Thursday, December 06, 2007

Kindle-Free Zone

For several years I've wished for a magic device that would let me sit in a chair, and read Project Gutenberg (and the many other free and inexpensive electronic) texts as comfortably as I would paper books. I could have the complete works of all my favorite nineteenth century authors at my fingertips, occupying zero shelf space, never yellowing, loosing pages, or gathering dust. When I pieced together a couple of discarded 10-year-old laptops into one functional Linux box, I thought I was on to something, but the LCD screen is still much harder on the eyes than the printed page, the laptop is heavy, and I seldom drag it out for reading.

E-book readers these days feature "electronic paper" displays, which are more like a book page and less like a TV screen, but I've been put off by the DRM locks and the limited file formats they can read. The manufacturers and publishers have been most anxious to make sure everyone pays through the nose for the reading experience, and to exclude public domain material, although users have developed some hacks to access free and low-cost e-texts.

All this has come up in the news again thanks to "Kindle: Amazon's New Wireless Reading Device". Kindle's price, cost of texts, DRMs and the relative merits of this device versus the others on the market have been thoroughly discussed since its release. My price point is more like the laptop I mentioned above, and I'm most likely to read texts in Project Gutenberg's price range, but I can imagine buying a device of this sort someday.

One issue I haven't seen discussed is where you can use a Kindle. It requires a wireless signal, and there won't ever be cell phone or wireless coverage in Pocahontas County--we're a radio-quiet zone because we're home to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. However, I was surprised when I looked at the Kindle Coverage Map on Amazon's Kindle product page. Sprint, their chosen service provider, doesn't cover very much of rural America. The Appalachian Mountains and Appalachian Plateau are nearly service-free, as are huge chunks of California, Oregon, and Washington. South Dakota seems completely left out, as are most of Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and Nevada. Except for Washington D.C., no place I've ever lived has Kindle coverage. And the Washington D.C. area is Library Paradise, so you wouldn't necessarily need a Kindle there.

For a review of the ultimate consequences of this technology, I recommend Mark Pilgrim's hilarious The Future of Reading (A Play in Six Acts). Slashdot describes it: "Using Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' own words against him, Mark Pilgrim offers his chilling take on The Future of Reading with a mash-up of Bezos' Open Letter to the Authors Guild, the Amazon Kindle Terms of Service, Steven Levy's Newsweek article on the Kindle, 1984, and Richard Stallman's 'The Right to Read.'"


Sherry said...

Whoa. I could buy a lot of poetry books for $400. Somehow I don't think they'll carry much poetry. Or at least not much of the poetry I want to read.

Marvin said...

Yup, I don't think I really want/need it, can't afford it and couldn't receive a signal anyway.

Reya Mellicker said...

This is interesting - you know I believe reading and writing are on their way out. When you think about it, books are a very recent phenomena. I'm aghast to think of all the trees cut down in order to publish all the crap out there - yikes!

Reading on-screen gives me a headache. It's worth it for awhile, but I can never manage to sit in front of the computer for longer than a half hour at a time, while with an actual book I can spend hours reading. Hard to compare the two activities.

Lynda Barry, one of my favorite writers and cartoonists, writes her books by hand. The last book she published, a few years ago, she painted (wrote with a paintbrush.) I just love that! Taking time produces such a different narrative, whether in writing, or the other arts.

I push a button and have an image at the ready, but, what if I stood still for awhile and instead painted the things I see on Capitol Hill? Far fewer images would be the result, but wouldn't they have more soul?

I've signed up for a painting class starting in February. I'm curious.

Rebecca Clayton said...

I've not bothered to get a real-life look at the "e-paper display" because the electronics companies and publishers are still hashing out copyright and ownership issues (mostly in ways I disapprove of). However, if the display really is as advertised, I think a hacked reader could be ideal.

I can see the day coming when large print books will be attractive for me, and it seems like the Bible and drivel are the only reading options for aging eyes in these parts.

Perhaps by then there will be cheap readers hacked to accept any pdf, text or html file we feed it. We could afford our poetry books, read wherever we want, in whatever size and brightness we want, and save paper.

Larry said...

Kindle and other DRM-crippled devices are of no interest to me. I predict that within two or three years an unencumbered "e-paper" portable reading device will be available cheaply.

I also want to be able to read Project Gutenberg texts easily, but I'm willing to wait a while longer!