About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The New Yorker vs. the Kindle

If you live in New York and like to feel a part of the local intelligentsia, you simply have to read the New Yorker. Which I do, regularly, every week. I can't get through the whole thing, so I usually concentrate on the short essays of "The Talk of the Town" (gotta read that!), browse "The Critics" (about the latest in theater, books, movies and sometimes music), and always skip poetry and fiction (sorry, I've got better sources for the latter and I don't care too much for the former). The "Reporting & Essays" section is the real tough nut to crack: the articles there are very long and in-depth, and usually only one of the 4-5 published in each issue really grabs me. This week it was an essay penned by Nicholson Baker, about the Kindle, the Amazon e-book device that readers of this blog know very well I absolutely love. Ok, I was bracing myself for an irritating experience, as surely an essayist for the New Yorker would be too sophisticated not to complain about the Kindle.

I was not disappointed. Baker does give the reader a good description of how the e-ink technology works, and some background on how the idea of it (and therefore of the Kindle, the Sony Reader and several other e-reading devices) came about. But he immediately started complaining about problems that are, frankly, quite obvious even to aficionados such as myself. Oh, there are no color pictures, because the Kindle2 only manages 16 shades of gray (an improvement over the Kindle1, with four shades). Oh, there are "only" 300,000 titles available! And he starts listing a number of must-read books that cannot (currently) be found on the Kindle catalog. Oh, the resolution of the images is not up to print standards (duh!). Oh, there are occasional missing articles from e-versions of the New York Times! (The other thing you simply have to read if you live in New York.) Oh, there are no page numbers, replaced instead by "locations" (really, what's the difference?). And so on and so forth.

Now, let's imagine for a moment that we are back in the 15th century, to be precise just shortly after 1439, when Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg invented movable type printing. I can only imagine the complaints that Baker would have uttered in the local paper (which was, of course, copied by hand from the original dictation). What? Only one title on the catalog? (The Bible.) Oh, and the fonts are sooo boring compared to handwriting. And no colors! And the quality of the drawings, simply unacceptable. This movable type printing thing will never ever replace the amanuenses, it will simply die as yet another "modern invention" and things will keep being just the same as they have been throughout what they at the time didn't yet call the Middle Ages.

All right, let us be serious for a moment. Of course the current iteration of e-ink has limitations (but they are working on sharpening the definition and adding color). Of course the Kindle itself can be improved in a variety of ways, from its ergonomics to its resolution to its background (which is gray rather than white like in a real book). And yes we need more titles, both in the books department and for magazines and newspapers. Most importantly, there is quite a bit to complain about regarding Amazon's policies and business strategies, including the fact that one cannot share books with other people, or resell them, not to mention the recent incident about the recall of the Kindle edition of - of all titles! - Orwell's "1984," which showed Amazon's disturbing ability to simply erase your content remotely.

But it is hard not to think that Mr. Baker is taking his readers for a ride and can't possibly be serious about his evaluation of the Kindle. He actually strongly advises people to read books on an iTouch or iPhone, rather than on the K2. I happen to own an iPhone (of course), and yes I do have the Kindle free app for it, and yes I occasionally read books on the tiny backlit (but high-res and in color!) screen. So I can compare the two experiences, and the K2 beats the iP hands down as a dedicated reading device. As Amazon's Jeff Bezos put it, "We think reading is an important enough activity that it deserves a purpose-built device." Indeed.

A more reasoned position to take is that the current woes of the Kindle and similar tools will be fixed in the usual manner, by a mixture of competition from other companies (the New Yorker article lists seven other e-devices on the market now) and of legislation passed because of increasing pressure from consumer protection organizations. That's the way new technologies are introduced and quickly evolve or go extinct. But the Kindle, and more broadly e-reading, is the best bet for the future of both the book and the newspaper industries. People read more books when they own a Kindle (that's been my experience, as well as the experience of countless other users who commented on both the K1 and K2). And people's interest in newspapers and magazines just might be rekindled, so to speak, if they were available instantaneously and without having to kill trees (I am paying for K2 subscriptions to the New York Times, though it's available for free online, and the Huffington Post blog conglomerate, partly because they both update themselves automatically several times a day and I can read them at home, on the subway or at the restaurant). So, give it some time, Mr. Baker, and get back to us in a few years.

