Wednesday, August 5, 2009

That Lovingly-Negative Baker Piece

Nicholson Baker's piece last week, which I read on my Kindle version of The New Yorker, was one of many that are either positive or negative or lukewarm but which don't touch on the Kindle's many features.

In this case, Baker reports on his dismal encounter with a drab, slow, and apparently huge device known as the Kindle 2.  This is followed by having to use the even larger Kindle DX.
  He's most dismayed by the gray screen while not minding the Sony Reader's gray screen and complains about the "grim and Calvinist" font, which is the same one used for The New Yorker, which brings us, via that dour font, Nicholson Baker's story.
  Some impressions I had while reading:

1. It seemed to me, in the long opening, that Baker was extremely annoyed at the ubiquitous Kindle ads that Amazon places on their own site and the excitement the Kindle has caused (with the result that many competing e-book readers are being released) and that this feeling somewhat influenced his review which he calls more correctly an 'essay.' In his Q&A later, he responded,
" Amazon is pushing it too hard, and the press got all excited and thought it was a millennial development. "
Well, I guess he's taking care of that.

Of no small import, probably, with respect to his intense response to the Kindle, is the subtitle of his article, "Can the Kindle really improve on the book?"
  This refers to his memory of Bezos once telling Newseek that "It’s so ambitious to take something as highly evolved as the book and improve on it.”

Fighting words! Bezos couldn't possibly have meant that an always active inline dictionary and searches possible for any word in a book or books might be considered an improvement by some. Baker refers to this in that Q&A:
"QUESTION FROM ANDREW M.: Mr. Baker, do you think e-book readers in general are problematic, or just the Kindle?

[Note that he doesn't answer the actual question.]

NICHOLSON BAKER: First, if you love the Kindle and it works for you, it isn’t problematic, and you should ignore all my criticisms and read the way you want to read.

I’m suspicious of full-replacement programs—that is, pronouncements that one way of doing something will entirely supplant another,

[ Was that said in the Bezos quote Baker gave above? ]

and that in fact we have to hurry the replacement along. It’s better if you let things evolve, and see what is in fact an improvement and what isn’t. "
2. Then, in a seeming attempt to not just slow the Kindle's movement but to imagine a complete stop -- he cleverly equates the Kindle with several spectacular product failures.
"True, the name of the product wasn't so great. Kindle? It was cute and sinister at the same time -- worse than Edsel, or Probe, or Microsoft's Bob."
For the record, Amazon's first screen saver had definitions for the word "kindle" in connection with acquiring knowledge through reading:
" parents kindled my lifelong love for reading" and
"1. Catch fire 2. To stir up; arouse 3. Start a fire; ignite; inspire; arouse."

I did like that screensaver's text, which another reviewer found "cloying." It could be that the Kindle is just not for sophisticates.

3. About the "greenish, sickly gray," I wonder if he has a defective Kindle 2? I've written about batches that had screen defects with low contrast, which Amazon replaces with another Kindle upon a call to 866-321-8851. Linked further below are some photos which show a Kindle 2 (mine) in less dire straits.

4. Baker on the basic font:
"Monotype Caecilia was grim and Calvinist; it had a way of reducing everything to arbitrary heaps of words."
In his Q&A about this, Baker added that the same font is used for The New Yorker, but it worked for him to say this about only the Kindle in his report. He explained to a questioner:
" It's just that the default font, Caecilia, is not a good reading font. The basic decision to use it was a mistake, I think. But some people really like that everything is made equal -- George Eliot, The New Yorker, the Times, the latest bestseller, are all in this same font. I just wish it looked better."
5. In his zest to find books not Kindle-ized yet, he did not review the Kindle's popular features. What else does the Kindle, as one of the now many gray-screened e-Readers available, offer? Could one guess from this review?

