Will books still kindle our creative fires?



Today post is by guest Karen Bruns, who shares her thoughts on books in the digital age.

I'm totally sold on the idea of (almost) instant reading pleasure. My idea of heaven is to be the guy in the library in the Robin Williams movie "What dreams may come". Actually, heaven in that movie is enough to make me a really good girl... all that wet paint!

But officially the Kindle is not available in South Africa yet, so I asked Karen for her thoughts on our relationship with The Book.

Over to Karen:

As a child I really wasn’t that keen on the idea of school – institutionalised hell had been my brief experience at the local Maltabella-enriched playgroup. But what were the options at a time when Veldskool was the educational antidote to the perils of suburbia? 70’s South Africa did not see any advantage to individualised home schooling.

Bloody-minded and unwilling, I only agreed to enlist at the local primary so that I could learn to read for myself. My adults were undisciplined, needing to “rest” their eyes too frequently and skipping pages crucial to the storyline. I just had to go and do it for myself. Then I’d be out of there faster than a racehorse on five legs, or so I thought.

I was smugly reminded of this well-negotiated, but poorly structured, deal by my mother as I came over the hump of my third degree and contemplated a fourth. After two dozen years, had I still not learned to read, she asked.

Growing up, books were my escape from provincial ugliness. They provided the symbolic tunnel out of there. Anyone who has ever loved a book knows that it goes beyond the story – there’s the feel of the book, the weight of it, its smell. But with books, we say, "It was a real page-turner - I couldn't put it down." We don't talk about addictive books.

But I know fellow-addicts when I see them and in April, London’s Earl’s Court is teaming with them. London Book Fair season – the annual international event where publishers and agents all exhale hype, in a desperate effort to keep the reading world churning. It is neither refined nor genteel. There are no long, lubricating lunches. The LBF is a war zone and you have got to be a combo of devilish Miranda Priestley, fast-talking Jerry Maguire and tenacious Robert Mugabe to survive Day One.

On Day Two, you’ll have reread the biographies of Kissinger and North, and Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War, before opening and if you don’t have a battery of parallels up your sleeve, to deal with contract-flush editors’ lack of imagination, you’re a P.O.W. “This manuscript could be the racy love child of Richard Dawkins and Toni Morrison” or “a spiritual thriller that is the essence of Paulo Coelho as told by Ian Fleming”. Frankly, it’s enthralling.

The Fair talk last year was equally contradictory in its excitement. In 2006, the Sony Reader with its awesome screen was born. I heard reports that e-ink looks like paper (well, as close to paper as anything that's not paper can look). Now we have the Amazon Kindle, with the Bezos promise that you can now have "any book in the world in one minute or less" - except when a book isn't available. Once it moves beyond the borders of the United States – it rolls out to the UK in 2009 – Amazon will be in a prime position to more easily extract money from stony wallets.

It's designed especially for the impulse shopper and the entire device works on the concept of "One Click" ordering. The idea is that if you hear a review of a book, you can get it immediately. If you read a nice book cover at the airport bookstore, you can buy it before you even know that your flight has been "further delayed".

The paperback book sized Kindle screen has a clean interface. But that's not all. It has a mobile web browser – you can check e-mail with gmail's mobile interface. It has the potential to be quite the handheld computer if Amazon allows it. The Kindle has its own email address so you can send yourself PDFs for mere cents (US) and they'll show up pretty nicely.

There's a collection of newspapers available, including the New York Times, so that reading the newspaper can naturally fit into your day much more cleanly now. I'm told that in the US the wireless is surprisingly fast - this means that you don't have to dock ANOTHER device into your computer.

It's apparently glorious - but not perfect. The Next Page buttons run almost the length of both sides of the thing, which means consciously avoiding accidentally turning pages. Also, there's a chance that you may fall asleep holding the buttons and find yourself with a dead battery and on the last page. From a design perspective, neither the Sony Reader nor the Amazon Kindle is sexy. The iPod designers were clearly not invited. For the navy-socked and black-shoed amongst us, you probably won't care. It just works. Well, it works if you're in a decent-sized US city, in other words it isn't even coast-to-coast yet.

