An amazing device

By Eli Gottlieb

Two weekends ago, I broke down and committed a shameless, sinful act of consumerist stupidity. I bought an Amazon Kindle at the mall, in the matte white model with free, perpetual 3G data access. I’d heard all about the evils of these hideous, damnable devices, but in the end I guess it just held some kind of appeal for me.

Okay, to speak seriously, I think that the Kindle and other e-readers (computerized devices based on Organic Light Emitting Diode, or “e-ink,” screens for reading e-book documents) get a pretty bad rap, and they get it for the wholly inadequate reasons of sheer Luddism and a belief that they can never replace physical, paper books. I have to say, most of these critics miss the point. I didn’t get a Kindle (which I renamed “Missingno” and registered to my Amazon account) to replace my physical books. I love my physical books, and in fact I’ve bought a handful more of them since owning the Kindle while I’ve bought no books from the Kindle store whatsoever. I bought the Kindle to supplement my physical books.

My physical books do allow me to page through them looking for a particular snippet of text, and I can lend them out to anyone I see fit (without violating any copyright laws). They require no special hardware or software other than my own eyes, brain, and knowledge of the language in which they’re written. However, they also use up monetarily and environmentally valuable paper, and more importantly, they are the single heaviest things I own. Whenever I pack for a move between home in Albany, N.Y. and UMass (or, inshallah next year, to a more permanent residence with a job), I have to use an extra 50-80 pound bag or set of boxes just to contain the books I really feel a need to bring with me – no more than a significant fraction of what I actually own and want to have available for reading. Much of that weight comes in the inescapable shape of textbooks, but in fact the greater portion of it doesn’t. I just really love my books, and I want to have them with me wherever I go in the world.

That is what Missingno does for me: It carries and displays hundreds, or even possibly thousands, of my books in a volume and weight slightly less than that of a personal planner. As a secondary function, it has perpetual unlimited 3G access to the Internet if I ever find myself drunk, lost, without my netbook, and/or unable to find a WiFi hotspot. The battery lasts at least a week on a full charge even if I turn the wireless on, and Amazon brags that it will last a month if I keep the wireless off. It exposes itself to my computer as a USB key rather than requiring any special software like iTunes or in fact any connection to a computer at all (though I do choose to employ the open-source Calibre package for backup purposes), and it accepts not only Amazon’s “.azw” format e-books but any “.mobi” e-book or “.pdf” document I care to load onto it.

I’ve already loaded up Missingno with copies of books I physically own (which is legal under a little-known provision of copyright law called Fair Use), e-books given away under Creative Commons licenses (two textbooks in my field, actually) and research papers. If I want, I can load much of history’s great literature onto Missingno at any time, since nearly all e-book vendors give away public-domain e-books for free, inserting convenient copies into my pocket, should I want them, of Shakespeare, H.G. Wells, the founding documents of the United States, every non-Scientologist religious text, many, if not, most folk-tales, most older philosophical texts, most major scientific texts and however many dictionaries and encyclopedias I want. It’s not just that a decent summary of the accumulated physical, cultural and spiritual wisdom of the human race now fits in my coat pocket, but that in addition to fitting the data I can now fit the device required to make use of it. If I had a sufficient set of solar panels into which to plug the charger, I could stow this thing away in case of apocalypse.

Yes, it is true that I can’t page through books on this device. It’s also true that it doesn’t exactly have all the kinks worked out when it comes to picture-based documents like comic books. I really can’t say that I liked the price, either – though I do consider the eternal, contract-free, pay-nothing 3G data plan an amortizing factor. Still, on the overall consideration, the Kindle has made my life better in a way that I can’t say for any other gadget I own, except possibly the cellular phone.

Eli Gottlieb is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]