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(Mario Tama/Getty Images)
(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Ian Brown

Amazon's e-reader doesn't exactly kindle my passion Add to ...

Do you ever find yourself all on your own at the end of your branch, thinking: Unless I'm losing my mind, the world is suffering from mass delusion?

I had the experience just the other day, when I finally laid my hands on a Kindle.

Kindle - the article is silent - is Amazon's e-book reader, the electronic doodad that has every publisher in the world fearing for the future. Kindle was introduced this week in Canada, and, according to a lot of technophiles, will soon render the physical book a has-been. Fewer than half of 1 per cent of all the books sold in North America last year were e-books, but some estimates call for that share to double every year.

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Instead of traipsing off to the library or the distant bookstore and lugging home stacks of heavy, expensive, tree-destroying books, Kindle loads books wirelessly in digital form for a fraction of their paperbound price.

"Although Kindle is about the size of a paperback book," the online manual informed me, neglecting to add that it's also twice as heavy, "it can store over a thousand digital books, newspapers, blogs and magazines, which are referred to collectively as 'content.'"



Kindle was also a joy to use, according to an electronic letter I found on my Kindle, addressed to me, personally, from Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com.

"Our top design objective," wrote Jeff - I feel I can call him Jeff - "was for Kindle to disappear in your hands - to get out of the way - so you can enjoy your reading. We hope you'll quickly forget you're reading on an advanced wireless device and instead be transported into that mental realm readers love, where the outside world dissolves, leaving only the author's stories, words and ideas."

Having read on Kindle for 24 hours, I'll say this: If you can forget you're using one, I'm the next Miss Sweden.

The first thing I did was download Nicholson Baker's new novel, The Anthologist. I happened to have a hard copy of The Anthologist sitting on my desk, and I wanted to compare the old way of reading with the new.

I turned randomly in the book to page 10, where Baker writes "People are going to feed you all kinds of oyster crackers about iambic pentameter" - except that it wasn't page 10 on Kindle, it was at "locations 131-38," which is how Kindle has to number things because its typeface is customizable. You want bigger type? Okay! Fewer words per line? No problem. Unfortunately, that's also why it's such a pain in the grasp to find specific stuff on Kindle. A distinctly clitoral toggle switch lets you move around a page and highlight and make notes and save passages - stuff you'd use a pencil to do in a standard book - but it's fussy and Lilliputian to boot.

In its book form, page 10 of The Anthologist is a left-hand, or verso, page, matched by a right-hand, recto counterpart. The pages sit open like a pair of wings, and the layout has a roomy feel.

On Kindle, there are no left or right pages, and nothing winged: just a cramped three-and-three-eighths-inch-by-four-and-five-eighths-inch rectangle of pale grey, non-reflective, not hard-to-read but unbeguilingly dull window of e-ink text in a slim, five-by-sevenish-inch sleeve of metal and white plastic.

There was a gauge at the bottom of the Kindle screen that informed me I was 5 per cent of my way through The Anthologist ; in the book I was on page 10 of 243.

Kindle text was easy to read, and I'm sure the proprietary protocol Amazon uses will get more flexible, so that one day it may be possible to buy a Kindle book such as The Anthologist and lend it to a friend, which you can't do now unless you share your Kindle too.

But in every other way, reading on a Kindle is to reading a book as having sex while wearing (two) condoms is to having sex: It's still technically intercourse, but doesn't feel the same. A book feels like a thing that can be passed from hand to hand. Kindle feels convenient. Vague as that sounds, it's a profound difference.

Design-wise, Kindle's no triumph. Finding a book in the Kindle Store and clit-toggling up or down to select the title you want and then pressing the toggle and waiting for it to wirelessly load and display on your Kindle is like chopping garlic - fiddly, sticky and definitely not fast.

Kindle isn't an aesthetic experience, either. Kindle books often don't display covers, because Kindle is a black-and-white device and can't always render them. Instead, many Kindle books begin with a title page that runs straight into copyright and half title and table of contents and chapter one without interruption. Is it so strange to like the way physical books announce themselves gradually, each opening page making another step toward the oncoming state of suspension a good book promises - what Bezos called "the mental realm readers love" in his personal letter to me? A Kindle book, on the other hand, comes on like a lap dancer 10 minutes before closing time. It barely says hello.

There are allegedly more than 90 newspapers available on the new Canadian Kindle. I could find only two, one of which was The Globe and Mail - and let me tell you, reading a broadsheet like The Globe and Mail on a napkin-sized Kindle feels like your mind is in prison, and that the jailer is permitting you one story at a time, one toggle after another, with no pictures, no context, no sense of relative importance, not even much variation in type size.

It was hideous. I thought: I know, I'll use the text-to-speech feature, which lets Kindle read text aloud, to declaim the Globe's stories. Unfortunately that was like being in prison with a droid that needed its adenoids out. Kindle was more palatable when I ordered up The Spectator, a London magazine of zesty writing that I would otherwise have to find an international newsstand to purchase.

Amazon claims more than 300,000 titles are available on Kindle. More interesting is what titles aren't there. I couldn't find Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude , or J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey , or even something called The Boy in the Moon , by Ian Brown, to name just a few.

Don't ask me why: Kindle doesn't say "It's out of stock" or "No one wants that" or "I think it's over in gay parenting," as even the hinkiest and most zombified Indigo clerk will if you push hard enough. Kindle just leaves you slightly fearful that the intellectual firmament you knew has disintegrated. I know Amazon isn't the ancient library at Alexandria; I can understand that it might not have Thomas Bernhard's Concrete ready for electronic uptake. But no Phillip Roth, at all? Nothing by Raymond Chandler? Not even The Diary of Anne Frank ?

Admittedly, we get jumpy every time we change our collective reading habits. It wasn't until the ninth century that most people began to read books silently, to themselves (as opposed to out loud, in groups); experts immediately began to fret that private reading would turn everyone into a neurasthenic layabout.

So let me tell you one thing Kindle is good for. When I woke for my nightly bout of sleeplessness, I turned to Kindle, to read in the dark. Alas, it wouldn't turn on - until I realized that it was on, that Kindle doesn't light up.

So I padded into the spare room and turned on the bedside light, and downloaded the kind of book that is available on Kindle, the kind of book I don't often get a chance to read - part one of Stephanie Meyer's massively popular Twilight saga.

I whizzed through four chapters of Twilight on Kindle, inhaling screenfuls of text at a single glance. She's a very readable writer. But that's also the secret of Kindle: It's brilliant for popular stuff, for the kind of genre book that delivers reliable, not-too-radical thrills you can absorb with half your brain elsewhere. Kindle is a marketing gadget that could make the consumption of certain kinds of book more convenient and efficient. Unlike its battery, a life of the mind is not included.

 

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