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This week in Kindle-bashing

Reactions to Amazon’s new e-reader generally fall into two opposing camps: on the one hand, there are those who are shocked and appalled at the very notion, while others believe a wonderful new era has dawned. (We suppose a third camp could be made of people who don’t really care one way or the other.)

A cautious pro-Kindle article in the Los Angeles Times includes quotes from some publishing notables, including the New York Review of Books‘s Jason Epstein and authors Cynthia Ozick and Jonathan Franzen, who are heavily in the anti-Kindle camp. Franzen’s thoughts on the whole notion of e-reading, it must be said, make him look less like a defender of the simple virtues of the perfectbound, and more like a pretentious twit:

“People who care about literature care about substance and permanence […] The essence of electronics is mutability and transience. I can see travel guides and Michael Crichton novels translating into pixels easily enough. But the person who cares about Kafka wants Kafka unerasable.
Am I fetishizing ink and paper? Sure, and I’m fetishizing truth and integrity too.”

[…]

“The difference between Shakespeare on a BlackBerry and Shakespeare in the Arden Edition is like the difference between vows taken in a shoe store and vows taken in a cathedral.”

There are a couple of points to be made here, while remaining Kindle-neutral: vows made in a shoe store mean just as much as those made in a cathedral (a point Matthew Yglesias makes in his blog at TheAtlantic.com); most people read Shakespeare in cheap, ratty, paperback student editions, not the Arden, and they are not any worse off for it; a lot of people listen to music on their iPods via files that are mutable and transient, but that doesn’t mean Beethoven and Bob Dylan and Kanye West and The Arcade Fire are themselves erasable. The portability of the medium does not necessarily have a retroactive impact on the creator of the content. If that were true, then this Quillblogger would be forced to apologize to the families of all the authors left behind on buses and streetcars or dropped in the bath and ruined.

Not that genuine, unpretentious criticisms of the Kindle itself are not being made. Even if one is to accept the near-blasphemous idea that words can be read on a screen as well as on paper, Amazon’s new device has some glaring shortcomings. The latest to be discovered is that, in some cases, the texts being offered for the reader are incomplete.

Here’s blogger Marc Rochkind on his own experience with the Kindle:

The device itself works fine. Yes, the screen could be more readable and it’s awkward to handle because the previous- and next-page buttons are much too big. (You can’t grab the device by its edges.)

I finished reading my first book on the Kindle yesterday (The Kite Runner), and the experience was fine. I really like the ability to preview any book by reading the first three chapters. Web access is clumsy because most web sites expect a much wider screen and clicking on links is roundabout and flakey, but it does work, it’s very fast, and it doesn’t depend on WiFi. Buying even best sellers for $10 or less is a great deal, as is the free web access.

But the problem is that the books are incomplete. I started the sample of my second book, Under the Banner of Heaven, and I noticed that the footnotes, marked with an asterisk in the text, were missing. (You’re supposed to be able to select them as hyperlinks, but they weren’t connected to anything.)

I checked another book I had in paper form, Einstein: His Life and Universe, and the only footnote that I could find in the sample seemed to be linked, although I couldn’t actually access it since it wasn’t part of the sample. Fair enough.

But The Path Between the Seas failed. A footnote was marked with an asterisk, but not linked.

I queried Amazon’s very responsive Customer Service, and they responded (on a Sunday!) with this: “Kindle Editions are electronic versions based on the original publication issued by the publishers. Occasionally, conversion of that content for reading on Kindle may require modification of content, layout, or format, including the omission of some images and tables and in this case footnotes.”

Well, I don’t want to read Kindle Editions, whatever they are. I want to read the books as written.