Sunday, August 2, 2009

Reply to Nicholson Baker

In Nicholson Baker's A New Page, published in the August 3rd New Yorker, he asks, "Can the Kindle really improve on the book?" When I first read this, I was annoyed at how snarky it was but let it go. As more and more people quoted him, I decided to respond.

Is he really serious in some of his comments or is he trying to be cute? As a case in point, he says: "the wasp passage in “Do Insects Think?” just wasn’t the same in Kindle gray. I did an experiment. I found the Common Reader reprint edition of “Love Conquers All” and read the very same wasp passage. I laughed: ha-ha. Then I went back to the Kindle 2 and read the wasp passage again. No laugh. Of course, by then I’d read the passage three times, and it wasn’t that funny anymore. But the point is that it wasn’t funny the first time I came to it, when it was enscreened on the Kindle. Monotype Caecilia was grim and Calvinist; it had a way of reducing everything to arbitrary heaps of words."

Oh, please. I have had a Kindle (1 and then 2) since January of 2008 and have never had this experience. I fail to understand how the font used by the Kindle sucks the humor out of a passage. On the contrary, I have had to stop reading certain things in public on my Kindle lest I make a fool of myself laughing out loud.

I will agree that for me the text-to-speech is less than perfect. But it's not all about me, is it? There are those who need text to speech because of low vision or the inability to process words well, and I am happy that it is available for them. No one ever said that it was the equivalent of listening to Lisette Lecat read Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana novels. That is about as good as it gets. Even so, it's better to have text-to-speech than not. I applaud Amazon for including it, even though it has been crippled by publishers who think it robs them of income.

Mr. Baker's rant is overly long; he uses a lot of space to tell us about opening the box the Kindle came in. At that point we are no further along learning about the device itself. He also wastes a couple of paragraphs mentioning several books which are not on the Kindle. This hasn't been a deal-breaker for me. I've already read most of the books he mentions way before the Kindle, and if I want to read the rest, and other unavailable books, there's always the public library.

He writes: "But say you’ve actually found the book you’re seeking at the Kindle Store. You buy it. Do you get what’s described in the catalogue copy? Yes and no. You get the words, yes, and sometimes pictures, after a fashion. Photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well on the little gray screen. Page numbers are gone, so indexes sometimes don’t work. Trailing endnotes are difficult to manage. If you want to quote from a book you’ve bought, you have to quote by location range"

If a book is formatted properly for Kindle, endnotes, indexes and tables of contents have live links and work just fine. However, many are not properly formatted and Amazon needs to address this. He rambles on for many paragraphs telling us about books which are inappropriate for a Kindle, i.e., those with color illustrations, charts and lots of photographs. It would never even occur to me to buy these for my Kindle. The only cookbook I have on it is the charming Cook's Illustrated How-to-Cook Library. First of all, it uses black and white drawings which work quite well. Second, it is well-formatted with live links from the index, chapter headings, and within each chapter to the individual recipes.

He says: "The company uses an encoding format called Topaz." That is patently not true. The Topaz formatted books are few and far between. I have 152 books either on my Kindle or in the archives and only one of those is in the Topaz format. For the most part, Topaz has not been popular amongst us Kindlers.

"A copy of a Kindle book dies with its possessor." Not if you are sharing an account and quickly switch Amazon payments to a credit card belonging to the survivor. Otherwise yes, it does. I am not sure that my survivors would be thrilled to inherit more physical books than I already have, so it's a non-issue to me except for the other Kindler on my account, and we have this covered.

"Undeterred, the folks at Amazon gave the Kindle 1 a hose blast of marketing late in 2007. And they had a lucky break. Oprah, who had been slipped a pre-launch Kindle, announced that she was obsessed with it." Ah, Mr. Baker, another factual error: Oprah trumpeted her devotion to the Kindle in October of 2008. I know this, because I was able to grab one then, using her promotion of $50 off to give my daughter for her birthday just before Amazon sold out and Kindles became unavailable for several months.

He mentions the one-star reviews during 2008 which must have been painful for Amazon. Probably not, because a large majority of them were written by people who did not own a Kindle, those who "love the smell of books," or had other reasons for not wanting one. Not wanting something does not make you an expert unless you have used the item for some time. I don't want a set of golf clubs but it hasn't occurred to me to leave a poor review of golf clubs on some website.

In touting the iPod Touch or iPhone as a better reading device than the Kindle, he says: "It serves a night-reading need, which the lightless Kindle doesn’t." And how about his paean to the paper version of the New York Times? Can he read that in the dark? And how long can you read on a back lighted screen without eye strain?

Only in the last page of his review does Mr. Baker approach the nexus of what the Kindle actually does—the book disappears and it is only the language and the thought propelling you forward. Isn't that enough?


  1. Well said, Mary. I especially noted your catching the factual error of the timing of Oprah's endorsement. This post has been very helpful in getting me ready for my phone interview Tuesday with Mr. Baker, for this week's episode of my podcast.

  2. He (Mr. Baker) is a socialite, who admittedly doesn't enjoy reading books, doing a review of a book reader. Is it any wonder that his "review" (and I use that term loosely) comes off like a food review from a three year old who only eats hot dogs? Is it any wonder that he also touts the iPhone for reading (of all activities), the socialites wet-dream device?

    It is flame-bait from an insider wannabe, trolling legitimate readers, and nothing more. Don't let the decidedly adult words fool you. In time, it will be forgotten.