Ruminations of idle rants and ramblings of a code monkey

Changing Reading as we know it

Idle Babbling

Let me start with some background as this helps put this in context.

I love to read. I will read almost anything and there are few books that I will abandon mid-read. I read all kinds of things … fantasy, sci-fi, history, non-fiction, classics, mysteries, suspense, horror, philosophy … you name it … with the very notable exception of things like Harlequin romance novels (I do have my standards). To be honest, I tend not to read books so much as devour them. I’ve always loved to read, for as long as I can remember. Even as a kid, I almost always had a book in my hand. In college, many years ago, I was an English Lit major with a Philosophy minor. More reading … a lot more reading … and I learned to do it faster while still retaining what I read. And I still loved it. Later in life, I took a speed reading class and that simply built on and expanding upon what I already had learned by necessity. While I don’t often use the speed reading techniques for my “enjoyment reading”, it is very useful for professional reading and I still have a high retention rate while speed reading. Most of what I read these days is simply for enjoyment and relaxation, so speed reading is actually counterproductive to that.

I capitalized “reading” in this title for a reason. It’s a key activity for transferring knowledge, something that has become even more important in the Internet age. But it’s more than transferring knowledge … it runs deeper than that, reaches into our individual and collective imagination, extends our mind and imagination in ways that are uniquely human. Yes, the devices and the medium have changed … but you still must read. And, like with everything else, practice makes perfect … the more you read, the better you are at doing it. Reading necessarily and deeply involves interpretation … you can never understand “author’s intent” but only attempt to understand, explain and analyze your interpretation of the resulting text; literature is a more intensely personal art than most realize. I’ll stop there and resist the temptation to delve further into linguistic theory and opinion.

There is something that brought this on. My wife got me the mostest bestest gift that I can imagine right now. I am difficult to buy for so I had to give her hints and stuff. What was it? A Kindle 3. I looked over and watched (carefully) the development of eBook readers from Amazon, Sony and Barnes & Noble. I played with devices in the stores and that friends owned. I looked at the number of available titles. The “flash” as pages changed annoyed me… I read “faster than the average bear” and that flash actually slowed me down as I had to wait for it, which annoyed me.

Then came the Kindle 3 … promising, most of all, to reduce the “flash”. I played with the original Kindle and the Nook … I’ve yet to see the Kindle 2 but, from what I’ve heard, the “flash” isn’t much better than with the Kindle 1 or the Nook. When I played with the Nook at a BN shop, I asked the staff about the “flash”. “I’ve gotten used to it” or “I don’t notice it” was the response. I got a similar response from Kindle 1 users. I did notice it and it got on my nerves … quickly. But then, again, I read faster than the average bear. But the Kindle 3 did live up to the promise … the flashing is still there but it’s a LOT faster. When I’m reading for enjoyment, it takes about the same amount of time that it takes me to move my eyes from the bottom of the page to the top of a new page. If I’m speed-reading, it will still slow me down but, since most of my reading is for enjoyment, that’s a minor issue.

But there is more than speed … and, while, Kindle 3 does fit well with my “enjoyment” reading speed, that’s not the only factor. I’m an IT guy and IT books tend to be a) heavy and b) costly. With the Kindle, these are stored on the device and, from what I’ve seen so far, about half the price of the physical books. This makes it a lot easier to “carry” and access technical reference books than we have traditionally known – with full searchability as an added bonus – at a lower cost. One device … the size and weight of a standard paperback … loaded with all the reference books that you need … and that sync’s with your PC so that you have the same reference books everywhere … well, that’s pretty damn cool.

This technology is a game-changer. In many ways, I’m a stodgy old fart when it comes to books … I do love the smell and feel of paper and that will never change. But the future of Reading is on these kinds of devices. Paper won’t go away but it will be marginalized – I, personally, have thousands of books with only a hundred (at most) that I would buy physically – and mostly these are old, early editions (I have one of the first printings of Nietzsche in English; Kindle just can’t compete with that). I just downloaded Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English (yes, I can read and understand Middle English; taking both French and German helped A LOT)  with footnotes for $0.99 … and the book when I took the class in college was $100+ … used (but it is a pretty, pretty book and not one that I’ll ever let go). I actually want to have both … but I do realize that I am the exception rather than the rule. Ironically (or not), my professor for that class was the only prof that I had that would accept papers in digital form via email though I’m sure that’s much more common now that it was in 1992-ish. I can see my Chaucer professor (Arnie Sanders at Goucher College) assigning a set of Kindle locations rather than (or in addition to) pages. Back then, he was, IMHO, on the forefront of technology and literature … we even talked, at one point in time, about mixing HyperCard technology with Reader Response theory to create a truly interactive text that was a creative effort between the reader and the writer. He’s the same professor that introduced me to Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash, ironic considering where my career took me.

But I digress.

This technology is a game-changer. I’ll say it again and I’ll say it over and over. It represents the the publishing medium of tomorrow. As a society/culture, we are moving (quickly) into a purely digital format and book publication has been lagging even further behind than music and video publishing. I carry my Kindle around everywhere now – it’s small, light and convenient. I also have the Kindle software on all of my PC's … this allows me to access all of the computer reference books that I have on the Kindle easily from anywhere and everywhere. Access is ubiquitous. It’s almost as good my music and video collection. With only my Kindle, I can download any book that is available from the Amazon Kindle store at any time, regardless of where I am. Besides the obvious “immediate gratification” aspect, this is moving the “Information Age” further … making information (i.e. books) available anywhere, anytime … and on any device (didn’t Microsoft say something about that???). As the “Information Age” generation grows up, they will expect more and more of this. The Kindle won’t be the end-all and be-all … there will need to be (and will be) a movement towards standardization of DRM on these devices that will further expand the platform. Most content cannot be exchanged between the Sony Reader, the Kindle and the Nook and this will need to change. As these devices and the platform matures, I have little doubt that it will change – the market will demand it. If the publishers want someone like me to by a physical copy, you’ll need to include a digital copy as well. The movie studios have figured this out. Print publishers will need to do the same thing, if only to compete.

The Kindle is the device that I currently have in my hands and, quite honestly, I love it. Really, I do, I love it. In a little over a week, it has completely changed how I read. And as I use it, I see the future of this technology and where it can go. There will be very, very few books that I purchase in “analog” format. And most of those I do buy will have been printed before things like the Internet existed. Or include a “digital” version. After all, I won’t purchase a movie without a digital version and I don’t see that changing regardless of medium.

I love to read. My Kindle makes it easier and more enjoyable to read. Therefore, I love my Kindle. That’s all there is to it.

{Sidebar: Microsoft had similar technology years ago in Microsoft Reader (c. 2000). This was the initial platform for ClearType. And while ClearType is now standard and expected across Microsoft operating systes, the Microsoft Reader concept was abandoned. They never took the leap to a dedicated reading device but insisted that it be a part of the Windows platform from core OS to Windows Mobile. Yet another example where Microsoft’s marketing didn’t capitalize on their technology and allowed others to take the lead and pushed Microsoft into the background.}

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