Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Reading my newspapers on Kindle - Pros and Cons

I have just completed a 14-day free trial of The Guardian and The Observer in Kindle format, and after consideration I have decided to carry on with the subscription at £9.99 a month. Here's the Pros and Cons of reading my newspapers on Kindle as I see them.


I've always bought The Observer anyway. At £2.20 a copy, that's £8.80 a month for the printed copy, so for an extra £1.19 a month I'm now also getting The Guardian six days a week.

I no longer have to walk or drive down to the paper shop to buy the paper. There's something quite exciting about downloading the new issue (which takes seconds) first thing every morning.

I'm keeping more up-to-date with the news than I did before. It's especially interesting just now when The Guardian is taking the lead on the phone-hacking story.

It's easier to read than the paper version, even since the broadsheet has been replaced by the Berliner format. Quieter too. No folding and creasing, easier on the arms. Particularly, it's easier to read in bed.

With the hyperlinked contents table, it's easier to skip through and find the pieces you want to read, and to return to them. If you turn off where you have been reading you automatically go back to where you were.

You can look up words at the click of a cursor. For example, reading an article the other day about the phone hacking scandal and, specifically, who had knowledge of the 'Neville email' I read the sentence:'Crone, with all his authority as the tabloid group's most long-serving and senior consigliere, at once publicly contradicted him.' Call me ignorant, but I'd never come across consigliere. I clicked the cursor on the word and discovered it means 'an adviser, especially to a crime boss; Mafia family adviser'. Not only do I now know what a consigliere is, I'm even more appreciative of The Guardian for introducing me to such an apt term in connection with the Murdochs.

The Kindle version of the papers contains words and some pictures (in black and white) but no ads. Big plus for me.

When you have finished reading, you can either keep the issue in archive format, or you can delete it. Less messy, and I suppose environmentally cleaner.


Although the £9.99 a month is obviously good value (see above) psychologically it seems more when it's coming off your account regularly each month in one go, rather than the change that comes out of your pocket when you buy the paper over the counter.

Because I don't get out to the paper shop, maybe I exercise less, and get out of the house less. I have to remember to compensate.

I didn't normally read a daily paper before, so I'm spending more time reading newspapers, leaving less time for other important things such as reading books, writing, and talking to my wife.

I quite like the smell of newsprint and the feel of the newspaper in my hand, in the same way that I miss the feel of a book when I'm reading the Kindle version.

There is no colour in the pictures, and fewer of them. Biggest loser is The Observer Magazine (though I read little of this section myself).

You can't do a crossword or other puzzles that require pen and paper with a Kindle version of the paper.

There are no TV and radio listings. (I get the Radio Times anyway, but this will be a drawback for some.)

There are even more typos and misprints in the Kindle version of The Guardian than there are in the printed version.

Well, I see I've managed to list almost as many Cons as Pros, but I'm happy with my decision at the moment. And I can cancel any time. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Are we Liking ourselves into La-La Land?

In an earlier post I referred to Eli Pariser’s new offering The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You. (Look out for my review of the book in the next edition of The Author). Last time, I focused on Google’s mission to build a theory of identity for each user based on ‘you are what you click’, and how that tends over time to narrow rather than widen one’s choices. Today, following another of Pariser’s themes, I want to focus on Facebook and its alternative theory of identity: ‘you are what you share’, and how that leads to promotion of the trivial but entertaining at the expense of the serious but important.

Unlike Twitter, which has famously been used to rally protest, to aggregate political concerns and to promulgate initiatives - and which often aims to reach out to an audience beyond family, friends or fans – Facebook is almost exclusively social lite. It’s typically fluffy and cuddly, or sassy and bantering, engaging in what linguists call phatic interaction, with the emphasis on the social rather than the informational aspects of communication; and the images exchanged on Facebook are generally supportive of that social purpose. As Pariser says rather misanthropically: ‘The creators of the Internet envisioned something bigger and more important than a global system for sharing pictures of pets.’

But the fact is many millions of us are using the medium for just that sort of activity, and even more so now that mobile, hand-held and handy devices are becoming common. If we are what we share, then what we are sharing is on the whole pretty frothy stuff.


