I was a reluctant eBook adopter.
I love books, and devoured them so quickly growing up that my mum had to ration the number I was allowed to buy after I’d blown through the local library’s supply of children’s and teen fiction. I’d get through five or six paperbacks on a family holiday and then beg and plead to be allowed to buy a few more in bookshops we passed.
I grew up in a house full of books, and I remember vividly the moment when I realised what a gift that is. Alone in my parents’ house a couple of years after moving out, I found myself with some time to fill. I made a cup of tea, and thought for a few minutes about how I’d spend the time. I was wishing I’d brought my laptop so I could watch some TV or catch up on emails. Then I looked around, realised I was surrounded by bookcases full of wonderful books I’d never read, all pre-vetted by my dad (the most devout reader I’ve ever encountered) as being worthwhile.
I spent a blissful half hour wandering around the house, pulling out books almost at random, reading the backs, flicking through a few pages, and gradually building up a pile of about ten before I realised I had enough to occupy myself with!
I got stuck into one, brought the rest away with me to read later, and found myself appreciating in an altogether new way just how wonderful it is to be raised by parents who are avid readers.
The eBook quandry
The last 10 years have brought eBooks entirely into the mainstream, and caused a lot of people to pick sides: for or against. It seems like whether you love books or are only an occasional reader, you’ll find your own personal reasons to either adopt the eBook life wholesale, or shun it in favour of your musty paperbacks and the traditional reading experience.
I’m one of those in a third, less frequently mentioned category:
People who have pretty much adopted the eBook model – but feel guilty about it, and feel anxious and conflicted if they examine their decision too closely.
See, I just can’t deal with the idea that my kids won’t be able to wander around my house, flicking through my bookshelves in twenty years.
eBooks are incredible versatile, and I absolutely adore the fact that I can read a book on my Kindle outside during the day, pick up where I left off on a train journey using my laptop, and then sneak in a few more pages on my iPhone if I wake up in the middle of the night. That, to me, is living in the future – and I am totally addicted.
As somebody who at any given moment has between 5 and 10 books (my fiancée would probably say 10-15) stacked up on my bedside table, having the ability to effortlessly keep several books with me at all times, with my current page automatically synced between them is a tremendous gift.
Add in the instant gratification of buying new books (Amazon 1-Click making it even better more dangerous), shared annotations (seeing other readers’ highlighted passages in non-fiction can be an incredible aid when speed reading), and having a portable PDF reader I can simply email documents to when I’m in a rush – and I’m infatuated.
But that’s not to say I don’t look back.
I detest D.R.M. (Digital Rights Management, the kind of technology which stops you from, say, transferring your Amazon eBooks to a Sony Nook, or onto your new gadget which Amazon doesn’t approve of). The notion that these books I’ve been so delightedly buying from Amazon and filling my ‘Kindle library’ with could one day be completely inaccessible from my 2020-era personal computer, or may never be readable by my children because it doesn’t make business sense for Amazon? That still ties my stomach in knots.
My new Kindle
So when my sister and her husband gave me the generous gift of a Kindle for my 25th birthday, I was shocked and delighted. And confused.
I certainly didn’t feel ready to start exclusively buying books electronically. But I knew that as soon as I began to, it would inevitably be a slippery slope which (in my mind) ended with me having no library to share with my children, and no log of my reading through the years (something provided automatically by the accumulation of physical books).
It’s a beautiful device. I started it up, downloaded a book, transferred over a PDF of one of the upcoming articles for EasyEarTraining.com. I put it aside later in the evening, then kept catching glimpses of it across the room, where it confused my peripheral vision by looking like paper yet showing a different image every few minutes.
As time passed, and I got the Kindle app for my iPhone, my laptop, and eventually my iPad, I realised the undeniable convenience of having my current reading in an always-accessible distributed library, and I gradually gave in.
Amazon comes knocking
Six months after receiving my Kindle, I had totally integrated it into my life.
I was immersed in trying to get my new company off the ground, and when I’d realise in the morning that I had 20 minutes to get out the door and catch the train to my day job, I would quickly email my Kindle the remaining documents I needed to go over, throw it in my bag and run down to King’s Cross to catch the train with moments to spare. And then I’d relax, get out the Kindle, and resume my work.
If time allowed I’d flick over to the latest ‘personalised magazine’ of articles which Instapaper had sent to the Kindle after I’d marked them ‘Read Later’ while browsing the web.
