crisis averted! (maybe)

Herewith a cautionary — or an encouraging — tale. (Depends on how you read it.)

A few weeks ago I started having a problem with my Kindle: it wasn’t holding a charge nearly as well as it had been. It was running out of juice more quickly with every charge, and had reached the point that, with wi-fi off, it was usable for less than three days. Since I am about to spend a summer overseas, and had planned to rely on the Kindle pretty heavily: for every book I’m teaching, or need to consult regularly, this summer, I am using the Kindle version when there is one. I’ve had too many summers carrying massive backpacks of books around that country for this to be a resistible temptation.

But what if the Kindle malfunctions? What if it becomes completely unusable? Having the Kindle along means that I don’t have to carry twenty books; but if the Kindle stops working then all twenty of those books disappear. Would I then have to purchase them all (again!) in England? Should I give up on this experiment before I begin and resign myself to carrying an additional backback and therefore experiencing six weeks of aching shoulders and back?

I got on the phone with Amazon and explained my situation. For several days they hemmed and hawed: the customer service people (who were uniformly polite) told me that the tech people wanted me to try A or B or C. Finally, on Monday, I talked to a woman named Kellie and explained that things were getting close to zero hour and I needed to get a new Kindle or else I was going to have to abandon my plan and blame all my aches and pains on Amazon. She replied that she was going to short-circuit the usual procedures and send me a new one immediately. It should arrive today.

This will make some people think that Amazon is serious enough about making the Kindle experiment work for everyone that the e-reading system can be trusted. It will make others think that the whole business of e-reading is fraught with complexities and anxieties and therefore to be avoided at all costs. I leave such judgments to the discernment of my readers.

advice sought

Yesterday I got this email from Amazon:

We’re writing about your past Kindle purchase of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. The version you received had missing content and typos that have been corrected. 

An updated version of The Lord of the Rings (ASIN:B0026REBFK) is now available. It’s important to note that when we send you the updated version, you will no longer be able to view any highlights, bookmarks, and notes made in your current version and your furthest reading location will be lost. 

If you wish to receive the updated version, please reply to this email with the word “Yes” in the first line of your response. Within 2 hours of receiving the e-mail any device that has the title currently downloaded will be updated automatically if the wireless is on.

Hmmmm. I’d certainly like to have the corrected edition. On the other hand, the copy I currently have has lots of underlined passages, and I have some notes keyed to the locations of those passages — I’d like to keep those. One possibility: I could go to the Your Reading page, and save all my annotations as a PDF, then update the book.

What a strange situation. Can you imagine buying a book at a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, only to have the store manager call you six months later to apologize for errors in that book? And offering to bring you a brand-new corrected copy? But only on the condition that you return the first one to him? It’s all just too weird.

students and their Kindles

Via Nick Carr, a really interesting forthcoming paper on how students read using the Kindle DX. Some findings:

• Students did most of the reading in fixed locations: 47 percent of reading was at home, 25 percent at school, 17 percent on a bus and 11 percent in a coffee shop or office. 

• The Kindle DX was more likely to replace students’ paper-based reading than their computer-based reading. 

• Of the students who continued to use the device, some read near a computer so they could look up references or do other tasks that were easier to do on a computer. Others tucked a sheet of paper into the case so they could write notes. 

• With paper, three quarters of students marked up texts as they read. This included highlighting key passages, underlining, drawing pictures and writing notes in margins.

• A drawback of the Kindle DX was the difficulty of switching between reading techniques, such as skimming an article’s illustrations or references just before reading the complete text. Students frequently made such switches as they read course material. 

• The digital text also disrupted a technique called cognitive mapping, in which readers used physical cues such as the location on the page and the position in the book to go back and find a section of text or even to help retain and recall the information they had read.

One of the study’s authors “predicts that over time software will help address some of these issues.” Here’s hoping! — but I have a feeling, based on my own experiences, that this is going to be a tough technological nut to crack.

teaching from the Kindle

So, I did something dumb a couple of weeks ago: when packing up some books to sell at a nearby Half-Price Books, I accidentally added, and then sold, my annotated copy of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Imagine my surprise when I took a copy off the shelf in preparation for class only to discover that it was pristine and unmarked.

Now, as it happens, the last time I was preparing to teach these books I had been traveling, and decided while on the road to buy the Kindle versions, which I read, and annotated — or at least underlined key passages in — before returning home and taking up the good old paper version. So, this time, I decided to teach the books straight from the Kindle, rather than try to prepare an unmarked, untouched paper copy.

