Monday, September 6, 2010

A Bibliophile's Review of the Kindle DX

I have had my wonderful Kindle DX for a year now. It was a wonderful and incredibly useful gift from a close family friend. I think that is ample time to explore the benefits of the Kindle and also to demonstrate that owning an eReader is not going over to the dark side.
My Kindle DX
As I have mentioned before, I have a visual processing disorder, so reading off of anything (and especially a computer screen) for any length of time is difficult. Unfortunately, like at any university, many of my classes required supplementary readings that were held by online reserves, and had to be read either on a computer screen or by printing them out. Although I read many of them on paper, printing at school, as well as my own printing (with the cost of ink/toner) was expensive. Both of the two doctors who I consulted recommended the Kindle DX to me, because of the e-ink screen and because font size and word spacing are easily changeable, as well as the reading aloud function.

I was very skeptical, at first, of the idea of an electronic reader. I am a serious bibliophile (as presumably anyone can guess from the bookshelf at the top of my blog and my reading list). I love the feel of books in my hands, the tactile sensation of turning the pages and hearing the distinctive sounds of the paper. I love new books, so shiny and perfect one hardly wants to open them. I ordered a copy of Immanuel Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals that releases the distinctive smell of jasmine soap upon opening. I also love used books, a little worn or with an inscription by the previous owner. For one birthday, my parents bought me a copy of Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow from the mid 1890s, with a beautiful sky-blue leather cover and accents of gold leaf, a little worn on the spine with use.

However, when I received my Kindle DX, I was almost immediately won over. The device itself is sleek and lightweight (and the new graphite ones are actually even sleeker). I can carry 3,500 books and documents. While I was at school, I no longer had to print, I could do my electronic reserve reading right on my Kindle [1]. Furthermore, I could download any PDF from Jstor or any of the wonderful electronic journal archives for research or pleasure reading and read them or save them for a later date. There are also a ton of free books on Amazon and Project Gutenberg (mobi documents) for the kindle, which can be annotated the same way that a traditional kindle document can.

I also found that writing my thesis, the Kindle was a real lifesaver. One of the primary texts that I used was Plato's Laws. I read the Laws in English, and then read selected sections I needed in the Greek. Much of the time I needed to refer to specific passages that all used the same word or phrase and sometimes either calculate the frequency of those phrases or discuss their placement in the text. Although I used the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae for much of the searching, I also used the kindle search function in the English version in order to expedite certain processes as well as to contain vast annotations on particular passages.

I do have a number of criticisms of the kindle, some of which Amazon has addressed and fixed.
Concerns that Amazon has recently fixed:
  1. No Organization-- The newest software update that I downloaded allows for collections of books, which means that I can organize the books in any way I choose. This is a huge help given how many ebooks I have.
  2. No Zoom-- The newest software update also includes a zoom for PDF documents, which is very helpful.
Concerns Amazon still need to fix:
  1. No way to refer to page numbers from the print edition. I was lucky with Plato, because Plato scholars refer to Stephanus pagination, rather than page numbers from any particular edition. However, this can be a serious issue when writing academic papers. It usually means that one has to check a print edition of the library as well and then cross-reference, which is really lame. It also provides a difficulty in citing pages for class discussion, which is part of why the kindle experimentation program at universities was not a raging success (my school included).
  2. No way to borrow books. This is truly unfortunate. I lend print copies of my books to my friends all the time, and my mother and I frequently both read a book. I don't want to have to lend someone my kindle, because that is lending a portion of my library and it keeps all of my notes. 
  3. The TERRIBLE pronunciation of times and sometimes problematic inflection of the reader. I know, it's difficult to get a computer to pronounce things properly. When I was taking a Thucydides course where we were focusing intently on Book I (in Greek), I would listen to the rest of the book (in English) while I was cooking or cleaning to provide context. I often had to go over and check the text because I could not understand the names and place names to which she was referring (I usually listened to the female voice).
  4. Problematic edition differences. According to an Amazon representative that I talked to once, publishing companies put out their own version of the kindle books rather than Amazon doing it themselves. I understand this principle. However, I cannot understand the lack of standards between different publishers. One of my favorite features of the kindle is linked footnotes, and a lot of books just have endnotes in the back instead of the linked footnotes. It seems like it would be easy to have across-the-board standards for the different companies.

    Overall, the kindle is awesome. I now only have to lug one book and a kindle on a trip, instead of taking 3-4 books with me. I love my kindle so much that I bought a second one off a friend (who got it as a gift and was not a fan) and gave it to my mom, who also loves it.

    If anyone is interested, the case I have is also awesome.

    Update 02/14/11: There are new updates for the kindle. The first two problems (page numbers from the print editions and borrowing books) have now been fixed, although the former has only been solved on certain kindle books and only for the newest editions of the Kindle 6". I discuss this in a recent blogpost. The borrowing books feature is also questionable. The book leaves your kindle and moves to the other person's kindle for either 2 or 3 weeks, and then it returns. Each book can only be lent once. As a person who lends out a lot of books and who is loaned a lot of books, this system seems pretty ridiculous. However, it's better than nothing.

    1. For anyone interested, any documents that have been scanned with facing pages can be split into two separate documents with your pdf reader/editor program and then merged by alternate pages with PDFsam. This takes a few minutes, but if you do it once a week or so with all of the electronic reserve documents, it really helps. I got this tip from a friend.

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