Inside Story


Terry Lane reads a few new novels, and a pile of old ones, on his brand new Kindle, and discovers that it’s not always the same experience

Terry Lane 6 October 2010 1898 words

Detail from “Mrs. Duffee Seated on a Striped Sofa, Reading Her Kindle, After Mary Cassatt.” Mike Licht/

WE’RE FULLY Kindled at our place. A His and a Hers. Hers is in a red leather cover, His is black.

Everyone asks: “What’s it like reading a book on a Kindle?” and then they add, as though it’s the same thing, “I don’t like reading long text on the computer…” It isn’t the same, of course. The Kindle’s screen is reflective, not back-lit like a computer screen. It uses a display technology called eInk which is more like print on paper than it is like text on an LCD. This is important because of the big difference between the two displays – the LCD goes blank in bright light whereas the eInk page just gets more legible the more light that falls on it. Like print on paper.

The eInk technology is both wonderful and primitive. It is wonderful to have a display that uses virtually no battery power. They say that it is only when a new page is drawn that any power is taken from the battery, which is why a Kindle will run for a month on a single charge.

But it is primitive in that the available fonts are restricted to a couple of styles, one serif and one sans serif, and a few different sizes and leadings. You can choose between portrait and landscape orientation. And that’s about it. It is monochrome, and pictures, including photographs, have a sort of engraved look.

What about the experience of reading a book on a Kindle? How does it compare with the experience of reading a book printed on dead trees?

First, let’s get the mercenary stuff out of the way. It is a lot cheaper. Virtually every important and not so important book published before 1940 (and some published later) is available on the interweb free. Project Gutenberg has a few thousand titles in Kindle format, and all their texts can be easily converted to Kindle format with a free application called Calibre. Hundreds of thousands of out-of-copyright books are accessible this way – I have at last got around to reading The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, something I have been meaning to do for decades but baulked at paying money for. I have also just finished George Orwell’s collected essays (he was a grumpy, self-righteous old party, was he not?) and a Wodehouse novel that had escaped my notice, Love Amongst the Chickens.

For real money I have downloaded Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question (US$10), Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (US$13) and Robert Harris’s The Ghost (US$8), three wonderful works of fiction that I have enjoyed reading. But I can’t help wondering if I have enjoyed what you might call “the reading experience” as much as I would have if they had been the dead-tree versions.

Last week I was reading Freedom (U$13) on the Kindle in the airport – how else can you carry twenty books with you with less bulk and mass than the average paperback? – when my travelling companion, Keith, whipped his printed version of Freedom from his bag. We were at about the same point in the story and I think I envied him.

My copy cost much less than his – only about a third the price, in fact – but he had more to show for the money. He had a thing. With weight. (Actually, a lot of weight.) And design. On the Kindle every book looks the same as every other book and it isn’t beautiful. Line justification is imperfect and that is annoying. But even in paperback you could call Keith’s book both substantial and elegant. When he turns a page he has the sensation of pages already read and pages yet to come, whereas I have this page in front of me, and that’s it.

The Kindle book is no thing. It has no mass. It is an electric impulse. I read the page, press the button and it disappears and the next one pops up. You don’t even get a page number to which you can easily return, only a “location” number of at least four digits which you will never remember. Once the battery did go flat and it was the devil’s own job to return to the place I was reading when the power went off. There’s no flicking through the pages of a Kindle looking for the spot – or even going back to the purple passage that you wouldn’t mind reading again. There is a search function but it is not well thought out.

ANYWAY, The Finkler Question, Freedom and The Ghost are three novels worth reading in any medium. As far as I can tell, the intellectual and emotional experience is the same, even if the tactile experience is different.

Howard Jacobson, a friend from way back when he was living in these parts, worries away at the phenomenon of ethnic envy in The Finkler Question. Julian Treslove, the central character, lives among Jewish friends, including the Sam Finkler of the title. Finkler looms in Treslove’s life as a sort of representative of all Jews, and when he reflects on the Jewish question he prefers to think of it in less Nazi-like terms as the Finkler question. Matters are complicated when Treslove begins to see signs that he himself might be Jewish. Or at least he fervently hopes so. The Finkler Question deserves its place on the Booker shortlist. It is Jacobson at his best, the comic writer with rich human insight.

