Cultural and Frugal Potential of the Kindle: Part 1

Warning: this article is biased towards Amazon and the Kindle, as I’ve published an e-book for the Kindle and also own one (a Kindle, that is!).

I was given a Kindle by a friend about two weeks ago. It was a complete and welcome surprise, and I’m still adjusting to it. The potential frugal (and decluttering) uses of the Kindle are immense, but there’s more to the Kindle than saving money and space.

Because I wrote an e-book for the Kindle before I got mine, I was aware of the massive cultural change that the explosion of self-publishing enabled by e-readers was bringing about, and I’d already thought a bit about how that would affect reading. Now, having my very own pet Kindle, I feel even more positive about its potential to change and improve the way we read. And the release of three new Kindle models, including a tablet, raises further questions about how the Kindle will affect reading.

So here are some thoughts about how the Kindle can enhance life, with some information about its frugal and cultural potential, and some questions about how the Kindle Fire might fit into this (or not).

You don’t actually need to buy a Kindle to benefit from it

You don’t have to own a Kindle to benefit from its frugal and cultural potential – you can use any of Amazon’s free Kindle reading apps. You may not fancy reading a book on your PC, but if you have a laptop, iPad or iPhone you can read Kindle books on these devices for free.

If you switch between different devices your place in the book will be kept, as will bookmarks, notes, and highlights.

You can also read books on your Kindle that are formatted for other e-readers, such as classic books that are out of copyright, as long as they don’t have digital rights management (DRM). To do this, you need a conversion program such as Calibre. For example, if there was a classic book in EPUB you wanted to read, you could use Calibre to convert it to Mobipocket, which is the correct format for Kindle e-books. Amazon also offers a free program, KindleGen, which converts EPUB files and several other formats to the Kindle format.

Reading becomes an easy choice

Often when I’m tired but not ready for sleep, I want to read but I’m too fatigued; it’s easier to watch TV, even if there’s nothing decent on. Because of the lightness of the Kindle and the control you have over the text size, you may find it easier to make the choice to read rather than watch TV when you're feeling fatigued.

Getting more out of the classics

One of the first things to go onto my Kindle was a free copy of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

There are loads of cheap and free e-books on the Amazon website that can be downloaded onto your Kindle at no cost as soon as you open an account, including many of the classics. (More on finding the freebies in the following entry.)

But it’s not just that you have access to these cheap and free classics. In fact, using a Kindle will enable you to get more out of them.

Classic books are often very long and, especially if they’re cheap editions, tend to be written in small type. These two factors definitely affect how much attention I pay to the language. When reading a thick book with small type, I usually get preoccupied with the Herculean task of completing it, and focus too much on how much progress I’m making. Not to mention the physical effort involved in holding a thick, heavy book.

With an e-reader there is only one page of text in front of you or, depending on the text size, perhaps just a few paragraphs. With total control of the size of the text, all you need worry about is the block of text you can actually see. Suddenly the language comes alive like never before, and you are free to appreciate its intricacies and the skill of the author without the manual difficulties of reading, or concern about how far you’ve got to go.

This in turn may encourage you to read more, and especially to read and appreciate more classics – a relaxing, low-cost hobby!

E-reading as a whole new hobby

With the rise of the e-book came warnings from the publishing industry about the death of reading, the fear that no one would read books straight through any more and, because of the potential to reconfigure books and so on, the fear that a book would lose its autonomy as cultural object, and become malleable. In other words, legitimate fears brought on by the internet about loss of attention span and capacity for deep thought (and capacity to produce texts created through deep thought) were being projected onto e-readers.

All this actually made me think that the opposite could well be the case. With its convenience and capacity to store huge amounts of text, as well as the explosion of self-published genre books (and online communities formed around genres) it struck me that reading on an e-reader represented a new form of entertainment along with, say, gaming. You could watch TV, stream a movie on your tablet, read a traditional book, play a computer game – or you could read on your Kindle.

Think I’m being overly optimistic? A computer-savvy, film buff friend of mine whose offline reading was previously confined to New Scientist bought a Kindle a few months ago and recently completed The Raw Shark Texts, an IT-based sci-fi thriller that was perfect for his sensibility. He is reading books on the Kindle that he simply couldn’t be bothered reading in paper form. This harks back to my previous point about the Kindle encouraging you to read more.

A shift away from reading?

Will the release of the Kindle Fire, with its access to other Amazon products besides books, including music, streaming movies and TV shows, full-colour magazines and games, destroy this potential of the Kindle to make e-book reading a whole new pastime? Probably not, according to telecommunications engineer Michael Wilbur-Ham. He says that the Fire is a ‘cheap multimedia consumption device’ that is not aimed primarily at readers of e-books, but at users of tablets.

‘Amazon knows how many of their users buy different kinds of products, and many of their users don’t buy books', he said. 'The Fire is primarily for those who can’t afford or don’t want to buy more expensive tablets.’

This doesn’t mean people won’t read books on the Kindle Fire – of course they will (and they do on their iPads). But the emphasis seems to be on the colour screen and how this will enhance the experience of watching movies and TV, gaming, and using apps. At the same time, Amazon has released new Kindle models that are dedicated e-readers, the Kindle wifi 6” and the Kindle Touch. Both have advanced ink displays for ease of reading and are touted as being lighter and smaller than their predecessors, indicating that Amazon intends to keep producing a device that is primarily for the purpose of reading.

(In fact, at only $199 the Amazon Fire may be cheap upfront, but like the iPad it’s designed to make users consume and buy more of the company’s offerings – so frugal consumers may not necessarily consider it a good buy.)

Note: Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet and Touch e-reader are not available in the UK, Europe, Canada or Australia; but the Fire would be next to useless if it were available, as users wouldn’t be able to access the movie streaming, music, apps and games because of licensing restrictions.

In Part 2 I'll look at ways to find free and cheap books for the Kindle, and other frugal aspects of the Kindle.

Until next time!

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