Maybe he didn't have or make time to work with the highlighting and note-adding tools but he did briefly mention searching a text string though not what the results were like with the search-a-book or search-the-Kindle feature which brings up, quickly, chronologically listed results, and maybe it wasn't worthwhile to bring up the inline-dictionary that gives a summary definition on the status line for each word the cursor is on. To be fair, he probably never has to look up a word.

Instead he spent a lot of time hunting down books that were not converted to Kindle format yet by the publishers and making much ado about that. At the right is a Kindle screen-capture of search-results for a character's name because I couldn't remember who he was in the book, "Columbine" by Dave Cullen, which I'm reading along with several unfinished books.

An owner of a Kindle can still buy the physical book if it's not put into Kindle form yet. So what was all that about? But it must have been fun to keep finding books not converted by the Publishers yet.
Next, he turns around to complain about publishers possibly converting books to Kindle format eventually.

6. His very next is a reassurance and yet a lament that
"...the title count will grow. It will grow because not so subtle forces will be exerted on publishers and writers."
So, if they do get publishers to add Kindle versions then it's some kind of nefarious move on Amazon's part - with "not so subtle forces" exerted. Is there a pattern in this assigned report?

7. The Sony's screen is not really "slightly less gray." It depends on which Sony and which Kindle. The e-ink screens differ in darkness possibly due to variance in batches. As for its typeface being "better," that is a personal call. This is what I saw at Target with the two readers side by side. The relative lightness of screens will depend on the light falling on them and the angle at which you're viewing them, as you can see in that photo and in the one prior to it

As for the typeface and the screen contrast, see the Kindle 2 text and the Sony PRS-505 text.

8. Next grievance reported by Baker:
" You can't read a Kindle book on a Sony machine, or on the Ectaco jetBook, the BeBook, the iRex iLiad, the Cybook, the Hanlin V2, or the Foxit eSlick. Kindle books aren't transferrable."
And you can't read a Sony book on a Kindle! Nor will you be able to read a Plastic Logic book on a Kindle. Furthermore, the Barnes & Noble eReader cannot be read on either the Sony or the Kindle. Does Baker know this?

Why is this kind of cavil one-way for him? His many complaints and disappointments would be with e-readers and the e-Ink screen.

9. Then he wonders at the Sony getting 500,000 Google books that were published before 1923 but being ignored by the e-book reading public. Amazon does have a mere 7,000+ free books for download, but customers can buy or download, often for free, books from many online sites, often direct to the Kindle.

Well, with the Sony PRS-505 there is 1) no free 24/7 cellular wireless access to the entire Net nor 2) even a slow web browser that you can use, with Amazon's encouragement (many pre-set sites bookmarked for you) to access Google and Wikipedia (always options on the status command bar) and 3) no highlighting, no note-adding features nor an inline-dictionary and no search of the current book being read or of the entire device.

The Sony PRS-700, which has a touchscreen and side-lighting, did not sell well (and is discontinued) because reviews were very hard on the loss of contrast due to a 2nd layer over the e-Ink screen and the uneven lighting of the side-lighting. Many Sony users love this model, nevertheless, but there just aren't as many who bought it and kept it (some traded down to the PRS-505).

10. Maybe all Baker wants from an e-reader is the ability to read a book - that's fair. Others, though, really appreciate the study tools and also being able to -slowly- browse the Net, for free at any time, almost anywhere (not Montana or Alaska or deeply wooded rural areas). But in wondering why another e-book reader, with so many helpful features missing is "ignored," I think he might have done more research, as his review will be very influential. People are easily affected by people who speak with authority and with the clout of a magazine like this one. In the Q&A session, a commenter actually wrote:
"...I understand that you have made a number of severe criticisms, the upshot of which is that I will not consider reading books on this inadequate device."
11. Baker then generously grants that "they got the screen to display sixteen shades of gray, not four, a refinement that helped somewhat with photographs."

Somewhat? See the differences between the capabilities for image display with 4 shades (the Kindle 1 and many newly released cheaper e-readers this month) and with 16 shades (Kindle 2 and Kindle DX). The Sony readers discussed here both have 8 shades of gray.

