Mr NYGeek Gets a Kindle

So, Santa, was I naughty or nice? The Kindle you gave me for Christmas is quite delightful, which makes me think that you must have noticed some of the good things I did in 2009. On the other hand, my relationship with books is somehow self-abusive – I buy far more of them than I have the time to actually read. All it takes is a well-written book review or an enthusiastic recommendation from a friend or even an acquaintance and my Amazon.com history quickly gets ever longer.

Back when I was courting my wife I remember telling her about one night when I woke up disoriented in my (then solitary) bed completely covered with books. It seems that my towering reading list, piled high on the night table, had become unstable and collapsed on me. I thought the story was funny, she thought it was cautionary. She was right.

So now I have yet another way to consume the written word. My wife will be pleased, since the Kindle will hold in its capacious storage a quantity of books far beyond the remaining available shelf space in our New York apartment. Perhaps I’ll even buy Kindle versions of some of my favorites and consign their dead-tree equivalents to the great recycling bin in the sky, or at least to the used book store on Broadway across from Zabar’s.

Thus I am introducing a new series of blog posts for “Hacks From the Bleeding Edge,” “Mr NYGeek gets a Kindle.” I will report on the surprises, the joys, the anti-joys, and what I learn. If no one reads them, that’s OK. I’m writing mostly to capture what I learn before I forget it or lose track of it, not because I think I’m going to pioneer major new technical, literary, or intellectual territory.

New York Times

One of the first things I did was sign up for the New York Times on my Kindle. I have recently discussed with several colleagues a study of the Kindle and its competitors (the Barnes and Noble Nook, the Sony PRS-600, the ViewSonic VEB-612, and others). The research program isn’t complete, but we’d like to understand the benefits and costs of various media choices.

Some observations.

For background, I read the New York Times in paper at home every day. I have read this newspaper daily since I was in middle school. In addition to reading it in paper, I regularly go to the Times website (www.nytimes.com) and read articles there. And now I have the Times on my Kindle.

How does my reading differ in the three media?

With the paper I find that I pick specific sections and browse them from beginning to end, reading part or all of articles that catch my attention. Since the lineup of sections varies with the day of the week, my selections vary. Also my choices vary depending on how much time I have. If I have little time I may limit myself to just the main section and the business section. When I have more leisure I will read Style and Arts sections. With yet more time, I’ll open the Book Review and even read the Sports section for more than just the league tables for whatever sports happen to be in season.

On the web I find that I have a much more focused style. I usually use the Web site to look up specific articles so that I can send links to people. I do this a fair amount, several times a week. In addition I sometimes read specific sections, particularly Op-Ed, on days when I am rushed in the morning and don’t have time to wait for my wife to finish reading the main section before I have to leave for work.

So far on the Kindle I find that scanning the entire paper is much quicker and easier. I go to the section list at the front and then go into each section and browse the list of titles and writers presented there. I dig in to the articles whose titles appeal to me and read part or all of them, returning to the summary page using the “Back” key when I’ve finished an article.

I find that this process is fast and efficient enough that I have browsed the contents of all of today’s (Sunday’s) sections and read at least one article in each section, more than I probably would have done reading the paper edition.

Today after reading in the Kindle I went through the paper edition manually. As a result of hooks, mostly photographs, in the articles I read two or three more items that I had skipped in the Kindle. I also read the football and basketball league tables, which don’t seem to be published in the Kindle version of the Times.

Leaves of Grass

I looked around for various books that I wanted to put on my Kindle. Many of the titles that I sought are unavailable, for instance I’m presently rereading Patrick O’Brian’s “The Yellow Admiral” but none of the Aubrey-Maturin novels are available for Kindle. I looked for a copy of “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, an old favorite of mine. The Amazon web site smugly informed me that there were 197 matches ranging in price from $0.00 to $48.79. I guess Clemens’ copyright must have expired by now, poor him, so anyone with a copy of the text can publish an edition.

Not all of the 197 are copies of “Huckleberry Finn.” Some are groups of chapters bundled separately and others are scholarly commentary and analysis. In at least one case you get both “Tom Sawer” and “Huckleberry Finn” together in a single Kindle edition.

Dismayed by the plethora of choices, I tried some other titles. I ultimately decided to order a copy of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” another old favorite. This book of poems was Whitman’s great commercial success from its original publication as a slim 95-page volume in 1855 through numerous editions to the final “Deathbed Edition” of 1892, reported to be over 500 pages in length. Fearing the worst, I bypassed the free and very cheap editions and plumped for a $3.00 edition. Oops. No table of contents, no indication of what edition of “Leaves of Grass” I had purchased. The comments on the Amazon website were a confused commingling of all different media and editions, making it hard to tell what Kindle edition, if any, was better than another. Worse yet, it’s almost impossible to distinguish Kindle editions from one another.

The lack of a table of contents is lethal, in my view, and the failure of the downloaded instance of the book to clearly identify itself and its “publisher” is disturbing.

“Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer”

This evening I tried again with “Huckleberry Finn” and this time crawled through the many instances (editions?). In an effort to get some sort of bead on quality, I bought two instances, both for $1.50 each. One is branded as a Modern Library edition and the other as a Penguin edition. Both are brands that I know and respect. Of course, if I’ve learned anything as a digital pioneer, it is never wise to assume that a trustworthy organization in one medium will manage to maintain their quality standards in a new medium, so watch this space for more feedback on the Huckleberry Finn editions.

I tried the same trick with “Tom Sawyer” but without immediate success. The water is muddied by the smelly footprints of Twain’s ongoing milking of the “Tom Sawyer” franchise with dreck like “Tom Sawyer, Detective” and “Tom Sawyer Abroad,” both of which I have had the misfortune to read. I can’t seem to find a Penguin or Modern Library edition of this book for the Kindle. This isn’t terribly surprising, since “Tom Sawyer” is such a minor book by comparison with “Huckleberry Finn.”

News at 11.

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