Thursday, June 26, 2008

My Book? Kindle? Will It Be Easy to Read?

Talking about Kindle by Barbara Weitbrecht

I ordered a Kindle last November, and it arrived in January. (Since then, they have eliminated the manufacturing backlog, and you can get it pretty much instantly. The price has come down, too.) I use mine for reading on commutes and trips, as well as at home, and usually have two or three books going at once. At the moment I'm reading Stephen King's On Writing, John Jacob Astor IV's A Journey in Other Worlds (first published in 1894) and Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad. The latter two texts are, of course, public domain; one is an e-text (probably Gutenburg's), which has been minimally re-formatted for the Kindle. The Twain is a professional-looking transcription, but to find it I had to preview several editions of the same work, which varied widely in quality.

That statement points out what I find to be the greatest hazard of the Kindle: lack of quality control for the texts. As you implied, most of the offerings seem to be current best-sellers. These are probably safe, since the original publisher will have done the formatting for the Kindle edition. The extensive public-domain texts are more iffy, but since you know what they are you can exercise due caution and review the free samples before committing to a purchase.

An unfortunate gray area is the texts that are not yet out of copyright, but are not current. I'll tell you up front to beware of any text produced by RosettaBooks. I recently downloaded the free sample of their Kindle edition of Updike's Rabbit, Run, and found that the text was so full of typos that it was unreadable. Even the first sentence was flawed: "Boys are basketball," instead of "Boys are playing basketball." I am so glad I didn't spend money on the thing!

Unfortunately, Amazon does not let you submit a review for a particular edition of a book; any negative review I would have posted for that particular Kindle edtion would have been mixed in with reviews for all editions of Rabbit, Run. I find this mixing of reviews deplorable, since it makes it impractical to comment on the quality of a particular transcription rather than the work itself. I have commented on this to Kindle tech support, and they thanked me for my trouble. But, as yet, nothing has changed.

My other issue with the Kindle is that the text coding system they use does not support poetry. None of the poetry books I have sampled has managed to overcome this satisfactorily; poetry within a prose work is similarly mangled. Either the lines all wrap together, or they are all aligned to the same level (usually flush left,) with any line that wraps continuing at the same position. This essentially makes poetry unreadable. I find this a major defect in the encoding standard, and hope that Amazon addresses it in a future upgrade.

On the plus side, I love being able to buy books without wondering what part of my floor they will be piled up on, or if it is too heavy to take on the Metro. And I love the free samples. I have been reading a lot more since I bought the Kindle, and I have been buying books I would not normally have read. I have seen a few others on public transit in the DC area; quite a few people have asked me about mine.

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