12. Baker rightly mentions the fading issue occurring in apparently bad batches. This defect happens with Sony's e-Ink screens too, when the unit is defective. Sony forums have notes saying that (unlike Amazon's customers), the Sony owners won't get replacements because it is "supposed" to fade like that. E-Ink and Amazon market the unit as being just as easy to read in direct sunlight and therefore Amazon replaces Kindles, usually within a day or two, with this problem.

A Kindleboards poll (unscientific, sure, but of interest) showed this result for the question, "Have you had any sun fade issues with your K2?" -- 24 users reported Yes and 76 users reported No. That is a bad percentage, of those responding to the polls at least. People without problems and those who just lurk forums won't tend to respond and that forum has at least 4,000 members.

The problem will be somewhere in the e-Ink and display mechanisms put together by E-Ink and the company that just bought them, PVI, and will show up in e-ink readers using them. The upside is that Amazon does replace those units, unlike Sony, from what I've read. But it HAS been a problem for too many, with an article about it on this blog. Recent Kindle 2's are said to have better screen contrast and customers are reporting, in forums, fewer problems with the screenfading problem now.

13. Newspaper articles that are purely text but possibly not included in the Kindle versions somehow, have been reported before and I personally don't like the publishers withholding any text articles from subscriptions. In the Amazon customer reviews, some customers have reported, though, finding some missing articles in the next day's edition.

The pure-text format of Amazon subscriptions with only a lead photo (free RSS feeds usually don't include the images) is not for those who need to see newspaper editions in the paper-layout we've known and enjoyed for most of our lives.

For me, an e-reader screen is like a window to the mind of someone I hope is interesting; there is no beautiful layout or colorful surroundings and no smell. If that's important, don't go near the subscriptions :-).

I'm trying out the Kindle edition of my local paper, the SF Chronicle, which has amazingly good photo reproductions with excellent contrast and range of tones and also good sharpness while other newspapers' photos have less contrast and lower resolution. Kindle owners might try a 14-day free trial for a few days to see what that is like. I'm not recommending a subscription, but the SF Chronicle Kindle-photo editor should teach classes on that.

14. Last, Baker mentions the smaller devices (iPod/iPhone) being his preference and filling his night-reading needs. But he reports falling asleep while reading on them. Maybe they tire his eyes? :-) I'm just teasing there. At least he decides he should finish his awful task and read the end of a book on his unattractive Kindle, and does get through it!

After writing about that chirpily dark review, I'll add a link to a favorite customer forum thread that discusses the unusual ways that customers use their Kindles. Most of these involve using features that other e-readers don't have and which Baker didn't mention.

After all that, my final thought on this is that the Kindle or any e-reader is just an alternative way of reading; why some feel we can have only one or the other eludes me.  I enjoy both, but I prefer carrying many books at once in one small package and I know that some books will never be good on an e-reader, so I still buy and enjoy DTBs ("Dead tree books" as they're sometimes called in e-reader forums).

I enjoyed Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine.   This is not available in Kindle format.

Student eyes may not be as keen as Baker's for reading entire books on the iPhone.

Photo: Photo-illustration: Everett Bogue; Photos: WikiCommons, Courtesy of manufacturers (downsized) Below are ways to Share this post if you'd like others to see it.
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  1. fontwise, i think that baker means that on the kindle, the new yorker appears in monotype caecelia. the actual magazine -- in print -- uses a font called caslon, which is much more attractive.

  2. Great rebuttal!

    Also.. the Kindle's Whispernet *does* work in Alaska now. Only in places where ACS (the local phone company) has EVDO coverage, but it covers Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley and other "major" cities.

  3. akjak,
    Thanks. I had read so many from Alaska write that they still didn't have Whispernet so I included it as excluded, but it's good to hear it's working in the major cities.

  4. I'm glad to see thjis detailed rebuttal. I love my kindle, I have been reading MUCH MORE on it than I usually read. And regarding Baker's article -- a month from now who will care ?


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