Reading again on a Kindle

Huddled up mouse, carved from bone... a netsukeIt is easy to understand why Edward de Waals’s book “The Hare with amber eyes” featured in so many best book of the year lists at the end of 2010. It’s a compelling mix of family saga, social history, and art criticism interwoven with a personal journey.

I had just 150 pages to go when I unexpectedly had a stroke in June (see “An unanticipated hiatus”). Bereft at the idea that I wouldn’t be able to finish reading the story because of a residual visual impairment (the only lasting impact fortunately), I gave away my paperback copy.

However, thanks to the ready availability of ebook reading gadgets I finished the book at the weekend. I reached as far as Odessa and glided through de Waal’s final musings. I’m awarding the book five stars out of five.

This did involve buying a second copy of the book. Something I didn’t begrudge paying for twice. Not only because it was such a good story, but it also marked my return to reading.

What I want an ebook reader for

With so many choices of portable device that can be used to read on, it wasn’t easy to know where to start. What was the best one for my unique needs?

It was only after I trialled an iPad that I got clear about what I wanted to be able to do. Simply put I wanted to read books and articles. Read on the bus, in bed and perhaps even in the bath. Not just scan, not just browse, not get distracted surfing, but actually read. I didn’t need a way of inputting text or manipulating photos, as I already have a perfectly good laptop that is designed for these types of tasks.

When my eyes tire of fighting against wavering text, I like to have things read aloud to me. I was on the hunt for a device with a text to speech function.

After some searching I decided that Amazon’s Kindle 3 was the best fit. What clinched my decision to make an order was seeing a positive review of the Kindle 3. A review by Nathan at “The eBook Reader” website and companion YouTube channel had all the hallmarks of credibility. This was important as I couldn’t lay my hands on a Kindle as they weren’t yet lying on shelves in New Zealand shops.

It wasn’t so much the positive review itself, but listening to a recording of the text to speech reading aloud the whole review. The eight-minute sound bite suggested I could learn to live with the electronic voices.

What stuck in my throat as I went to pay for the device was the realisation I was buying a product that would be lining Amazon’s pockets. Not just once either. Virtually everything you use on the Kindle happens within the Amazon corporation’s sandpit. As a proprietary ebook format is used, book ‘owners’ can’t share books they ‘buy’ from the retailer, nor is it easy to import books created using open formats (eg ePub). I also had misgivings about the imbalance in power between writers and their publishers, and the massive retailer.

Aware of these contradictions I hit pay now. Two weeks later a Kindle 3 arrived on my doorstep.

Hands-on the Kindle

Screenshot of Kindle accessibility options, from tiny to extra large fonts, by WiterI’d say the Kindle 3 is lighter than most novels I’ve ever read. It’s easy to hold and wiggle about in a single hand. I do lots of wiggling as I adjust the screen position to get the best light, and the most comfortable position my eyesight. With buttons to turn pages on both sides it’s just as easy to hold the Kindle in my left as my right hand. The thinness and rounded corners make for an understated elegance, if not somewhat modest. Underscoring this reserve is the nondescript grey finish.

The accessibility features are glaringly obvious and easy to use. There are not an abundance of features, but they actually do everything I need. The main features are modifying font size, line spacing and page width. It’s so easy to change and adjust, then start all over again, as it only takes a tap on the AA button.

When I’m reading on a bus, or in other situations where I don’t have a direct source of light shining on the screen, I do find the contrast a little weak. I can of course rectify this by getting a small, clip-on light.

Although not all books have text to speech enabled, many do as does any media I add to the device. Using a keyboard short-cut allows me to have articles or PDFs read aloud on a whim. I can listen through built in speakers or by plugging in headphones. There is a male and female voice, with some options to customise speech.

I didn’t need to use a manual to begin using the accessibility features. It’s simply a matter of getting started. I realise these features are not necessarily helpful for people who have very poor vision, or are blind. There are no on-screen announcements of navigation, page location and other options. Apparently the web-based Kindle reader for PCs does have key board short-cuts and accessibility features.

Up and reading again

Before I got the Kindle 3 I managed to scan websites and read things with a fair bit of difficulty. I could make my way through a few paragraphs of pages, but anything longer was a real struggle. Now, I’ve finished off the book about the hare and other netsuke. It feels great to be reading again!

It’s not only books that I read using the Kindle 3 but other types of content as well. I’ve only once used the built-in web browser – it was too cumbersome a process to want to repeat.

However, I have found an easy way of accessing articles, stories, news and other tidbits from websites. Using the plugin I’ve installed in the Firefox toolbar I can send web content to my Kindle. The button’s within easy reach and after clicking “Send now” the article text, minus adds, navigation and any other junk, is on its way to my Kindle. This happens the next time I access a wifi network. A proportion of the US $5 monthly for readability.copm fee is redistributed to content creators, so using the plugin helps keep independent publishing alive.

I use this feature far more than adding PDF or other documents manually. You can do this using a USB cable when connected to any computer or sending via a unique email address supplied to each Kindle owner.

As well as the odd book I’ve been buying single copies of the award winning UK daily newspaper, the Guardian. Within minutes of authorising the NZ $2.50 payment, I receive a full copy of Saturday edition of the paper. It is available in time for a late lunch (about 2pm or so New Zealand time). The layout mimics what it is like to thumb through a print edition. It’s easy to scan every article heading, or flip from page to page with reading summaries and intro paragraphs. Keeping back copies isn’t taking up space in the hallway.

Reading the same content I’ve got on my Kindle on one of my computers is not something I’m likely to do (unless I loose the wee wisp). Perhaps this is useful if I’m stranded without the Kindle or without any other means of amusing myself when on a deserted island or foreign airport.

So far, after living with the Kindle at my side for six weeks, I’m not reading any more than I did in the past. But I am actually reading articles, not just storing them up as I tended to do. This feels like an achievement in itself.

I’m not worried about stock piling a huge stack of unread volumes on my bedside table Kindle. My strictly enforced policy is thus: it’s okay to get a new volume, only when the last one is 100% read.

About the beauty of books, and other tangents

Yet, I’m far from being completely won over. I do miss the physicality of books. The Kindle is not the same, nor can I see it replacing the popular hard-copy format. Books on the Kindle are reduced down to a dull conformity. Everything is presented the same way. This removes the interplay between the text and the choice of design elements.

Publishers of physical books are considered in their choice of formats, paper stock, layout on the page, inclusion of addenda, illustrations and covers (amongst other things) to add meaning to the text. Taken as a whole, the book along with the text assist readers to grapple with the meaning of the words.

I could go on about how the Kindle world is bland by comparison. But I’ll stop here. And express a sense of wonder and gratitude that I live in time when I can engage with texts gain – it’s a choice many people do not have now, and one that didn’t exist for the greater part of human existence. I also acknowledge I’ve the resources to make this choice.

It seems fitting to end this post reflecting on the past. Now that I’ve read about the journey of minature, carved hares and other figures, I’m engrossed in Graham Robb’s Francophile social history, The Discovery of France. Makes me wonder what some of the people he writes about would think of the Kindle modern age?

Useful resources on Kindle accessibility

“Access review of the Amazon Kindle 13”, from Access Australia

“Kindle 3: An Accessibility Evaluation…Is the Third Time the Charm?” by Darren Burton, on AccessWorld (blog on the American Foundation for the Blind)

Photo credits: Curious Expeditions and Witer.