And let me tell you, friends, teaching a book from a Kindle stinks. Big time. My entire teaching method involves going back and forth in a book, from key passage to key passage, comparing, elucidating. Here is a an account of the prophecies concerning Lyra; here is another one; here’s what the witches think about her: let’s look at these and see if they tell a coherent story. Turn to page 71; okay, keep a finger at that place and now turn to page 243; now let’s go back to 71. I scarcely ever have the book out of my hand during a class period, and I encourage my students to keep their copies open and active also.

Everything I habitually do in class is incredibly laborious with a Kindle, especially if my students have codex versions, and radically so if the Kindle edition doesn’t have page numbers. And it’s even worse if the Kindle edition doesn’t have the chapter breaks coded in: with encoded chapter breaks I can at least use the left button on the five-way controller to go back and see what chapter I’m in, but if the chapter breaks aren’t coded, then I can only click back a page at a time until I find the chapter number, and then click forward until get back where I was. And even then I won’t know how far I am into the chapter. All of this makes it very hard for me to know how to get my students looking at the same portion of the text that I’m looking at.

And then, what happens when I want to look at another passage? (1) Click the “Menu” button; (2) click “View Notes and Marks”; (3) look for the passage you have in mind, which may require clicking the “Next Page” button once or twice; (4) click the “Down” button on the controller until you get to the passage you want; (5) click the central “Select” button on the controller.

Or, if you happen to have written the location on a piece of paper or the inside of your palm, the procedure is: (1) Click the “Menu” button; (2) click “Go to…”; (3) click on the “Symbol” button to reveal numerals; (4) use the five-way controller to navigate from numeral to numeral until you get the combination you want, which can take in some cases a dozen clicks; (5) click the “Symbol” button again to dismiss that screen; (6) use the five-way controller to navigate to “Location” and click it.

That’s just not workable — not for the way I teach. All of these movements are faster and smoother on the iPad Kindle app, by the way, but still unwieldy. In my judgment, there’s only one way to make e-readers usable in the classroom: voice commands. I need to be able to click a button and say to the machine, “Go to page 243.” When that’s possible, but probably not before that’s possible, I’ll use e-readers in class. (Well, except for this summer, when I’ll be teaching in England, and will put up with the unwieldiness of e-readers in order to avoid carrying a backpack full of books all over the country. Been there, done that — many times. Not again.)

P.S. I am hoping some of my readers will be able to point to some tricks I’ve missed.

plusses and minuses

. . . of the iPad as a reading device.

The minuses: Terrible screen glare, even indoors. Fingerprints on the screen are a major problem: they’re more visible than on the iPhone, especially when reading (because your eyes are on the screen for a long time without a break). It’s awfully heavy in comparison to the Kindle, especially the Kindle 3. Also, major distractions are one click away.

The plusses: the Kindle app is good, especially with two-column layout in landscape orientation. Quite lovely, really. Annotating is much quicker and easier than on the Kindle (though productive of those annoying fingerprints). Also, it’s nice sometimes to read without a lamp on.

Summary judgment: while I’ll probably be doing most of my web reading on the iPad, any long-form reading I’ll save for the Kindle. And for actual codex books.

infinite gestures

Yeah, I know everybody read Infinite Jest last summer, but I didn’t. I had a book to write. Also this summer. So I am finally getting around to it, but have been somewhat comically delayed by indecisiveness: paperback or Kindle?I’ve had the big paperback version for a while, and I was expecting to read that. I got myself a bookmark, and then stuck a Post-it note in the endnotes for rapid reference; I even printed out a list of significant characters and taped it to the inside back cover. I sharpened my pencils, and then plunged in.But darn, that book is big and awkward. Also, it has a lot of words per page, and per line — understandable, given the novel’s length, but not ideal for readability. And then I started thinking that I might want to blog about it, and in that case, being able to access underlined passages online for quick & easy copying & pasting would be a large plus. . . .So I bought the Kindle version. All the above problems solved . . . but . . . I found that I was missing the visual cues that codexes offer. I don’t often miss them, or not all that much anyway, but in this case I miss them. Wallace goes off on these long riffs, but on the Kindle it’s hard to tell how long they are; whereas when holding the codex I could flip ahead to see how long I should be prepared to keep my concentration before I can expect a break. Also, I found that I don’t wholly trust the Kindle the way I trust printed books: for instance, in a relatively early episode featuring a conversation between two men on a hilltop overlooking Tucson, Arizona, there’s a sudden cut to a description of vast herds of enormous feral hamsters in an environmentally ravaged region of the northeastern U.S. / southeastern Canada, and I thought, Wait . . . did someone make a mistake here? Is this actually a footnote misplaced? Did an episode heading get left out? I have seen enough mistakes in Kindle editions that I couldn’t, and actually stopped reading until I could compare the codex — in the fidelity and accuracy of which I, like most people, have nearly absolute trust.(That trust, by the way, isn’t automatic and natural, but something that has been built up over centuries by a very complex social economics, as described by Adrian Johns in his magisterial Nature of the Book.) (Turns out that the Kindle was right about the placement of the hamster interlude, but a section break — in the form extra leading between paragraphs — was missing. It was there in the paperback.)So I decided to go back to the codex. But — again — it’s kinda big. My eyes didn’t like tracking that far across the page. If I wanted to annotate anything (and I did) I had to be sitting up. I began to long for the small size and light weight of the Kindle, and the ability to underline passages while recumbent. . . .So I think I’m back to the Kindle. One way or another, I’m going to get this thing read, and there will be some comments on this blog along the way. (However, blogging will continue to be lighter than usual for a while. I will be on the road this coming week with limited online access, so while I have queued up a couple of posts I might not have many chances to reply to comments.)

