Mark Cantrell, Author

For an eclectic mix of science fiction, fantasy and a touch of horror...


BLOG: Kindle Surprise

Posted by Mark Cantrell on July 11, 2012 at 3:50 PM

Can't quite judge this book

by its cover

It's been a long time in the brewing this review, but with such an apparent paradigm shift as the e-reader, Mark Cantrell reckoned his Kindle needed a good long time to bed itself into his reading habits - so what's his verdict?


THIS is no epiphany; I'm no fervent convert to the techno-theocracy - and I certainly feel no urge to shout: "Burn the books!" - but I do feel curiously well disposed towards my Kindle.


The device has been in my possession long enough now for 'new toy syndrome' to be well and truly purged from my system. I can sit back and take a more detached view of the electronic reading experience.


That's important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the rise of electronic reading devices represents the emergence of at least a partial new paradigm and therefore needs a sober consideration. Second, I suspect that not all the advocates of the digital ebook revolution actually give a shit about books at all, so whether digital or print, they need all the advocates they can get.


The tribalism of the species will no doubt continue to rage, with the digital tribe never satisfied until it has driven the paper book into extinction, and no doubt driven the novel itself - and therefore the e-reader with it, ironically enough - into obsolescence too (but that's another story); me, I'm quite happy to play dissident within both camps because contrary to what my favouritism for paper might say, I'm no Luddite. I simply refuse to become a footsoldier sent to the slaughter by corporate generals battling it out to secure control of humanity's cultural landscape.


For all their alleged obsolescence, however, it is paper books that continue to set the standard by which these devices must be judged, so how do I rate my Kindle? Well, after the above diatribe, not too badly, but only because it presents a handy simulacrum of the paper reading experience. The e-ink display is suitably kind to the old eyes and in fairness to the screen I've experienced more eye-watering glare and reflection on a glossy print mag, so all in all the physical aspects of the visuals are a tidy substitute for paper.


In terms of handling, well I use mine with a case that flips open rather like the cover of a book, but even without that, it handles more or less like a paper book. This, I find, allows for a far more natural reading experience; posture matters, as anyone who has spent long periods reading on a desktop or laptop PC can no doubt attest. The Kindle allows me to sit back and relax into the reading experience, indeed at times I've found myself unconsciously attempting to turn a physical leaf, rather than thumbing the button to move the display to the next digital 'page'.


If there's one glitch to this, it's the refresh rate of the screen. Not quite instantaneous, there's a fractional delay in the screen clearing and 'printing' the subsequent text. The delay isn't quite enough to hinder the reading experience, jarring one from the 'zone', as it were, but it is noticeable all the same.


The interface is, perhaps, best described as clunky, for those used to point and click mouse operations, or the touchscreen functionality of smartphones, or indeed to flicking through the pages of a paperback (a handy kind of random access), but one might suggest that is a good thing. The primary purpose of a Kindle - or indeed any dedicated digital e-reader - is the text and the reading experience.


A snazzy whiz-bang user interface is rather an indulgence and a potential distraction on such a specialised device, although for all that it could do with 'tightening up' and made a little less clunky. As it is, the push button menu navigation and pointer motion harks back to an earlier age of desktop computing devices, or so it seems to me.


For all that, it's easy enough to use. The fact is a device such as a Kindle, or any other such digital reading device, needs to settle into the background. That's a difficult ask of technologists and their designers; the urge to bombard users with all the latest sense-dazzling distractions and push the device itself to the fore is, alas, a strong one.


In some respects that's the nature of the beast, and I don't mean the devices on this occasion, not even the people who devise them, but the industry and the commercial drivers that push it forever forwards to ever-more dazzling heights of techno-wow. When it comes to catching our eyes and hooking our wallets, there's little 'sell' in the grey functionality of a device, even if that is the primary reason for its use, so one can only commend the Kindle's designer for keeping the elegant design of the device in the background.


Those techno-go-faster 'stripes' look set to overtake the simple functionality of the Kindle, however, if the latest developments of the tech are anything to go by. The device I am writing about is around two and half years old now; the new Kindle Fire with its colour display and touchscreen functionality suggest the urge to put the device into the foreground of the user's attention has proved difficult to resist. That said, I have not used the Kindle Fire, so the enhancements of the device may have been devised in such a way that they prove little if any distraction. Time will tell on that one if I ever upgrade.


Even if the Kindle Fire retains the 'low key' approach of its predecessor, however, it is likely that the rise of the dedicated e-reader will only be a stepping stone back towards the fold of multi-purpose devices designed to dazzle the user with their myriad flashy functionalities. If so, that would be a shame, because the discrete elegance of the Kindle I use does show that ebook technology can have a great future.


At the end of the day, of course, a Kindle, like any other dedicated e-reader, smartphone, or tablet computer, is a consumer device. It is a product in its own right and is built to rival competing devices, marketed to capture a share of the market against its rivals, and siphon our disposable income into the pockets of the firms that sell them. Such devices therefore inherently face an 'arms war' of functionality; those snazzy techno 'go faster' striped are the colourful plumage that draw our eyes and hook our wallets.


Inevitably, this diminishes the prospects for any e-reader to maintain its integrity as a device designed to offer a distraction-free and comfortable reading experience; market competition demands they clamour for our attention to the detriment of the book. Quite how this techno-Darwian struggle will play out is open to question. It may be that the simple undemanding device manages to cling to its niche, permitting the reading experience to remain to the fore, but it must be said the odds are stacked against such an evolutionary convergence of digital tech and the timeless human narrative.   


Tangible books, on the other hand, don't suffer from this problem. The book is the commodity, the artefact; medium and content, paper and print, words and delivery, all bound into one: the evolutionary convergence between print and the timeless human narrative long ago completed to provide a 'device' that delivers the reading experience without the medium ever daring to overshadow the message.


From my experience of using the Kindle these past two years and more, the technology has shown it can emulate these essential elements of reading a paperback. The device also hints at how it might someday enhance the paperback's functionality too, but it is early days as yet: there is a long way to go. At the moment, they are but the stone tablets of the digital age.


Beyond the virtual pages of my Kindle, indeed even to some extent presaged by its experimental features within my model, developments with the technology demonstrate there is an inbuilt obsolescent; they are serially obsolete in a way that a paperback product can never be. Frankly, this obsolescence hinders their ability to ultimately supplant paper, but by the same measure do they endanger what they are built to represent - the enhanced continuation of literature.


Simply put, the printed book is a servant, it delivers the narrative text in a simple and unobtrusive manner; the nature of digital technology - or at least the nature of their corporate makers - is that the devices must be master of the reading experience. The technology of the digital reader demands its presence is known: "Look at me!" they cry, as we try to focus on the book.


Digital books can certainly have a future, if my Kindle is anything to go by, but first the technology must overcome its precocious bombast and settle down to let us read in peace.


Ironically, it might be the less-evolved early models that allow us to do just that; their noisier, more advanced offspring might only drive us to a bookless distraction. Sometimes, obsolescence has its uses.



Mark Cantrell,


1 July 2012




Copyright (c) July 2012. All Rights Reserved.


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