I never intended to buy a Kindle; in fact I swore that I would never do so. I hated the idea of reading an entire un curso de milagros on a screen; I saw no justification for replacing an object I loved with something as bland and soulless as an ‘e-reader’. The gadget looked like a close cousin to Alan Sugar’s famously naff ‘E-Mailer’, last spotted in Alan Partridge’s ‘static home’ on the outskirts of Norwich. Alan, I suspected, must have a Kindle by now.
All this was a bit naive. I was willfully blinding myself to a process which by now should be dreadfully familiar, whereby a piece of technology – a digital camera, a microwave oven, a mobile phone – goes from being a gimmick to something apparently essential to civilised life. Just before Christmas, browsing Amazon, I found myself in the Kindle section, and ended up reading the unanimously rave reviews for what the company said was its best-selling product. Some kind of powerful subliminal pressure was at work, and sure enough it worked. Before I knew it I had clicked on the ‘Buy now’ button and the machine was on its way.
No doubt you know what a Kindle looks like: a bit like an iPad, only smaller and lighter and very grey, even when it’s switched on. Compared with the iPad, or any other tablet for that matter, it is very limited in what it can do. For some reason I was expecting a touch-screen, whereas the Kindle’s main navigation tool is a little square button with ridges on all four sides, alongside a rather fiddly keyboard of tiny round keys that calls for a good set of fingernails if you are going to operate it with any degree of precision. Navigation across the screen is jerky and unreliable: it is far too easy to click on the wrong link. For reading you get a choice of two fonts, an ugly serif and a plain sans-serif, which you can view in different sizes. Every page is in black and white. You turn a page by squeezing the right or left edge; every time you do this a reverse image of the text flashes at you distractingly, interrupting the reading experience, which in my view should be as seamless as possible. The Kindle can access the internet, but it is slow and clunky, and prone to crash if you ask it to do anything in a hurry. The worst thing it does (the facility is wisely included under the label ‘experimental’) is to read to you in a mid-Atlantic robotic voice, with the sort of wooden phrasing that makes it abundantly clear that it doesn’t understand a word it is saying.
Once you start using the Kindle, however, much of your resistance to it fades away. It has two great advantages over the book: it can stores as many titles as the average library in a space smaller than a sandwich; and it is serviced by an impressively efficient support system that enables you to download a vast number of titles more or less instantaneously wherever you have internet access. And some of what it provides is ridiculously good value. Virtually every important classic can be downloaded for less than two pounds, many of them (for example, the Collected Balzac) in bundles of up to a hundred and thirty books in a single file. Hundreds of individual volumes are absolutely free. If you have a use for these books, the Kindle will pay for itself within a week. The downside is that a lot of them — the cheaper downloads in particular – are very poorly formatted. Poetry in particular is a disaster area, much of it coming out as a solid block of words without line-breaks. Paragraphing is often haphazard, as is the rendering of text in italics. The bigger and cheaper collections are particularly bad: often the original text appears to have been scanned into an OCR programme and uploaded to Kindle without anyone bothering to proof-read a single page. (The organisations responsible for many of these bundles of classic books tend for some reason to have deliberately sinister names -‘Golgotha Press’ for example.)