When I found myself up in the French alps visiting my sister and remembered I’d never started Nick Harkaway’s “Gone Away World” but really wanted to, I was able to grab a digital copy and get stuck into the first chapter within minutes of the urge striking me.
Needless to say, I was hooked.
So when an Amazon email invited me to take a customer survey about the Kindle, I happily responded. I don’t remember what they asked, but I have no doubt I was enthusiastic, made some positive comments about commuting and Instapaper, and threw in a mini-rant about D.R.M.
About a month later another email arrived, to say I’d been selected to appear in a customer marketing video, and would I please sign and return the attached N.D.A.? The tech news sites had been speculating about a new Kindle being imminent, so I was excited to think I might get a sneak beta preview.
Nothing happened for a month or so, and I began to wonder if I’d been un-selected. Maybe my vague tweet about it breached the N.D.A. and an Amazon lawyer decided I was too risky. Yes, paranoia sometimes gets the best of me.
In July however, I received another missive, setting out dates and times for a video shoot. I was to bring my Kindle and any other devices I use to read Kindle books (which made for a fairly stuffed and valuable shoulder bag!) and that was apparently all the preparation I needed.
The Kindle 3 (and my inner fanboy) unveiled
The studio was local, so I was able to walk down mid-morning. By my nature I almost without exception leave the house 5 minutes later than planned, so was slightly rushed and arrived a bit sweatier than I would have liked. I’m not a particularly image-conscious guy, but you still want to look half-decent on a video which will be published by a major international corporation. Not that I was nervous or intimidated at all…
I walked into the building slightly apprehensive since it looked nothing like a TV studio, and was relieved to find a darkened room and film crew set up inside.
I met the Amazon representative I’d been corresponding with by email. I’ll leave out names here – but I should note that everyone I met from Amazon was very relaxed, welcoming and accommodating. They sat me down, and introduced me to the new Kindle.
That in itself wasn’t so surprising, but the device itself really was.
Naturally, I’d been wondering what a new Kindle might have in store. And honestly, I’d drawn a bit of a blank. I couldn’t see them going to a colour or touch screen. And my existing Kindle was already light, easy to use and always connected to a great bookstore. So I was, like the oysters, curious.
Thanks to Buster Benson’s excellent online journalling project, I’m able to go back and look up exactly what I thought at the time. And my reaction was:
“It is smaller, black (graphite), and has a better screen – all in all just a nicer device.”
As is public knowledge by now, the new Kindle isn’t a complete re-think – it’s simply an excellent refinement of what was already a great device. It’s sleekier, its buttons make more sense (particularly the arrow pad substitution for the old directional button, and page turners on both sides), the display significantly clearer, and the whole user interface noticeably more responsive. I remember being impressed that it now automatically removes the menubar once you start reading a book, providing more usable screen space than the Kindle 2.
I was impressed – and oddly pleased. I think when you commit to a device and integrate it into your daily life, you inevitably become emotionally invested in its future success. In this case I was happy. I didn’t know if I’d be rushing out to buy one, but I was confident that it would help build the Kindle brand, and I was pleased to see the direction they were taking the device in case I did decide to upgrade or replace mine down the line.
It was a relief to find they hadn’t taken an odd swerve with the product line, and a surprise that they’d found so many ways to improve on a device I already considered extremely well designed. Being a tech geek myself and having spent countless hours working on user interfaces, I’m quite aware of how hard a task it is and how much work goes into making something feel ‘natural’ or (hated word of UI designers) ‘intuitive’. This made it all the more striking that a user experience I considered great had been roundly trumped.
Geeks on Film
So, having spent half an hour playing around with the new Kindle, and comparing side-by-side with my own, I was brought through to the studio. The ‘interview’ was really more of a chat. I was given some guidance on how to phrase my responses to make editing the footage together easier, but apart from that very little suggestion or requests about what to say. They made me feel comfortable speaking freely, honestly and as expansively as I liked about the device.
… and I geeked out.
I, like many geeks of all flavours, must confess to having an inner fanboy. And he mostly is kept inside. But once in a while (like when you meet one of your heroes or love a snack food so much you follow its strange unofficial representative on Twitter) you just can’t help but let it out.
It’s not often you get to express your appreciation for a tech gadget in person to those who are (at least peripherally) involved with its design and creation. I believe all the staff there were on the marketing rather than tech side, but still intimately involved with the Kindle project, and I think a part of me just wanted to say thank you – for creating a device which had made my life easier and more enjoyable over the last six months.
