How I Use My Kindle

Via Facebook today, I had yet another cause to discuss how I use (and why I love) my Kindle. This isn’t a Gizmodo-style tech lust blog by a long shot, but other folks—especially other academics—often want to know if this device can improve their lives. The short answer is: Maybe. For me, it’s definitely. In this post I explain why, and I even give a quick iPad v. Kindle comparison.

With some very generous Amazon gift certificates from my wife and our families, I got a Kindle 2.0 as a Christmas present last year. I would rather have a new Kindle, of course, but not at $140; the main advantages I crave are quieter buttons and better power management. Despite the drop in price, I don’t feel burned having paid almost twice as much ($260) for one under a year ago. I’ve gotten a lot of value out of it already and will almost certainly hang onto it for as long as it keeps working.

I don’t read much fiction—or at least, I didn’t; we’ll get to that—so I viewed the Kindle more as an iPod for the oodles of digital text files I already have. This is part of what I would describe as a partial marketing failure on Amazon’s part. They envisioned most Kindle users as people who mostly want to buy and read content from the Kindle store. But if you need to read lots of digital files—PDFs, Word files, text files, and so on—and are getting sick of staring at your computer screen, you should also consider buying a Kindle.

My work straddles communication, political science, and law, all fields in which a great deal (but far from all) of the most important scholarship comes out in journals rather than books. This means that I have roughly a bazillion PDF and Word files on my laptop that are in various stages on the potential journey from “should read” to “have read repeatedly and cite regularly.”

Some scholars do several hours per week of such reading on their computer screens. Rarely has such a week passed in my life since I started graduate school–excluding reading done as part of writing specific projects, which is no way to be a complete scholar with a good understanding of one field, let alone several. I do not have the discipline to spend more than a couple hours per week reading journal articles on the same screen that can take me to ESPN, ICanHasCheezburger, and Slashdot. If I print articles, I usually read them, but it’s expensive and feels wasteful, so I do it for fewer articles than the number I’d like to be reading.

This is why I wanted a Kindle. You can email PDFs to Amazon (they give you a private email address), have them converted to Kindle format, and download the attachments to your computer (or over wifi on the newer model) for free. Or you can choose to have them show up on your Kindle over 3G for $0.15 each (up to 1 MB).

Whether store-bought or converted content, you can highlight text, add notes, and even bookmark specific pages. The highlighted text and your notes are kept in a plain text file on your Kindle called “My Clippings” that you can then put on your computer and read, copy, process, etc. (Publishers can limit the percentage of a purchased book that makes its way into this file, but there’s no cap on converted documents.)

At the end of the semester, I’ll have my students email me their papers and final exams, and I’ll convert them to Kindle format en masse and read them on the plane/bus/couch rather than lugging half a ream of paper around with me over the holidays. This will be the 3rd straight semester I’ve done it, and it’s way easier than doing it on paper. I finish in less time than if I did it on my computer with less of a headache afterward.

I’ve also made good progress into the stack of “should read” journal articles on my hard drive. I even find myself re-buying academic books just to have them on Kindle, especially if they’re long and thus the paper versions are quite heavy.

Taking notes is a bit slow. I can write in the margins of a paper book about twice as fast. Highlighting is about 1/3 as fast on a Kindle. The latter forces me only to highlight really key passages, which makes my notes more useful in the end. Both disadvantages are outweighed by those clippings and notes being (a) always with me and always available, and (b) searchable. Also, notes and highlighting are still as legible if done on a bumpy train, bus, or plane.

Finally, I find myself reading a great deal more fiction and other leisure reading. My normal pace has been something like 4 or 5 novels (and a few nonfiction leisure books) per year—almost shamefully low for an educated person. I enjoy fiction

, but I’m on the road a LOT, and leisure books are just too much effort to lug around if I’m also trying to carry “productive” reading with me. Well, now it’s obviously just as easy to have some leisure reading around, so I read a lot more. As a near-daily commuter with a 45-minute round trip on the subway, I read academic books or articles on the way into work and read fiction on the way home, and the train ride flies by.

I’m still not the most avid reader, but I’m reading a novel maybe every three weeks on my Kindle—and about half as much volume in leisure/personal nonfiction, another substantial jump in input. This is in addition to reading of paper books, which is still at roughly the same levels, though the ratio of for-work reading is now an even higher share of my paper books. For somebody who still spends far too much of his reading time in the blogosphere and on sports websites, though, this is real progress.

In short, my bag now weighs a lot less, and I’m reading a lot more things that I’ve been wanting to read, whether work-related, fun, or personal development. Yes, I find it quite doable to make notes on this reading, but the volume of reading is up so much that the comparative pluses and minuses here are almost beside the point.

Despite this unabashedly positive experience, I do admit to a certain degree of iPad lust. I wouldn’t pay for or carry both (who needs yet another device to carry around?), and neither would most people, so while they’re very different machines, I view this as an either-or. Here’s my breakdown of the trade-offs:

*The Kindle is much easier on the eyes. It’s the difference between reading an old-fashioned book and reading off of a computer screen. If you get sick of staring at your computer screen, and you want to do a lot of reading, get an e-ink reader such as a Kindle. It’s nothing like reading on a computer to your rods and cones.

*The iPad is much easier for making notes, highlighting text, and so on. If you’re looking for the touchable reading interface of your Star Trek dreams, obviously the iPad has a big advantage here. Lok is an iPad guy and just loves some of the reading apps he’s discovered here.

*The iPad is more than three times as expensive, obviously.

*The iPad can do an infinite number of things, while the Kindle can help you read and almost nothing else to any meaningful degree. (It has a browser that will make you miss your 56k dial-up, for instance.) If you have self control, this makes the iPad a big winner. If you have little self-control and think the iPad’s multitude of reading apps will win out in a competition with the web and a fistful of games, think again.

Am I glad I got a Kindle? Definitely. Would I recommend that you get one? The more you have in common with me, the more strongly I’d say yes. Are you easily distracted, need to do lots of reading for work, reading a lot of stuff for work that’s already in digital form and mostly text-based (i.e., not complex graphics or equations), and facing endless hours traveling by means other than driving? Then I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

3 thoughts on “How I Use My Kindle

  1. I like your reasons for supporting the Kindle, but there’s one point I’m worried about: control. It’s ludicrous that you have to e-mail every document for conversion to Amazon.

    What happens four years down the road when Amazon decides to stop supporting the e-mail service? It’ll probably force you to upgrade to a new device and format just to keep your original docs with highlights and notes. That’s something you don’t give up with regular paper.

  2. Nice review, Bill. I got a kindle 3 in the summer, and have found it brilliant for keeping up philosophy reading while I travel for a year before grad school. The two main benefits you cite- less distractions and searchable, exportable annotations are important for me, too. And now there is a kindle app for MAC/ipad/Android etc it is even handier.

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