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See Inside September 2009

Cache and Carry: A Review of the Kindle

The best answer yet to what's black and white and read all over



Matt Collins

I’m not your classic “early adopter” when it comes to new electronic gizardry (a word I just made up that means a combination of gizmo and wizardry, with a secondary definition of bird digestion). I’m not even what one ersatz electronics guru referred to as an “early adapter,” although I do sometimes wonder if my purpose in life has been reduced to making sure my various devices are all plugged in correctly.

So I’m a bit surprised to be a longtime owner (since February!) of a second-generation Amazon Kindle. The e-reader looks both futuristic and pedestrian, like something Harrison Ford in Blade Runner might be reading from and then bleeding on.

My sister, who travels a great deal for work and is fond of airplane fiction of the Dan Brown and Robin Cook schools, adopted a first-generation model early. Borrowing hers, I was thus able to experiment when I had some travel of my own. I usually take a bunch of books on the road. So I weighed the Kindle against the books—seriously, I put them on a scale—and promptly decided to get one of them there newfangled, thin, low-mass reading machines of my own.

Amazon sells Kindle versions of many new books at a discount. But one of the first things I discovered is how much stuff you can cram on it that is totally free. Project Gutenberg, which is trying to get everything that’s now off copyright onto the Web, has posted thousands of classics, and it’s easy to download them in seconds on a home computer and then move them over to the Kindle. Three decades ago I bought (but still have not read) a copy of The Brothers Karamazov, which sits on a shelf at home. Now, with the Kindle, in less than five months I already have not read the electronic edition of The Brothers Karamazov on three continents.

(By the way, the 1958 movie version of that book stars a very young, very subdued William Shatner, who later, as Captain Kirk, was often handed a Kindle-looking device, which he then invariably glanced at, signed and returned. So rather than being an e-reader, it was probably a deep-space requisition-generating machine with which to authorize the purchase of red Starfleet shirts, which are tough to keep in stock.)

Users can also easily move PDF and text documents over to the device. So instead of printing out the 125 pages of manuscripts and proposals that we may go over in a given editorial meeting, I just load the whole PDF onto the Kindle. At the meeting, it’s then a snap to shuttle between the editorial notes and a Dan Jenkins golf novel called Slim and None, which unfortunately also describes the chances that I will read The Brothers Karamazov before you read this column.

But the Kindle is not without its drawbacks. The ease with which one can sample a book’s first chapter for free and then buy the complete work can lead the less careful reader astray. That was how, before a recent flight to London, I wound up getting a Dean Koontz best seller called Relentless. The plot was man-bites-dog intriguing: a novelist gets a bad review, after which the reviewer appears to be intent on tracking down and killing the writer.

But then (SPOILER ALERT!, although “spoiler” suggests there is something that could be ruined), I unexpectedly descended into a Bizarro world of good-guy survivalists, bad-guy intellectuals and a six-year-old physics super­genius named Milo who actually does read Dostoyevsky, albeit a comic book edition of Crime and Punishment. I was alternately shaking and scratching my head long before Milo builds a teleportation apparatus that can’t handle the boy’s weight but can deal with the 10-pounds-lighter family dog. Which quickly learns how to teleport itself without the device. You know, the way Pavlov’s dogs learned to salivate without the food. With his new power, the dog foils a nefarious plot. Woof.

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