Kindle books fall down when the book is even slightly non-basic — November 11, 2017

Kindle books fall down when the book is even slightly non-basic

I was a late adopter of Kindles. I love me some physical books, but eventually the ability to travel thousands of miles without lugging a stack of books — or even to download new books while sitting in a chair in the sky — became unanswerable.

I found Kindles distractingly hard to read until they started hyphenating their lines; until then you’d end up with enormous chunks of blank space on each line between words. (They recently added ragged-right margins as an option, which would have been another way to handle this problem. I don’t know why it took them so long to use a public-domain hyphenation algorithm, and why ragged-right margins took even longer, but whatever.)

Once we got over those hurdles, the reading was mostly great. It’s nice to be able to continue reading in bed, with the light off, after my wife has gone to sleep.

The trouble, for me, is that I read a lot of not-especially-popular and often long-out-of-print books. Sometimes Kindles pull their weight here: the Kindle edition of The Making of the English Working Class is actually very good. And it’s a good thing that it is, since I highlighted a ton of passages in it; the ability to search your highlights is one of the big advantages of Kindles.

Often, though, if a book was born in the pre-Kindle era, it feels as though the book has been hastily photocopied and OCRed, then only lightly copyedited, to make the transition to Kindle-land. Maybe they hope that crowdsourcing will solve this problem: I used to tap all the time on the “Report Content Error” link while selecting a block of text, and over time I’ve had to do that less; it does feel like the aggregate number of typos has gone down.

Sometimes when the book is born in the Kindle era, it still leaves something to be desired, and here we land on the footnote problem. I may be one of the few Kindle users who diligently reads most footnotes, and I’m certainly one of the few Kindle users who reads math books on the device. Hence I end up with this:
A bunch of equations, one of which has a footnote. When you tap on the footnote, you're given footnote text that stops at the first equation.
That’s from the Kindle version of Computer-Age Statistical Inference, which is a delightful book. It would be more delightful on Kindle if the mathematical footnotes (of which there are many) didn’t cut out at the first equation. As someone at the publisher’s office wrote when I asked the authors about this:

Our digital production people don’t believe the problem is with the files we supplied. Because the Kindle can’t handle MathML, we must supply complex math as images. From what we can tell […] the Kindle stops images from being rendered in the inline footnotes; they are being rendered with no problem in the main text, hence our confidence in the files we’ve supplied. Because readers can view the notes in place at the chapter ends, they’re not missing information; so although it’s not ideal, we don’t think this limitation makes the Kindle version unacceptable.

It’s not unacceptable, in the sense that the book is still readable (and is very, very good). But the footnotes aren’t useful if you can’t read them until the end of the chapter; by the time you’ve gotten that far, you’ve forgotten the context to the footnote that you want to read. Amazon was thankfully quite willing to refund me for the Kindle book; I went ahead and bought a paper copy instead.

Footnotes behave inconsistently in other ways. For instance, one very handy feature of the main body of Kindle books is that you can select text and get a definition from a built-in dictionary, or look the words up on the Wikipedia if the dictionary doesn’t have anything to say about it. That feature just doesn’t work in footnotes, for some reason. And sometimes (as with the Kindle edition of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France) the footnotes themselves contain footnotes (e.g., one of Burke’s own footnotes contains Latin, to which the editor attaches an English translation in a footnote of his own); the second layer of footnotes just doesn’t work.

All of this probably sounds really minor, and in some sense it is: I still certainly feel as though I got a lot out of Burke’s book. But for an e-reader that is ten years old almost to the day, it still feels like it’s aiming for the middle 80% of the audience. It feels ideal for books that, in the paper-based world, would be published by Bantam: cheap, flimsy, poorly printed on low-quality paper, with ink that bleeds, meant to be consumed quickly and then thrown away. It’s not meant to present books as works of art. It’s meant to present “just the facts.” After ten years, I would expect them to be attending to the finer points of book publishing, but I just don’t expect that they’ll ever get there. That’s clearly not their business model. Their business model (and here I’m just guessing) is to put very cheap e-readers in people’s pockets, then sell them e-books whose marginal cost is nearly zero and whose price averages around $10. The books are pure profit, so they have no problem virtually giving away the devices.

It’s getting to the point, though, where it feels to me like an insult to the author — literally a pain that I feel viscerally — to read a great work of literature on a Kindle. When Kishlansky writes that

Standard editions of key political texts are Sir Robert Filmer, Patriarcha and Other Writings, ed. J. P. Sommerville (1991); John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (2nd edn, 1967); and Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson (1985).

, you can be sure that I’m going to look hard for and buy the Macpherson edition of Leviathan on paper, because I just can’t trust that it will have made its way to Kindle with all due care. Likewise with the great E.P. Thompson‘s Poverty of Theory. Likewise with Twelve Who Ruled.