Oh, and of course, the irony of my own experience of reading Baker's article is that I was doing it, needless to say, on the Kindle.


  1. Not to be pedantic, but um, maybe the gray on gray text was to hard to read, because here on my computer it says that Nicholson Baker, not Paul Goldberger, wrote this essay.

  2. wow, you are absolutely right! Says so also on my Kindle edition. Where on earth did I get the wrong name from? Or, more likely, what was I drinking? :)

  3. Massimo, what do you think of the upcoming iPad from Apple?

  4. hamid,

    hmm, I usually love stuff from Apple, so this could be interesting. The initial price is steep, though, and it sounds like there will be a monthly fee.

    On the other hand, it could position itself as a general purpose entertaining device (books, movies, music), and tap into the Amazon store. I guess we'll see...

  5. At least you got something to complain about. No company sells ebook readers in Australia. You can buy the Sony PRS off ebay for a price and upload pdfs. I guess we're too small a market or something to have those gizmo's sold here. Still I'd love a cheap ebook reader.

  6. Yeah, no kidding. After my comment I googled it, holy crap it's gonna be an expensive proposition. Apple's got quite a scam going...

  7. As far as expense and availability, patience guys! Just sit tight for a few years, and everybody all over the world will be reading on these things. And the first one you buy will be better than the one Massimo uses now, and cheaper.

    Whats the deal, gotta be one of those people that has to be the first to have every new item?

  8. Sheldon,

    > Whats the deal, gotta be one of those people that has to be the first to have every new item? <

    No, but I'm getting older by the minute, I don't want to wait a few years... :)

  9. Yeah, I'm one of those folks who want tech right away. I think there's a diagnosis for what I have.But you're right, the prices will drop, but Apple is really good at keeping their proprietary relationships with service providers...

  10. Actually Massimo, my comments were directed at the Aussie's that can't really buy them yet.

    I myself would love to have one, but because I can't shell out the cash right now, I console myself knowing that eventually I will have a better Kindle at a smaller price :)

  11. Sheldon, Kindle in its various guises has been about for a few years, same with some competitor gear. I missed the boat being a first user a while ago, don't ya think? There are plenty of Aussies who have imported ebook readers at a high cost in any case.

  12. I was about to buy a kindle, cause I just came from the state and I could not make up my mind whether to buy it or not. Eve dough I do read a lot specially papers and essays. But when I was reading from it I noticed that I could not see the letters so well, and I also had doubts about for example doing stuff such as searching text, how does that work?
    Any advice for me guys.

  13. This reminds me of a video I saw on Youtube the other day about a medieval helpdesk for book readers (subtitled):


  14. Mariana,

    if you can't read the letters then you have a defective model, and Amazon will replace it at no cost.

    As for text searches, that actually works very nicely. The menu allows you to search through a particular book or even through your entire library. And you can add notes and highlights to any text.

  15. Obviously, whoever owns a Kindle now (whether 1 or 2) is an early adopter and we have accepted the fact that there will be limitations to the technology and that it will only get better with time...assuming there are enough of us, the early adopters, to keep it going that is.

    Amazon is extremely quick in replacing a defective model. I had a problem with my first K2 and they shipped me a new one within a couple of days, before I even send them back the defective one. Needless to say I was very pleased. The second one has worked fine so far.

    There is no limitation anyone can mention about the K2 that we, the current owners, did not take into account when we purchased our unit. We knew there were no colors, we knew there was no native PDF support, we knew not every book was available. That's not the point though, as every new technology will have such limitations.

    I console myself by looking at someone trying to read the actual NYTimes standing up in a crowded NY Subway, while I effortlessly read whatever it pleases me on my K2. I kinda enjoy the envious looks and the occasional comments/questions as well.

    The K2 IS overpriced for what it does, but that is to be expected. I think print is a dying breed and the electronic version is the way of the future, just as with anything else. Resistance is futile!

  16. I am looking forward to the Crunch Pad that is due out at the end of the year. I think it will be a great device for web surfing and reading ebooks and magazines.


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