Franzen’s Freedom also plays with the “Who wishes they were Jewish?” theme, but as a secondary layer of the story. This is the saga of a family, the Berglunds of Minnesota, who might just as well have inhabited a Cheever, Updike, Irving or de Vries novel, and are none the worse for that. Franzen spins his family story around contemporary political and social themes. He is very good at making the reader see both sides of the environment debate, and of Wall Street-versus-the-planet. But in the end there is no doubt where his heart lies. He’s on the side of the planet: he just reckons that if you’re going to win over the working-class Republican rednecks and get them caring about what happens to endangered birds you’d better do it softly, softly with sweet words, patience and gifts, and not with snobbish Democrat disdain. Freedom is worth reading for Franzen’s observation that to understand the American aversion to communalism you must keep in mind that it is a nation peopled with immigrants who fled from Europe because they couldn’t get on with their neighbours.

The Ghost is the novel written by Robert Harris about his former friend Tony Blair. The character Adam Lang, the retired prime minister of Britain, is so obviously Blair that you wonder why Harris bothered to change his name. If you’ve seen the Polanski film, The Ghost Writer, then you know exactly what to expect from the book. It reads like the screenplay. Every scene in the film is exactly as described in the book; every character is a realisation of the words. And the dialogue is lifted straight and complete from the novel. It’s hard to know in what order you should appreciate the two versions of the story. I saw the film first and then read the book, and it didn’t hurt to have precise mental illustrations of the words as I read them.

I’m not a book glutton, so I don’t have any desire to accumulate a conspicuous library of books to impress visitors. When I do buy a novel I usually read it and then give it away, so I don’t have any ownership loss from the Kindle experience. I am more likely to borrow a book from the library than to buy it, but for a popular new novel that means making a reservation and waiting weeks or even months for it to be returned. I’m happy enough to pay $12 to avoid that particular frustration.

But I have a funny feeling when I finish a book on the Kindle. I feel that I have read something, but I haven’t had the experience of reading a book. The words are all there, so why should I feel let down? Perhaps Plato could explain it – there is the concept of the “Book” and there are the real-world approximations of the concept. A Kindle is a bit like a clay tablet or a scroll – a word-bearing medium – but it is not a book.

Before I had my own, Kindle-envy first grabbed me one day a few months ago when I was on the phone urging a pal to get with the movement and read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. After a couple of minutes of me blathering on about the books he said: “It’s OK. I’ve downloaded them while you’ve been speaking.” Show off! (Fact: Larsson was the first author to sell more than one million e-books on Amazon. Pity he wasn’t around to collect the royalties.)

Last week another friend told me that I should read The Loss of the SS Titanic by Lawrence Beesley, a survivor of the tragedy. He offered to let me have his library copy if I promised to get it back to him by the due date. “No need,” I said. “I’ve downloaded it while you were talking.” “Really? How much does it cost?” “Nothing. Absolutely free.” He was annoyed and almost convinced. And that is a book that I wouldn’t have bought, even if it were still in print, and probably wouldn’t have borrowed.

Another good friend urged on me the novel Helen by Jane Austen’s contemporary, Maria Edgeworth. No sooner said than downloaded! Mind you, the unread books are starting to back up on the reading device. Still, it promises to hold 3500 titles before it runs out of memory space.

Here’s an odd thing. When I read something like Helen, or Orwell’s essays or The Mystery of a Hansom Cab on the Kindle I find the experience totally satisfying. I have no hankering for paper and ink. I am catching up, as it were, on things that I would never have bothered to track down. I am happy enough to suck down the older works and read them on the imperfect ephemeralistic (I think I made that up) eInk device. It’s the recent books, currently in print, that cry out to be handled and hefted and loved and admired as objects that are more than the sum of their inky symbols on paper.

So, I am glad that I have a Kindle. Reading has never been so accessible, so cheap and so portable. But you really can’t beat a good book. •