So I may have gushed a little. I certainly enthused. I told an embarrassing story about dropping my Kindle in front of a queue of traffic, triggering howls of laughter from drivers. I talked about my unease with eBooks in general, and how the Kindle had won me over. At the end, when they asked if there was anything they’d forgotten to ask me about, I gave them an all-guns-blazing, love-it-to-death elevator pitch for Instapaper and its ‘send to Kindle’ feature.
I have a habit of talking quickly when I’m excited, so I tried to tone that down a bit. I tried to stay fairly formal in my speech despite the relaxed atmosphere. I didn’t say anything I didn’t mean, but I was aware I was probably giving them exactly the kind of testimonial they were hoping for. I hoped that it wouldn’t come across too fanboyish, or worse, scripted.
After spending 20 minutes or so geeking out over one of my favourite gadgets, it was time for them to move onto the next person. I was de-microphoned, and led back to the prep room to retrieve my now-slightly-retro-looking Kindle 2 and head home.
It’s Radio Silence
After this slightly surreal morning I returned to my usual life, re-reading Scott Pilgrim Volume 1. And then 2, 3, 4, and 5 before my newly-arrived volume 6. And soon the subject of the Kindle drifted off my mind. I’d asked about when it would be released (and whether I could keep the one I’d been trying out) and they said “end of summer” (and “no”).
In late July the new Kindle was announced, and I excitedly told anyone who’d listen about how great it was, managing to do so without explaining how I knew. Who knows how seriously N.D.A.s are taken?
(Honestly, if Amazon got mad at me, I’d be pretty stuck. I don’t know where else you can buy things any more. Amazon Prime has been my downfall.)
I spent August in Canada, bringing no physical books with me for the first time ever, relying on iPad and Kindle to supply my holiday reading. They did so without a hitch, and like when I was a kid, I ended up buying a few more books during the trip when I ran low on reading material. This time though, it was instantaneous, powered by Wi-Fi in a net café.
I checked the Kindle page on Amazon.com periodically, to see if my video had appeared. No sign, no sign, no sign, until recently:
It’s a slightly surreal thing to see your face smiling back at you on an e-commerce website you use every day! I was relieved to find I didn’t gush too much in the clips they used (but disappointed to find they didn’t devote 3 minutes of the video to my Instapaper love-in.)
The video’s about 4 minutes long – if you’re impatient or that link dies, here’s what I say (among the accounts of several other Kindle users):
“It’s a really marked improvement on the Kindle I have. The most striking thing is obviously it’s a lot smaller.”
“It gives you a load of new advantages to reading. You’ve got all these books in the palm of your hand, at any moment, you can flick between them instantly, and you can throw ’em in your bag and bring them with you wherever you’re going. But it doesn’t take any of the magic away from reading.”
“One thing I’ve used my Kindle for quite a bit is throwing documents onto it when I’m leaving in the morning. I had a period where I was trying to get a lot of work done on the train, and being able to just throw them onto the Kindle without really thinking about it was a really liberating thing.”
The people in the video are uniformly really enthusiastic – and of course you’d expect that from a promotional video with carefully-selected participants. And you can work wonders in the editing room. But for what it’s worth, I doubt they had to work hard to find positive snippets. This is a device that engenders real love in its users, and I suspect the other people in the video, like me, struggled to contain their inner fanboy/girl.
A sign in the middle of the night
It should be clear at this point: I love my Kindle.
I hate that its books are crippled by D.R.M., and I still have moments of real concern that I’m somehow cheating my future children the bookshelves I benefitted so much from growing up. I’ll occasionally buy a book in physical form because I think it’s one I’d like to have on my shelf – and bizarrely, I’ll feel guilty about that too, knowing it’s not as convenient as the electronic version would be.
I remain optimistic that Amazon are quietly pushing (the way Apple did) to gradually wean publishers off the ridiculous promises of D.R.M. vendors, so that we can all enjoy the content we buy in the fullest way modern technology can allow.
For now, the day-to-day benefits of the Kindle considerably outweigh the occasional moments of panic about an imagined future. I’ll probably keep buying eBooks, and I’ll probably keep buying occasional ‘old-school’ books. I expect I’ll continue to feel conflicted and guilty about both.
But then I’ll pick up my phone in the middle of the night, dive back into the novel I was reading on my laptop on the train that day, and my phone will pop up a message:
And I’ll feel like I’m living in the future.
And that my kids are going to laugh when they hear I held onto physical books for so long.
Pile of books photo: Andrew W. Odom / Flickr