By making it fun and easy to do, the Facebook providers have encouraged us to entertain each other in this way, and some would argue they have added to the store of human happiness and fellowship as a result. Maybe so. But have they tilted our attention away from some of the harder realities of life? Are we in danger of becoming like the Eloi in H G Wells' TheTime Machine frolicking like children in the sunshine, unwary of the Morlocks waiting in the shadows, or rather in denial of them and the threat they pose?

Pariser points up one neat little device that may be contributing to a skewed, rose-coloured view of the world. Facebook has made it possible to press the Like button on any item on the Web. With one quick click we can let our Facebook friends know what we are enjoying, and by the same action we increase the likelihood of that particular item being seen by others, because our Liking it improves its ranking.

Now, what sort of thing are we likely to be Liking? Or, to put it the other way round, what are the stories that would seem inappropriate to Like? To use Pariser’s examples: ‘It’s easy to push Like and increase the visibility of a friend’s post about finishing a marathon or an instructional article about how to make onion soup. It’s harder to push the Like button on an article titled, “Darfur sees bloodiest month in two years.”’

The Facebook team that developed the Like button originally considered a number of options, including stars and a thumbs-up sign (rejected as a stand-alone because it’s an obscene gesture in some countries); they even considered Awesome, but chose Like eventually because it was more universal. That apparently minor design choice may have had major unintended consequences, for it is has almost certainly determined that we push the button on stories that are more friendly, less challenging, more emotional perhaps but less troubling, more likeable. So these are the stories that get more attention on the Web and subtly, steadily alter our world view. Like the Eloi, we prefer to face the sunshine.

Pariser asks us to imagine that next to each Like button on Facebook was an Important button. You could tag an item with either Like or Important or both. This one simple development could be a very useful corrective, could help to restore the balance to a certain degree. Not entirely, for it seems to be part of our nature to look for the things we are likely to enjoy - the entertaining, the humorous, the titillating. We will always want to share gossip and to seek out the stories of celebrity, of scandal and success. But we need to be aware of what else is around us, and to share that too. We cannot ignore those things that are important to sections of humanity who may not be part of our immediate social network (our comfort zone), because we can be sure that one day soon those things we've chosen to ignore will force their importance on us.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Reasons for loving my Kindle

As someone who has always loved the feel and smell of books, and the look of them individually and lined on the shelves, I am the last person I would have thought would take to the e-reader in general and the Kindle in particular. When my wife presented me with one for my birthday last year I was openly delighted and grateful, privately sceptical.

Well, I've had nine months' experience with it now and all I can say is, I love it. Here are some of the reasons why.

1. It's easy to carry. It's light. You can pop it in a pocket or a bag and carry it anywhere without having to worry about covers getting torn, pages bent.

2. It's easy to read. You can even change the font and point size to suit. I have a light I can pull out of the cover I use with mine so I can read in dim conditons. Unlike a computer screen, you can read the Kindle outside in bright sunlight too.

3. Kindle makes it easy to read aloud, which is a particular benefit for me. I do a fair bit of public reading of my books, except that I never actually read from my books because I like to interact with my audience, and you can't do that effectively if you're staring at the relatively small point of the printed book. Before the Kindle I used to type a large print version on A4 of what I wanted to read aloud. Now I invariably read from the Kindle version, held easily in one hand, the text cranked up to large point size so that I can see it from a distance while open-faced to the audience. I don't even have to turn pages as I'm reading; just hit the Next Page button. And I can bookmark everything in advance so I can find the story or extract I'm reading from next with the press of another button.

4. It's easy to buy books (OK, maybe too easy). Not only do I not have to be near a bookshop, I don't even need to fire up my computer to buy from Amazon. Wherever I am (my version has 3G connectivity) I can search the Amazon store and buy direct from my Kindle, and it's delivered to me ready to read in seconds. I can also sample books for free, also within seconds.

5. I can get whole books for free. In fact, I download more free books than I purchase. There's a vast array of out-of-copyright books, including most of the classics, available for free from various sites. The one I generally use is the not-for-profit Project Gutenberg. Another is feedbooks.com.

