The Arizona Desert Lamp

Not the sports page, not a magazine, but a Kindle?

Posted in Culture, Technology by Connor Mendenhall on 7 May 2009

Kindle DXWednesday, Amazon announced the new Kindle DX, a long-rumored electronic reader aimed at the academic market. I’ve got high hopes: if a college Kindle is successful, it has the potential not just to be a powerful reading and research tool, but to change academic writing for the better.

I should note that I am a shameless Kindle enthusiast. I’ve owned the original model since August of last year, and it has been a crucial companion during my time abroad. At the time I bought it, I imagined that the chance to avoid lugging a suitcase full of books around Anatolia would be the device’s greatest benefit. Moby-Dick, Cryptonomicon, Infinite Jest, the Alexandria Quartet–I could ill afford to squeeze any of the books I’ve enjoyed in the past year into my already overstuffed backpack.

But my Kindle has been much more than a space saver. It’s changed the way I read. It’s a fair assumption that I am geekier than most, but most of my pre-Kindle reading and research took place in the hyperlinked world. The vast majority of my recreational reading came straight from Google Reader. I would pick up the occasional unassigned book, but pixels had precedent over pages. As for academic work, I avoided touching a nonassigned physical book for half my time in college, relying almost exclusively on JSTOR and electronic texts. I suspect that many other students have done the same.

That a flashy gadget was necessary to rediscover the value of reading may reflect more on myself than the Kindle, but the device’s effect on my reading habits has been remarkable. Simply put, it’s encouraged me to read more than I ever have before. As Alan Jacobs has noted at his awesome blog Text Patterns, the Kindle creates a sort of forward momentum “that makes it significantly easier to keep reading than to do anything else.” In part, this is a product of design. The e-ink screen is clear and easy to read, unlike an LCD. There are only a few typefaces, and text size is easily adjusted. In part, it is due to little glitches, like a finicky page-forward button on the original model, and a slightly clunky user interface that makes it difficult to jump from place to place, sneak a peek at the ending, or focus on how many pages remain. Thanks in part to these properties, I’ve plowed through more books in the past semester with an intensity I haven’t had since the public library’s fourth grade summer reading program.

Then again, since I’m abroad, I’ve done all my Kindle reading without the benefit of one of the device’s most important features: always-on wireless Internet access. For the few weeks I used my Kindle back home, connectivity seemed to enhance reading. Rather than skip an unfamiliar term or concept, or suss out its meaning from context, Wikipedia and the OED were a couple clicks away. But there are valid concerns that these tools are distractions and rabbit holes that ruin the attention a text deserves, and it’s possible (though I’m doubtful) that my lack of access has been a key part of my own Kindle experience.

Regardless, I am reading much more than I ever have in the recent past–and I’ve even started reading real books from a real library! Since returning to novels and book-length nonfiction, my comprehension, attention span, and reading speed have all increased, and most of the Web seems facile in comparison.  Best of all, reading a good book encourages a sort of simple, focused joy that one just can’t get from a good blog or an online magazine article. Considering that many courses at UA are a way to trick students into reading three books and writing an essay about them, the Kindle has so far been the equivalent of about half of my undergraduate education.

But enough fanboy ranting about the Kindle. What I’m really excited about is the potential for electronic tools in general to change academic writing. If the new Kindle is designed well, it may well be the beginning of a new trend, but I hope to see even more digital readers enter the academic market.

The Kindle DX has a large screen and much-improved software for rendering pdf files, two drawbacks of the original Kindle that made it a drag for academic use. One other shortcoming is the fact that the Kindle lacks page numbers. Although the ability to highlight and annotate quotes and then download them directly as a text file for copy-pasting right into a paper is useful, going back and finding the correct page numbers for each is a serious pain.

But the era of the page-numbered citation is coming to an end. MLA rules no longer assume the primacy of printed text, and as search-based citation standards permeate through academe, new norms will obviate this obstacle. Indeed, digital citations strike me as superior to the current standard. Most readers are no doubt familiar with the bracketed hyperlinks on Wikipedia. If academic reading is to be done digitally, why shouldn’t academic writing be digital, too? Hyperlinks seem especially suited for citation. With a simple XML standard for citation hyperlinks, reading a paper on a connected device could mean instant access to all a paper’s sources as one reads. A nightmare for those who fudge bibliographies and fabricate the odd quote, but certainly the sort of thing that would encourage more care and quality in academic writing.

Not to mention the obvious benefits of a device with instant access to a database of online journals for research, and Wikipedia and web search for quick reference. Nor the fact that electronic textbooks will probably do more to cut the average student’s book bill than ASA has ever managed. There are caveats–much of this potential relies on openness, and if the device is locked down or encumbered at the behest of publishers, it may well flop. Similarly, if textbook publishers adopt the same pricing strategies for digital books as they do for their physical counterparts, it could be too pricey.

For now, the new Kindle is being tested at a handful of universities. If it’s a success, I’ll be the first to trade $400 in physical books for their digital equivalent.

Photo via flickr user tuexperto_com


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  1. […] · No Comments Mr. Mendenhall over a desert lamp has written an interesting post about the merits of the Kindle, Amazon’s newish e-reading gadget. Although it has been around for a while, Amazon recently […]

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