Friday, July 31, 2009

Send to Trash After Reading

The last two years, I've reviewed a book of the year's best technology writing. If I could vote on entries for this year's, I'd have to include this New Yorker piece by Nicholson Baker on the Kindle. In it, he explains how the Kindle is still light years away from providing a superlative reading experience. Some consider Baker a bit of a neo-Luddite, but I can't sling that pejorative at such a good writer - especially since by the article's end, he does recommend using the iPhone with the Kindle app, as well as several other apps.

The whole article's definitely worth a read, but I found this section in particular on the experience of reading The New York Times on the Kindle particularly telling.
The real flurry over the new DX, though, has to do with the fate of newspapers. The DX offers more than twice as much Vizplex as the Kindle 2—about half the area of a piece of letter-size paper—enough, some assert, to reaccustom Web readers to paying for the digital version of, say, the Times, thereby rescuing daily print journalism from financial ruin. “With Kindle DX’s large display, reading newspapers is more enjoyable than ever,” according to Amazon’s Web site.

It’s enjoyable if you like reading Nexis printouts. The Kindle Times ($13.99 per month) lacks most of the print edition’s superb photography—and its subheads and call-outs and teasers, its spinnakered typographical elegance and variety, its browsableness, its Web-site links, its listed names of contributing reporters, and almost all captioned pie charts, diagrams, weather maps, crossword puzzles, summary sports scores, financial data, and, of course, ads, for jewels, for swimsuits, for vacationlands, and for recently bailed-out investment firms. A century and a half of evolved beauty and informational expressiveness is all but entirely rinsed away in this digital reductio.

Sometimes whole articles and op-ed contributions aren’t there. Three pieces from the July 8, 2009, print edition of the Times—Adam Nagourney on Sarah Palin’s resignation, Alessandra Stanley on Michael Jackson’s funeral, and David Johnston on the civil rights of detainees—were missing from the Kindle edition, or at least I haven’t managed to find them (they’re available free on the Times Web site); the July 9th Kindle issue lacked the print edition’s reporting on interracial college roommates and the infectivity rates of abortion pills. I checked again on July 20th and 21st: Verlyn Klinkenborg’s appreciation of Walter Cronkite was absent, as was a long piece on Mongolian shamanism.

The Kindle DX ($489) doesn’t save newspapers; it diminishes and undercuts them—it kills their joy. It turns them into earnest but dispensable blogs.
Emphasis mine.

None of this is to say that the Kindle (or, more accurately, the e-reader) isn't a revolutionary device. But sometimes we can get so caught up cheering on the technology that we overlook its obvious deficiencies.

  • New York mag article in which Lane Brown guesstimates Baker's expenses for the piece, only to be corrected by him in comments.
  • Stephen Johnson's more positive forecast for the impact of the e-reader on the future of books in April 20th's Wall Street Journal. He concludes, "We all know the story of how the information-wants-to-be-free ethos of the Web threatened the newspapers with extinction. Wouldn't it be ironic if books turned out to be their savior?"
  • On the Media podcast from May 8, 2009 on a Senate committee hearing on the "Future of Journalism."
Image above from my Flickr stream

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