6. I can carry all of my library with me, organized in collections I have made myself (like making folders for the PC) . Within one book-size package I have all the books I have downloaded, so I can switch from one book to another easily, and I don't have to break my back with a book-sack on holiday.

7. I don't have to dust my books, or suffer Paula's complaints when I don't dust my books for months and she ends up doing it for me. All right, I do love my bookshelves, but the Kindle is space-saving and low maintenance.

8. I don't have to keep my place. The Kindle does it for me, opening to the last place I read of whatever book I open. It's easy to navigate with the Go To option on the menu, and easy to find different sections or chapters provided there are hyperlinks on the Table of Contents. (When I recently published a Kindle version of my book of quotations I made sure that each subject had a hyperlink from the TOC, and thus have a better offering than my book in print. We did the same with the Kindle version of We Never Had It So Good so the reader can click to any individual story.)

9. I can search for individual words and phrases in any book I read. Every instance is listed for me with location and context, and I can go to any of them in a click; return with another click.

10. I don't have to look up definitions. There is a built-in dictionary. All I have to do is place the cursor next to the word I'm not sure of, and the definition pops up for me. If I do need further reference I can go to the reference books I have in my reference collection of the Kindle, without leaving my seat. (Amazon chucks in a couple of good dictionaries as part of the initial purchase.)

11. Using the cursor and/or the little keyboard I can make notes and highlights. As a writer and researcher, I have only very recently appreciated how useful a tool this is, because I have now discovered https://kindle.amazon.com/ which has a printable version of all my notes and highlights for each book I have marked. So I can print out any extracts, quotable quotes or marginal notes I have made for reference when I'm writing - superb. If I want to clear the book of marks later I can do so with a click. (No need now to vandalise your books with marks and scrawls, or pepper them with little Post-Its as I used to do.)

12. If I choose to, I can share notes, highlights and comments on the books with others on one or more of  the various social networks.

13. I can search the Internet from my Kindle. Admittedly the small screen and the five point cursor are not ideal for navigating on-line sites, but it's nevertheless a useful function if you are away from your computer.

14. Using some free Kindle software on my PC I can convert my own documents to Kindle format and upload them to my Kindle for reading, working on, or checking in draft if I intend to publish the work in Kindle format.

There are several features that I don't tend to use personally - such as screen rotation, text-to-speech, voice-guided navigation, listening to music or audio files - that others might find beneficial, but there is certainly enough here to keep me happy.

Of course, there are downsides to the Kindle/e-book revolution. Not least there are commercial consequences for bookshops, publishers and writers that are as likely to be negative as positive, and I'll probably devote a future blog posting to considering these; but for the moment I've stuck to reasons to be happy from a reader's/working writer's point of view. The fact is, despite my initial scepticism about the Kindle, these days I would not be without it.

Monday, 4 July 2011

A fantastic journey you can take again

Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne

I remember being entirely engrossed in this book when I read it as an eleven-year-old boy, feeling I was in those subterranean tunnels and passages with the travellers. Recently I downloaded the Malleson translation onto my Kindle (free from Project Gutenberg) to explore whether the story still has the capacity to engage the adult as it had the child.

The simple answer is, yes it does, and in some ways I may have reaped more from the experience this time around, because I appreciated the skill in the characterisation as well as Verne's ability to take us along with them on the adventure. The three main characters - Axel, the young narrator, his eccentric and obsessed uncle Professor Liedenbrock, and their taciturn Icelandic guide Hans - make wonderful travelling companions for the reader. We are sucked along in the whirlwind of the Professor's passion experiencing, like Axel, that heady mix of curiosity and trepidation, relying for our safety on Hans, one of the most steadfast silent heroes in literature.

Of course the scientific arguments that Verne presents through the arguments between Axel and the Professor sometimes border on the absurd, and the sights we come across - including an underground ocean, living dinosaurs and a twelve foot humanoid - are fantastic indeed but there is just enough true science to persuade us to leave our disbelief at the entrance to the volcano.

Jules Verne was a true pioneer of the science fiction genre. Many lesser writers have followed in his footsteps; but literature is a sustainable magic for readers, and it's our delight that we can still make the journey with the original master.