Maybe it depends on the publisher? I see that Twelve Who Ruled is from Princeton University Press, with whom I’ve had very good experiences until now. I wish I didn’t have to think that hard about the reputation of each individual publisher; I wish any book that Amazon sold could be expected to be as good as any other, though perhaps that’s unreasonable. Even the world of physical academic books is getting rough: many years ago, when I read The Wealth of Networks on paper and found myself, by the end, scrawling my irritated all-caps annoyance in the margins at how bad the copyediting was, a friend pointed out that ‘especially [among] academic publishers, the author is actually now supposed to provide “camera-ready copy”, which is why you see so many modern math/physics/CS books that look like [LaTeX].’

If publishers put a little more work into it, they could make the footnote experience on a Kindle better than that on a physical book. In physical-book land, you write “ibid.” to indicate “the same thing as what I just wrote in the preceding footnote.” In e-book land, why do that? Why force your reader to jump back to a previous footnote, when doing so is harder than it would be in a paper book (where you’d just flip back a few pages)? Rather than writing “ibid.“, why not just include the full cite to the book you’re citing? You have effectively infinite space to play with, rather than the tight publishing constraints that physical books labor under. Likewise, you don’t need to write “A. Robertson (1984)”, which then requires your reader to go off to a bibliography to look up which Robinson you’re talking about; because you have infinite space, you can just directly link to Robinson and be done with it. If I were Amazon, I would go a step further and include a link that lets the reader buy the cited work with one tap. E-books open up lots of possibilities that publishers (and/or Amazon) just don’t exploit.

Maybe I just need to give it time. But it feels like real works of art still need to be appreciated on paper, if at all possible.

I realize I’m kind of ridiculous, but I still can’t convince myself to buy a Kindle — January 2, 2014

I realize I’m kind of ridiculous, but I still can’t convince myself to buy a Kindle

Reasons for and against:

For:

1. Everyone seems to love their e-reader. (I would just say “their Kindle” if there weren’t people in my life using Nooks and such.)
2. Everyone I know who has one tells me that it increases the amount they read, if only because the “you have only 30 minutes left” indicator constantly tempts them from the bottom of the page.
3. E-books obviously present lots of possibilities for note-taking and such. And I do a lot of note-taking.
4. Imagine, wild as it may sound, that you’re traveling with your partner and her family to a distant beach. Might it be nice not to burden you and your partner with 11 pounds of books? (Not a remote hypothetical. I just asked Amazon how much [book: The Reactionary Mind] and [book: The Rhetoric of Reaction] in paperback, plus the three volumes of Otto Pflanze’s Bismarck biography in hardcover, plus [book: King Leopold’s Ghost] in hardcover, plus [book: Iron Kingdom] [sensing a theme?] in hardcover, totaled, and the answer is 11.4 pounds.)
5. Variable text size is nice. I can just set the Kindle on the elliptical machine’s handlebars at work, tap the text size up appropriately, and read from a distance.

Against:

1. I am still all about beautiful books. Would the Kindle ever preserve pages this beautiful?
2. Until the Kindle can do hyphenation with justified lines, it is going to make me cringe. I don’t understand why the Kindle doesn’t yet use the Knuth and Plass algorithm, which as far as I understand it is public domain and in use by everyone, up to and including Microsoft Word.
3. I want to actually *own* the books I read, rather than have them constantly subject to Orwellian deletion.
4. Just as my kids will not know what cassette tapes are, or CDs, or DVDs, and will live in an entirely virtual world, they will also likely not know books. They will surely not understand why daddy has a 20-volume dictionary which he is always tempted to supplement, even though he spends all his dictionary time accessing the online OED through the Cambridge Public Library. And they will definitely not have the same experience daddy had, wherein he’d lay on the floor of his parents’ office, flip open to a random page in the World Book Encyclopedia, and go exploring for a little while. If they existed today, they would be using the Wikipedia, which — while it may be more accurate — is obviously no substitute for a real encyclopedia. (I use the Wiki every day, and have donated hundreds of dollars to its upkeep, but this is still obvious to me.)

So my job is to stand athwart history yelling Stop. I realize this is ridiculous. Nonetheless, here we are. I want my kids to be able to amble over to the bookshelves, see something interesting, grab it off the shelf, and give it a read. I’m inclined to buy an [book: Encyclopædia Britannica] off eBay just to have it around, and a [book: Dictionary of American Regional English], and the [book: Historical Statistics of the United States] (even while these perfect mythical children annually burn sacred incense to mourn the passing of the [book: Statistical Abstract of the United States]), and [book: Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations]. Absurd? Absolutely. Going to get progressively more absurd with the passing of time? You bet.
5. I really really *really* hate using a computer when I’m not at work. Reading e-books on my iPad would be so much not my speed that I don’t even want to discuss the prospect. Kindles are just on the boundary: closer to an Etch-a-Sketch than to an iPad, but still too close to a computer for comfort.

Having laid these out, I imagine most people are still on the Pro side. Whereas writing out this list has made me decisively Anti. I can’t be alone on this, can I?