It also costs more than most people would like it to, but if I'd use it every day to read the newspaper, I'd buy it. The issue, however, is this: Do I really want to read a book on it? When I forget the middle name of the hero of my story, do I really want to be scrolling? Do I want ANOTHER battery operated device in my bedroom (don't ask!)? Will I be able to read in the bath? Thank goodness I don't have access to a US credit card and all these decisions can await another day in Gondwanaland.


Karen Bruns heads up marketing at the HSRC Press (www.hsrcpress.ac.za), but writes here in her personal capacity. She is a voracious reader – from autobiographies to travel ezines – and as a result of her personal contribution to deforestation thereby, she is anxiously interested in environmental issues. Articles that she has written about her many forays near and far have been published in national and bespoke magazines – but she still can’t travel with only a cabin bag and she has no ambitions of being a Space Tourist.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Interesting, hope that the save the forest movement will get excited and have specials on these devices. Hope that authors and publishers see the bigger picture and allow thses devices in all countries.
How do you underline, make notes in the margin, feel the weight of the paper along with the weight of the words? I know that Oprah Winfrey loves them, but Kindles aren't for me. I'm an old-fashioned kind of book girl.
Skoorby said…
I wonder if this isn't a generational thing.

My son and I share a Kindle that we bought about a year ago. Since then, I don't think he's read a book except on the Kindle. While I've read a few on the Kindle and have been sort of comfortable doing so, I still have a vague preference for a physical book.

I have a long-standing aversion to marking up my books, so that's not an issue for me. But the physicality creates a dilemma. On the one hand, I like the idea that when I've finished reading a book that I enjoyed, I get to keep it in my "library" (bookshelves, sundry piles, boxes in the attic, etc.) and later survey the collection and occasionally re-read something.

On the other hand, when the accumulated pile comes to include books that were a waste of time or that are just outdated (anybody want a 1979 Encyclopaedia Britannica set?) I really hate throwing them away, even if the paper's recycled. Seems like such a waste of resources.

My son has absolutely no interest in accumulating a pile of old books. He says they're all on his Amazon account anyway. When I say that Amazon may not be there 20 years from now, he says the world will be entirely different 20 years from now, and finding an old book is not going to be a problem. When I say that the Kindle is just not the same as the physical heft of a book, he rolls his eyes and says he just remembered something he has to go and do elsewhere.

As I said, I think it's probably a generational thing.
Lynne said…
I'm loving the idea of being able to carry my library with me, in my handbag rather than gathering dust on my shelves. I'm loving the idea that with just one "book" I can dip into a volume that matches my mood.

I'm loving that if I'm early for an appointment I can read whatever I like while I'm waiting.

Most of all, I really love the fact that I can get books so cheaply and almost instantly.
A saving of 2/3 of the price of the average bestseller here in SA means that the Kindle will pay for itself pretty quickly.

Meri, like Skoorby I don't like marking books (although my grandfather was a prolific margin-writer, and I like to see his comments if I pick up one of his old books). The Kindle does have a highlighting function, but I think it will need some work before its really useful.
Skoorby said…
A new version of the Kindle is likely to be announced next week. See http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/27/amazons-kindle-2-will-debut-feb-9/
Anonymous said…
When will Kindle be available in South Africa and any idea how much it would cost
Lynne said…
I'm sure it must be available in South Africa sometime... and hopefully sooner rather than later. Besides anything, as Oprah mentioned on the show she did about it, what better way for children to carry around their textbooks?

At the moment as far as I know the hold up is with South African publishers who haven't signed an agreement with Amazon. My brother who lives in the US bought me mine, and there are ways to get round the restrictions on buying books if you check out the Amazon forums.

Most of the books I am reading on mine are the free downloads, of which there are hundreds, especially the old classics. Some bestselling current authors, such as Stephen King, are offering titles for free as well, so you wouldn't be short of reading matter if you bought one.
Yvette Kelly said…
Hi.I bought my Kindle and am from SA.I went thru so many hassles from being stupid so I made a blogpost on how to get a Kindle from SA or anywhere outside the US.If you are interested please see link below
http://truecrimebookreviews.blogspot.com/2009/05/buying-and-using-kindle-in-south-africa.html

I am now busy reading my FIRST book off Kindle and so far so good...

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