by Hugh Gilmore

Steinbeck on the Kindle

I wanted to test drive a Kindle, an electronic book reader, to see if it would boost my reading habits in any way. A friend loaned me one on a Friday night and I brought it home.

It curiously excited me, a new toy I couldn’t wait to play with, but I was near the end of a hardback “print book” I’d previously started and felt I should finish that first. I hurried through the final chapters that night. I was acutely aware the whole time of the Kindle lying on the table beside me, fairly glowing, the way great jewels do in the movies – you know, the close-up shot in the museum, with soft spotlights illuminating the emerald, just before the glass case is smashed and the great heist begins.

On Saturday night I took up the Kindle. I had already decided to be a crank and test the Kindle with what I prejudicially hoped would make the Kindle fail: I would download a richly complex novel, one of the best ever written, “Madame Bovary.”

I pushed three buttons to get to the “Kindle Store,” then scrolled down to the “Search” space, typed in the title, pushed the command button and waited. Five different versions appeared as choices. I selected one for 99 cents and pushed the “Buy” button. (An Amazon account had already been set up by the gent who loaned me his Kindle.) Within 90 seconds, “Madame Bovary” was available for reading.

No matter who you are or how much resistance you feel, the download speed is impressive. You’re waiting your turn in the dentist’s office, riding the commuter train, or stuck up in a tree while the flood waters rage below, and bingo! you can push a button and have Tom Clancy, Nora Ephron or Mark Twain keep you company. Or, in the case of Bill Hord of Ambler, who loves sailing, he dials up a book on his iPad while he sails in the Caribbean. Just pulls up leeward, drops anchor, and reads.

One of the most frequently asked questions: Do you need a computer to use a Kindle? The answer is: No. It is completely wireless. The only time you plug something in is when you want to recharge the battery. Each charge is good for about 18 hours.

The Kindle is not a book, and no one is saying it is. It is a piece of plastic. If you don’t like the feel of the plastic, you can buy a cover that hooks up to the device and both protects it and makes it feel more pleasantly tactile.

The device is light, easily held in one hand, and easy on the eye. There is no harsh glare. The font size is adjustable. The words are displayed in letters composed of “electronic ink.” You need ambient light. You cannot use it in the dark, though I believe some other devices now allow you to do so.

I knew when I began reading “Madame Bovary” on the Kindle that I’d come up against some distracting and annoying differences between a Kindle and a book. I was determined however,  to keep reading until I overcame them enough that the physical operation of the device could be done automatically. Like riding a bicycle.

To read, one advances each “page” by pushing the “Next Page” button. At first, my eyes swept over the last few words of a screen and “Next Paged” too soon, or not soon enough, and for a microsecond the magical rhythm of reading a book hiccupped. As soon as I got into my own rhythm (and stopped reaching to the top right-hand corner of the Kindle, as though to turn a page) it stopped being a problem.

The appearance of the “page” of the Kindle varies with the size of the font and the design of the book you are reading. “Madame Bovary” was laid out at an average of seven words a line/14 lines to the page. That’s two glances a line for me, a strange new rhythm, and a total of about 100 wordsa page. It took 20 seconds or so to read a page, about three pages aminute.

I didn’t like reading a book that had no page numbers, though that’s probably just an older person’s custom and complaint. It’s disconcerting, though. I remember reading a biography of Babe Ruth (by Leigh Montville) and suddenly feeling sad because I knew, but The Babe didn’t, that he only had about a half-inch to live.

You won’t get that with the Kindle. Its weight doesn’t change; its balance doesn’t shift as you advance. A small number at the bottom of the screen tells you what percentage of the book you’ve read. Two days into “Madame Bovary,” a friend asked me how far into it I’d gotten. I said, “I’m about thirty-eight percent of the way.” He said, “That’s an odd way to put it.”

I know. I got curious and found out that a one-percentage-point change for “Madame Bovary” required 12 clicks. My next Kindle read, “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,” by Jon Meacham (2010), required 20 clicks to move the percentage indicator. If you’re keeping track while you read, it’s tedious and seems to take forever.

You also, at least with the Kindle 2 version I used, can’t suddenly switch back to an earlier section of the book, say, the map on page 22 or the description of the waterfall on page 112, that kind of thing. You can go back, but it takes a few clicks and feels constraining.

By the third night of Kindling I was so comfortable with this mode of reading that the entire controversy seemed trivial and pointless to me. Nothing will ever replace the comfort, joy, and tactile appeal, ever the smell, of printed books. But they’re not the only way to read, nor necessarily the most comfortable or efficient. I went on to read two more long books – the Andrew Jackson biography previously mentioned and “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” by Daniel Okrent (2010), another American history book.

For three weeks, then, I read only on a Kindle and read what would be well over a thousand printed pages. I enjoyed it. In fact, I started dreading having to give it back to its owner. I got very caught up in the process of reading that way. Like eating potato chips, as they say, as soon as I finished one title I wanted to browse, download, and start reading another.

But by then it was time to perform Part Two of the experiment: pick up a hardback book and see how that felt after my trip to La-La Land. I chose the large, heavy, long novel about the Vietnam War, “Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War,” by Karl Marlantes (2010), (Urged on me with high praise by steadfast correspondent Joe Ferry of Oreland).

And, my goodness, I never appreciated so much before how much a book’s physical dimensions affect my reading experience — its thickness, its weight, the cover design, and, surprisingly, the sound of a book. They’re really quite noisy, in a delightful way, and soothing. I just loved the feeling and whispery sound of my fingers brushing each new page.

Unlike a book, the Kindle’s physical dimensions or textures never change. You read each book through the same small window in the wall. The same plastic ivory-colored frame surrounds each presentation. In a way, reading three long books in a row on the Kindle condensed them into one long unibook.

And the two-page spread of the “Matterhorn” book (two full pages, each 35 lines a page, about 14 words a line or close to, 1000 words to read with each turn of the page) seemed vast and somewhat daunting.

The Kindle experience feels more like watching a movie shot entirely in close-ups. But, for a guy who would read cereal-box ads if he didn’t have a book, the Kindle will do for many situations. The most frequently mentioned Kindle advantage is that it’s like taking dozens of books on vacation with you while taking up only the space of a paperback. You can also subscribe to newspapers and magazines and read them on a Kindle.

Be warned, though, the Kindle does not come with books included, no more than a DVD player comes with movies included. Thousands can be downloaded for free, but most others cost between $10 and $15. A child would need a budget. I still plan on using the Free Library for most of the books I’ll probably read only once. And I, for one, do not consider Kindle books to be cheap. Half off a $35 book is still expensive when I know I can go to our nearby Harvest Books or Walk A Crooked Mile Books and buy them gently used for $2.

Yes, I’m buying one. Probably the cheaper $139 version since I don’t plan on downloading hundreds of books and will never make it my primary reading method. But I see its uses and would ask for one as a gift, or give one as a gift to someone who reads a lot, or whom I wanted to encourage to read more.