Monday, February 22, 2010

Kindling



This is my column today.

At the rate I am doing free lectures, demonstrations, and tutorials on the f
eatures of a Kindle, I have half a mind to charge amazon.com for promoting its product. Not that I really find it bothersome—I must admit that th
ere’s a certain joy in being able to show people how a certain gadget works particularly since the gadget in ques
tion encourages reading, obviously one of my main advocacies. If one craves attention and wants to show off, a Kindle is probably a good ga
dget to have.

But if one shuns attention and simply wants to enjoy quiet moments of privacy spent reading, then lugging around a Kindle in public may not be the perfect idea, especially in a country such as ours where a Kindle is not yet a popular gadget. To begin with, it was only made available to countries outside of the United States recently. Being interrupted many times while reading or being asked for a quick review on the Kindle has become a regular occurrence.

On a recent flight to Cebu, for example, my reading was interrupted a number of times by people asking questions about “the gadget I was holding in my hand.” Friends and acquaintances ask for free tutorials and request to handle my Kindle. If it is any consolation, no one has asked to borrow it yet—which seems to be a common occurrence with traditional books.

In case you haven’t heard of it or seen one yet, a Kindle is a product the size of a regular paper notebook that renders and displays electronic books and other media. In short, it is a book reader with enough memory to store as much as 3,500 books. Instead of lugging around books or worrying about storage shelves, a Kindle enables one to carry and easily access an entire library anywhere, anytime. This kind of convenience alone should convert many voracious readers to the Kindle. The most pressing problem that face me every single time I would travel is: What books will I bring this time around? I am the type who feels intellectually deprived if I am just reading one book at a given time.

But is the Kindle really worth it? A Kindle costs about 12,000 pesos, certainly a fraction of the cost of a high-end cellular phone. At only 10 ounces, it is lighter than an ordinary paperback. It has a battery lifespan that lasts about two weeks. It comes equipped with 3G technology, which enables one to download books anytime and anywhere. Books in digital format cost so much less—the average cost is about ten dollars for bestsellers, with most books retailing at around six dollars. Some books are on sale—at about a dollar each. No more queues and waiting time as the books get downloaded to your Kindle in less than a minute. There’s more: One can browse books by ordering a “sample” of a book for free—amazon.com sends you the first three chapters for you to try out. One can try to get a feel of the book and see if it’s something one can lose one’s self in before deciding to buy.

A Kindle also “remembers” where you last stopped reading—so no need to search for pages. When one turns on the Kindle and chooses a book in one’s archives, it automatically turns to the page one left off the last time around. No need for bookmarks or in my case—the terrible habit of folding the upper right corner of the book. The downside of course is that the Kindle does not give you a very real and immediate sense of how close or far off you are to the end of the book, although there is an indicator at the bottom of the screen that shows off your progress in percentages.

The best feature for me is that by plugging a headphone into the Kindle, the books automatically become audio books—the Kindle reads the books for you in case you developed eye strain or just wants to drift off to sleep by listening to someone read a story to you. Since I acquired my Kindle, I haven’t had problems going to sleep as I just plug in my Kindle to a set of speakers, and voila, my own bedtime storyteller.

The Kindle is the kind of Christmas or birthday present I would have died to receive when I was a child. I bought my Kindle online (it is only available online from amazon.com) but instead of having it delivered to the Philippines (which would have added about 30 dollars in shipping costs) I had it delivered to a student (thanks, again Chesca Alonte) who was vacationing in the United States at that time. Thus, I was able to get my Kindle at the regular online price.

A good friend of mine scoffed at my Kindle and me by saying “I prefer to read books on paper.” This was my first reaction when I heard about the Kindle. But then again, I thought it was time for some paradigm shift. What really sealed the deal for me was a more practical reason—I’ve run out of storage space for my books. In fact, I recently realized to my great horror that about a fourth of my library had been lost to termites. Besides, books are printed on paper and paper comes from trees.

“But wouldn’t that kill the publishing business?” another friend reacted in horror. I admired my friend’s concern for the continued viability of the publishing business but just like in the case of the recording industry, making books directly available to customers in digital form benefits writers as well as overhead costs and middlemen are eliminated. Gadgets like the Kindle, which is really software and hardware platform on its own, also effectively protects writers from piracy.

And I think there will always be a market for books—I personally still buy hard covers of books I would like to collect. And since Philippine books are not available through amazon.com, I still buy a lot of Filipiniana.

The downside is that the Kindle does not come in color and while most books are still printed in black ink against white paper (something which the Kindle LCD screen approximates) some books do come with illustrations that move the story forward.

The other downside, for me, personally, is that it has in a way developed a bad habit of not finishing books I don’t really like. Unlike traditional books which I feel obligated to finish because they cost so much, or in the case of borrowed books they have to be returned to their rightful owners, and they occupy so much space in my bedside table or study—books in my Kindle can just stay there hidden, on page 22 of my Kindle’s home page or in an archive somewhere. So yes, it can be argued that a Kindle encourages people to read more selectively or less.

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