Reviews, Technology.

Moving inexorably to the Kindle

After my family gave me a Kindle a while back, I was skeptical of its ability to fully replace a bound book, but after some experimentation, I found the Kindle e-reading device more useful than expected, yet remained a fan of the book-in-hand.  By the time I had read through the devices of my Kindle perhaps fifteen books and after a certain amount of experimentation, I gradually became enamored enough of the Kindle to make it my primary mode for reading books.  What was the tipping point?  And why still prefer a bound book on occasion?

Initial Kindle advantages

I own the most basic Kindle, a black and white version, which has the advantage of using considerably less battery while in use, than do the color versions. And I found that owning a Kindle means you have in fact not one device, but three:  The black and white Kindle, and two high resolution color devices:  Your PC/Mac, and your smart phone, as Kindle owners are allowed to use any of these devices for books they purchase.

The most immediate and obvious advantage of the Kindle is that it can carry many books.  On a recent camping trip, the Kindle was a godsend, as I was carrying with me a small library without the physical bulk; without the Kindle, I would have taken one, maybe two books due to limited space and weight.  Another obvious advantage is the instant gratification of selecting, downloading and reading a book minutes afters you decide you want to read it:  For example, while reviewing some molecular biology for an online class, I found the need for a more up-to-date text, and after locating a good source, downloaded it to immediately to my Kindle.

The Kindle allows you to instantly look up words in a built-in dictionary, the Oxford Dictionary of English, simply by highlighting the word.  Initially, this was a minor advantage for me, having developed a life-long habit of learning new vocabulary via the context of the written word first, and then only sometimes looking it up in a dictionary later; that habit has often, but not always, provided more depth of understanding, even sometimes misunderstanding of a kind that led to more plastic use of a word than perhaps was intended, but ultimately allowed in English.  However, as I slowly began to use the word definition look-up feature more often, I noticed that it was particularly useful for looking up historical references whose meanings are not always accessible via context, and have driven me in the past to put my bound book down and seek an explanation.  Prior to the magic of the Internet, this process could involve a search in your dictionary or encyclopedia, browsing your private library, or even a trip to the public library; these days this need can ordinarily satisfied by a relatively quick web search, but the Kindle’s instant dictionary look-up most of the time produces relevant information without even the interruption of getting to a computer and performing a web search.

The Kindle allows you to search the entire book for selected keywords, which can be useful in locating something you are looking for, but I found the advantage of using a direct search feature was fairly small, having been trained to rapidly use a table of contents and an index of a physical book to rapidly locate something of interest for at least a non-fiction book.

Some Kindle disadvantages

The most immediately apparent disadvantage was that a Kindle could not mimic the ability to browse by flipping and riffling pages, something that provided in a bound book that random and rapid survey, and that often pleasurable accidental discovery of topic or phrase that takes you down unexpected and sometimes profitable paths.

The black and white display produces crisp text, but is less than optimum when viewing a book’s illustrations, particularly illustrations that matter, as one might find in an art history book, or a book on molecular biology; the electronic ink used for the black and white Kindles can be a little too indistinct under close examination.  This is ameliorated to a degree by switching to the color devices (PC, tablet or smartphone), whose higher resolution and refined color dramatically improve the quality of the illustrations.  Even so, there are still some illustrations that need to be full page size, which of course cannot be accomplished on a 8-10 inch screen.

Kindle tipping point – highlighting and note-taking

What finally prompted me to prefer the Kindle for most books was its unexpectedly useful ability to highlight and annotate.  Highlighting and annotating in a bound book is cumbersome and slow, with limited room in the margins to make legible notes, particularly given my clumsy left-handed script. Further, those annotations and highlights were of limited use unless transcribed to the computer, so there was always extra work involved.  The Kindle provides an easy means to highlight, and oddly, an easy means to add notes, even when typing with thumbs, than in a bound book; the slow Kindle process of typing with thumbs is still more efficient than crabbing and pinching a note onto the narrow margin of the bound book, and although most of my notes are quite short, there is no limit to the length of a note on a Kindle, whereas on a book margin . . .

Just as important, your Kindle highlights and notes are stored in the cloud, and served up via web pages; this provides an instant transcription of research notes, as your aggregated highlights can be easily cut and pasted rapidly into other documents, and can then be immediately be searched and employed for analysis, and even directly incorporated into a written work, all things that with bound books were manual and labor-intensive, and therefore much less often done.

Change comes with some expense, and usually with some reluctance.  My journey from occasional Kindle user to one who now prefers the Kindle for most books was gradual, and the tipping point was its clear superiority as a research tool, nay even as a virtual research assistant.  As a result, I now employ it not just for pleasure reading (and research for an occasional blog post), but also for business research.

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