Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Amazon's Kindle: A bibliophile's e-book reader review

There's been a lot of talk in the past year about e-book readers. Amazon's Kindle came onto the market in time for Christmas sales in 2007, while the other major players in the e-book world -- Sony's Reader and Barnes & Noble's nook -- made their way onto the scene in late 2006 and 2009, respectively.

When e-book readers first came out I was happy to join in the debate. As an avid reader, I grew up loving books; not just reading, mind you, but books as well. I love the way a well-read book falls open and the way certain childhood favorites retain jellybean-shaped stickers on their covers or bubble bath stains on their pages. I love browsing through the shelves of books at the library, choosing brightly-covered volumes and well-worn novels from the stacks. I love the musty smell of old hardcovers in the darkest corners of libraries and estate sales. And I really love my home bookshelf covered in my favorite books, like little trophies of my reading accomplishments. How could an e-book compare?

Then, I received an Amazon Kindle for Christmas. At first, I was surprised. What would I do with this thing? Where were its pages? Who wants to snuggle up with electronics? (And who wants to pay for books you can't hold?)

Since then I've come to love the Kindle. I don't think it will (and hope it won't!) replace honest-to-goodness books, but I think it's wonderful in its own way.

For starters, a fair number of books are available for free downloads. Many of these books are in the public domain (primarily meaning that book has been around long enough for the intellectual property rights to have expired), so you can read classics like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Dracula free of charge. Amazon.com also offers a selection of Limited Time offers which are (usually) free for anywhere from a day to a month or so. Once you've downloaded the books, they're yours to keep, regardless of whether the price eventually goes up. I tend to check the page once or twice a week, downloading any free books that seem interesting. I've found a few gems this way and have read books by both popular and virtually-unknown writers. Downloading free books assuaged my fear of paying for books that I couldn't keep on a shelf.

The Kindle is also incredibly handy for traveling. Instead of packing my carry-on bag with two or three novels and a handful of magazines, I simply pack the Kindle. Currently, I have 67 books on my Kindle. I could never bring 67 (or even five or six) books on vacation! Bringing the Kindle saves space and allows me the luxury of changing my mind on a whim, if I'm not in the mood to read whichever book I'm in the middle of. With a Kindle, I simply switch to another book until I'm back in the frame of mind to finish the temporarily-abandon book. (Bonus: The Kindle saves your place in each book you are reading, allowing a fickle reader like me to switch back and forth between stories without having to find my place again.)

Sounds wonderful, right? I see you skeptics out there... But Danielle, you say, who wants to cozy up with a tiny computer? I hear you. I have to say, however, that the Kindle is hardly a tiny computer. While it has the memory to hold 200 to 1,500 books (depending on which generation you own), the Kindle is not back-lit like a computer. This saves your eyes from the strain you may experience while reading on a computer all day. You need to read your Kindle in the light, just like any paperback. And while you're reading an electronic device, rather than a comfy book, I minimized the cold technology feel by purchasing a leather-like cover for mine that attaches to the Kindle and opens and closes just like a book.

Okay, Danielle, you concede, but what about the feel of the pages? You've got me there. On a Kindle, you do have to press a button each time you want to flip the page. While it may not be as fun as turning the pages of treasured volume, it isn't as distracting as I imagined it might be. I hardly notice any more.

There are of course, plenty of instances where printed books still win over electronic books. For starters, I'd find it hard to plop myself into the bathtub with a Kindle. Electronics and occasional splashes don't mix. And I don't think Kindles are an alternative to children's books, which have a beauty and feeling all their own. Of course, there's also the chance that your Kindle's battery might die while you are unable to plug it in to charge, which is an obvious win for printed books over e-readers.

That being said, I think book lovers ought not worry about e-readers taking over the publishing world; there are far too many reasons why printed books are still wonderful. Instead of saying that the Kindle is better than a good-old-fashioned book, I'm simply saying that there's room for the Kindle at my table. (In fact, I love reading the Kindle at the table -- I don't have to prop it open like a paperback novel.) It's great for travel and isn't so bad to snuggle up with after all.

Why not give it an e-reader a try?

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