algorithmic culture

I’ve written here about my interest in Amazon’s recently implemented “Popular Highlights” feature, which lets Kindle readers know what passages other Kindle readers are taking note of. But Ted Striphas points to a rather worrisome aspect of this technology:

When people read, on a Kindle or elsewhere, there’s context. For example, I may highlight a passage because I find it to be provocative or insightful. By the same token, I may find it to be objectionable, or boring, or grammatically troublesome, or confusing, or…you get the point. When Amazon uploads your passages and begins aggregating them with those of other readers, this sense of context is lost. What this means is that algorithmic culture, in its obsession with metrics and quantification, exists at least one level of abstraction beyond the acts of reading that first produced the data.I’m not against the crowd, and let me add that I’m not even against this type of cultural work per se. I don’t fear the machine. What I do fear, though, is the black box of algorithmic culture. We have virtually no idea of how Amazon’s Popular Highlights algorithm works, let alone who made it. All that information is proprietary, and given Amazon’s penchant for secrecy, the company is unlikely to open up about it anytime soon.In the old cultural paradigm, you could question authorities about their reasons for selecting particular cultural artifacts as worthy, while dismissing or neglecting others. Not so with algorithmic culture, which wraps abstraction inside of secrecy and sells it back to you as, “the people have spoken.”

poor academic tools

This is not surprising:

The Kindle isn’t doing as well in academic environments as Amazon—and educators—had originally hoped. The Darden Business School at the University of Virginia is near the end of its Kindle “experiment,” already concluding that students are not into the Kindle when it comes to classroom learning. They are, however, fans of the Kindle when it comes to using it as a personal reading device.Darden is one of a handful of schools that decided to give the larger-screened Kindle DX a trial run in select classes to see how well it fared in the academic environment. And, it’s not the first to conclude that the Kindle isn’t quite right for its students. Arizona State University recently completed its own pilot program for the Kindle DX and wasn’t particularly impressed — the university also settled a lawsuit with the American Council for the Blind, agreeing to use devices that were more accessible to the blind in the future. Princeton was also underwhelmed by its Kindle test; one student described the device as a “poor excuse of an academic tool” in an interview with the Daily Princetonian.Most Darden students seem to agree. When asked to fill out a midterm survey on whether they would recommend the Kindle DX to incoming MBA students, 75 to 80 percent answered “no,” according to Darden director of MBA operations Michael Koenig. On the flip side, 90 to 95 percent answered “yes” to whether they would recommend it to an incoming student as a personal reading device.

And I think it’s probably wise to ditch the Kindle as the academic reading environment, at least for now — though as I have recently commented, it’s getting better. I don’t think this story is over.

a boon to the annotator

Thanks to one of my wise and learned commenters, I discovered the pretty-much-wholly-unadvertised Your Reading page on Amazon’s Kindle site. This has made me think, for the first time, that the Kindle really could be used for serious and scholarly reading: I can see all of my highlighted passages and all of my notes on a single screen, and can copy and paste all of that text into my own manuscripts. (Though I believe there are limits on the amount you can copy at any one time.) I have been using this feature recently, and what a wonderful time-saver it is — as well as offering a great deal of information, and information I have already decided is highly relevant, on a single screen. This is potentially a game-changer for me.

And yes, I know that Amazon is gathering this information, anonymizing it, and giving users a look at the “most highlighted” passages in various books. Not only is that not a problem for me, I consider it an additional benefit: it can be very interesting to see what other readers have annotated in books I myself annotated. Do we see the same passages as significant? Or do we have significant disagreements? Surely there are scholars who want to study these patterns — if there aren’t, there ought to be.

(I might add that that page contains notes and highlighted passages only for books I have bought from Amazon: any public-domain texts, or documents of my own, that I have annotated on my Kindle don’t show up there — which is a minor inconvenience, since I can get those elsewhere. Indeed I did get them elsewhere or could not have put them on the Kindle.)