work. And while I have no doubt that there are plenty of virtuous readers who already read with a dictionary at their elbow so they can look stuff up as they read, I'm willing to bet I'm not the only one who doesn't. Well, at least I didn't until the dictionary came built into the book.

It's also incredibly easy to grab quotes from whatever I'm reading for transfer elsewhere - no scribbling onto notepaper, no retyping at the computer - I just highlight what I want on the screen and the quote is automagically added to a text file I can transfer to my computer and do with as I please. This is the kind of feature that should make any researcher, or even casual collector of quotes, drool. I wished for this feature to be part of every single book, print journal, and PDF article I ever had to pull a quote from when I was in graduate school. And since it's a plain vanilla text file (and not some weird proprietary format), it means anybody with a little programming knowledge can write a little code and have their computer do some of the heavy lifting involved in sorting those quotes wherever they need to go.

The built-in keyboard lets me add my own annotations to what I'm reading, and those notes are added to the same text file as the quotes are, so they're just as accessible on my computer. This is a first for me - I was brought up to believe that writing in books was… well… wrong. Not as wrong, say, as spray painting a smily face onto the Mona Lisa, but still… wrong. The electronic annotations, however, can be easily deleted, which makes me feel oddly better about marking up my electronic books. But even if I hadn't been brought up to see writing in a book as some sort of sacrilege, I still wouldn't have done it very much. I grew up with a keyboard under my fingers, rather than a pen or a pencil in my hand, and it shows. I don't like to write things out longhand. I particularly don't like writing things out longhand when I can't lay whatever I'm writing on flat on a table or when whatever I'm writing on is not, itself, flat. So it's always just seemed like too much trouble to bother writing notes in books. But give me a keyboard, and now I've got something I can work with.

As far as I can tell, the Kindle gives me what is almost the perfect reading experience.

Almost.

The biggest problem with the Kindle lies in the available selection of reading material. Amazon itself already has a large collection of books - including a lot of stuff I've been meaning to read. And Amazon isn't the only place offering books in a Kindle friendly format, either. Lots and lots of public domain books are available legally and for free in Kindle format from sites like Feedbooks.com. And as a science fiction and fantasy fan, webscription.net has become my new favorite specialty bookstore. But although the selection of books is good, they don't have everything. They don't even have everything I want. I can't, for instance, buy The Caves of Steel and read it on my Kindle. And I would buy it again - gladly - if it were available. So the reading experience on the Kindle isn't going to be as good as paper in this respect until I can get everything in Kindle format that I can now get in paper format. The selection just isn't there yet. I'm optimistic that it will get there, but it's not there yet.

And speaking of lack of content, the area where I think the Kindle could really shine as a replacement for paper is in the realm of magazines and newspapers. I gave up on every single magazine and newspaper subscription I used to take years ago, simply because I was sick of having to manage all that paper. And the web versions of magazines and newspapers have never quite worked for me - mostly because the places where I was most likely to do that kind of reading were not places where I wanted to be dragging a computer with me (not even a laptop). But the selection of magazines and newspapers is much more limited than the selection of books. Amazon would make me very, very happy if it offered Scientific American or Discover. And even though I prefer radio for news (give me my NPR and BBC World Service, please), I just might subscribe to one of the local Tucson papers if they were made available at a reasonable price.

I also worry that the stuff I buy from Amazon will be so locked down by copy protection measures that I won't be able to read what I buy now on my 9th generation Kindle 10 years from now (or whatever hardware supplants the Kindle when Amazon decides they don't want to be an eBook hardware manufacturer anymore). As someone who re-reads books a lot, I'm a little unnerved by the idea that years from now, that Kindle book I bought from Amazon last week could suddenly become unreadable. At least the stuff I've gotten from FeedBooks and webscription.net is copy protection free - all I have to worry about with that stuff is making sure I keep converting the books I want to keep into whatever the current format of choice is. The Amazon stuff, though….

Finally, I wish the hardware wasn't so clunky - this still feels very much like a prototype piece of hardware. The page turning buttons are too easy to accidently click - especially when picking the Kindle up and putting it down - and the keyboard buttons are a little too hard to press. Even worse, the Kindle feels somehow fragile, especially in comparison to my other favorite piece of portable tech - my iPhone - which feels solid and rugged. I'm not genuinely worried about breaking it due to mis-handling - a lot of the feeling of fragility comes from having to pick it up carefully to ensure I don't accidentally turn a page by mistake - but it still doesn't feel as sturdy as a piece of tech like this should. Most of my hardware gripes seem to have been corrected in Kindle 2.0, but I won't really know for sure until I can see and touch and play with a Kindle 2.0. And since I just got this one, I don't see the new version appearing in my future any time soon.

But my Kindle is, without question, the most sci fi gadget I've ever owned. This is the kind of future tech I dreamed of when I was a kid, and I love it.