April 25, 2009
THE DIGERATI DIARIES
Kindling a love affair with books
By Joanne Lee
I READ a book last weekend without touching a single page - a single paper page, that is.
That's right, I got a Kindle! A Kindle 2 to be precise: Amazon's e-reader device that lets you buy books direct from the online shop and download it in a matter of seconds.
Technically speaking, Kindles are only available - and only work properly - in the US. Through a platform proprietary to Amazon called Whispernet, users can download content without a computer and without a fee provided they have Wi-Fi access. Thing is, Whispernet is only available in the US at the moment. Its launch in Britain and elsewhere in Europe is being delayed by problems signing up suitable Wi-Fi operators.
Launched in November 2007 at a retail price of US$399 (S$595), and with 88,000 digital books initially available for download from Amazon, the first lot of Kindles sold out within five-and-a-half hours and remained out of stock for half a year. Then Kindle 2 hit the online market this February at US$359, with improved battery life, 20 per cent faster refreshing, a text-to-speech option and enough memory to hold 1,500 books, among other improvements.
To a bookworm like myself - a long-time customer of Amazon by the way - it's been cruel and unusual punishment for Amazon to have kept such magic so close to its chest. But like any bit of technology that is highly desirable, the IT-savvy have managed to get around the problem - and I'm extremely lucky to have tech-savvy friends.
I first saw a Kindle with my very own eyes when an old friend, based in Chicago, came home for Chinese New Year and was happily reading away in a cafe while waiting for her tardy friends to show up.
I was green with envy. No. I was deeply, pulsingly emerald green with envy. So when another friend went off to the United States on holiday, a couple of us got him to order Kindles to his US address and parallel import them home.
Just like how Apple users managed to get around the lack of telco support before the iPhone was officially launched in Singapore, we managed to find a way to get the Kindle working - albeit through a more convoluted method than the lucky Whispernet-enabled Americans.
But once I got my Kindle hooked up to my laptop, that was it. I bought six books at one go. It's as dangerous as buying applications for your iPhone at the iTunes App Store: One-click and - ker-ching - you're $9.99 down. Nonetheless, curling up in bed with my newest love, I proceeded to click through pages that were easy on the eye, thoroughly enjoying the novel experience (pun intended).
Obviously, it's not the same as reading a physical book. Holding the device needed getting used to as it kept slipping in my favourite foetal reading position. Then there was the initial confusion of hitting 'next page' and 'previous page', and figuring out how to bookmark my page. Having long nails didn't help with the navigation button either.
Happily, I managed to sort out the teething problems after a couple of hours into my first virtual book: The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent - a 10th-generation descendant of Martha Carrier who was hanged for being a witch during the Salem witch trials of 1692.
Although I have a slightly morbid fascination for the history of witch hunts in the Middle Ages, I probably wouldn't have bought it had I just been browsing the shelves at a bookshop. It was a debut novel, I've already read enough books about the Salem witch trials, and being a descendant of one of the victims didn't necessarily mean Kent would have new insights into the matter.
Besides, my library - spread across two rooms in my house - is so large that my family is always worried the book shelves are going to collapse one night and kill me.
Also, have you noticed that second-hand book shops don't buy books anymore? They rent out and sell second-hand books, but they don't buy them from owners. The only way I can keep my book population in check these days is to give the ones I won't read again to the library.
So, though I adore the smell of a new book and take pride in adding to my literary collection, these days I think twice before buying a book. Will it be good? Will I want to read it again? Am I going to be stuck with something that a tree should not have had to die for?
Enter the Kindle.
It is perfect for books that you might not read again or that won't add value to your library. It's also much cheaper than buying a physical book when you aren't quite sure if it's going to be a dud.
Don't get me wrong though. My weekly jaunts to the bookshops aren't about to stop anytime soon. There are certain authors and certain topics that I simply have to own - in hardcover if possible. Indeed, I dream of one day having a library with books shelves up to the ceiling, a rolling ladder and the works.
But I don't want it filled with paperbacks that do not deserve to be there, cheek-by-jowl with my century-old copy of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.
The Kindle 2 has changed all that. Now I can read new authors or even a trashy bestseller without anyone knowing since they can't see the cover.
And best of all, when I'm off on holiday next week, I don't have to weigh myself down with holiday reading. All I need is my trusty Kindle which now hosts 10 books.
Now, all I have to do is exercise discipline when it comes to that 'click to buy' button!