This blog is the first of a series focused on the Kindle, drawing on the experiences and perspectives of final-year English Literature student, Lucy Ellis. These blog posts are being written as part of Lucy’s first project on the Project Management and Research undergraduate module at Cardiff University.
This academic year, Cardiff University’s English Literature department has piloted a brand new module, in which third year students can contribute to the university’s academic projects and get a first hand taste of how research at Cardiff works. My name is Lucy, and this semester I will be blogging for Cardiff Book History on a subject of my own. Cardiff Book History provides a wide variety of information on speakers, workshops, interviews and general points of interests ranging from native cosmopolitanism to women and gardens in the eighteenth century. However, I wanted to think outside the box.
Being a blog site dedicated to the history of the book, I wished to focus on how books and the methods people use to read have transformed significantly over the last couple of decades – most obviously with the phenomenon of new technology, exemplified by the Amazon Kindle. Through this technological revolution, the popularity of reading has been revitalised; casually reading a Kindle one-handed on a busy London tube is a day to day sight. According to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Taking Part 2011/12 Adult and Child Report, around three quarters of the UK population read in their spare time, beating gardening, cinema trips and theatre. It is the ultimate cultural hobby. This is why I’ve decided not to talk about what we read, but the way we read, and there’s no better starting point than to discuss my own personal experience with the Kindle.
My journey with the Amazon Kindle started in December 2010, as a Christmas present given on my year out, just before I went travelling for six months. From a traveller’s point of view, the Kindle was a godsend. As some of you of may know, packing six months of your life into one backpack isn’t an easy task, and being an avid reader-for-pleasure, the prospect of stuffing in a book a fortnight seemed impossible. But, all my worries dissolved when I was presented with 200 grams containing a miniature library – I’d never have to buy a paperback again.
When I did go travelling, the Kindle allowed me to read everything I wanted; including literature from all the countries I visited (Tanzania, Australia, Fiji) which enriched my experiences further. When I arrived at Cardiff in September 2011 to study English Literature, my Kindle proved to be of even greater value. Almost all literature classics from the Kindle Store are free or under a pound due to the lack of copyright laws. This has been useful throughout my university career, and while some friends have spent hundreds of pounds on textbooks for their course, I currently have very few books sitting on my shelf at university.
However, finding books and buying them for a cheap price on Amazon is not as easy as it sounds. During my time as a Kindle owner, it has become obvious to me that the device caters primarily for a more modern, populist audience. Bestsellers, newspapers and popular books written in the last ten years are extremely accessible via the online Kindle Store. However, from my experience, anything between, including many famous classics and bestsellers are left behind. Many times have I searched for a book online, only to find it’s not available and had to buy a physical copy of a book or do without. Still being a fairly new technology and there being millions of books out there, as well as copyright issues and author disagreements, Kindle has a lot of texts to catch up on if it’s to be any match for a traditional, physical library.
My general experience of the Kindle has been positive, but despite the pros and cons of saving space and buying books, it is the actual experience of reading that is crucial when comparing the Kindle to the traditional book. For me, I found it was not so different from reading a normal page. There seems to be a general misconception that a Kindle screen will generate the same computer glare, a suspicion that after two hours of reading you’ll be seeing squares and on your knees with a burning headache. In fact, the Kindle uses electrophoretic ink (e-ink) to create and recreate text every time you ‘turn’ the page. Not only does this have no impact on your health at all, but it also saves an incredible amount of battery.
The way you monitor how far into a book you are is completely different as well. With a standard paperback you will get the satisfaction – or disappointment – of how far you’ve read indicated by the block of pages remaining in your hand. On kindle, you can tell by the percentage at the bottom of the page. As a student pressured to read a lot of books in a set amount of time, this is incredibly useful and allows me to figure out exactly how long it will take me to finish; if I’ve read 10 per cent in ten minutes, then I know it will take me exactly an hour-and-a-half to complete a text. (The most recent Kindle model, the PaperWhite, predicts how long it’ll take to read to the end of the book or chapter, based on the speed of your past page turns.) From my point of view, this robotic reminder means I can plan my academic reading well. However, this has significant disadvantages for those who read for pleasure as it does suck some excitement out of literally being lost in a story and reduces it to numerical data. Although I love my Kindle, this is where all users miss out, and it is a further indication of how the hallowed sanctuary of a book is being increasingly assimilated by technology in all forms. Its practicality is valuable, but it will never quite match up to the joy of discovering an anarchic book at the back of a library, curling up, and escaping into a good story.
Although the Kindle has been wildly popular – a phenomenon that has solved many reading-related issues and encouraged purchasers to explore and rediscover texts – it still has a long way to go before it overtakes the traditional book.