Kindle: Disappointing for reading non-fiction – textbook version soon?

As you all know by now, I’m a big fan of the Kindle 2. My experience with reading standard, text-only fiction has convinced me that it’s a winner.

However, it’s clear that Amazon still has a lot of work to do if they want the Kindle to be used also to read non-fiction. A rumor this week suggested they might be planning to tackle that market next.

When I got my second Kindle 2 (you’ll remember I lost the first one), I decided to re-read one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books on it – Jared Diamond’s amazing “Guns, Germs and Steel”, which chronicles the history of the human race and explains how it was the development of food production and domestication of animals in Eurasia which were the main factors in the European colonization of large parts of the world.

This was the major factor in the virtual extermination of native peoples by epidemic diseases like smallpox and measles – all of which had jumped the species boundary to humans from domesticated animals, and to which Europeans had developed some immunity due to thousands of years of exposure, while peoples like Native Americans and Hawaiians had their populations reduced to less than five percent by successive waves of disease.

Anyway, it’s a great and fascinating book. Diamond’s chronicling of the birth and spread of writing and printing – which were also stimulated by the same societal changes, and fostered by the ability of food production techniques which replaced hunter-gatherer lifestyles – has been of great value to me in my own studies of reading.

One of the most valuable features of the book is its series of tables and maps – and it was here that Kindle definitely let me down.

Kindle doesn’t scale the text in tables so it all fits on a page, thus destroying the ability to compare at a glance lots of related facts.

I found that sometimes switching the text size down, below the size at which I can read comfortably, allowed me to fit the whole table on a “page”. But usually it didn’t, with the result that the tables were not quite useless, but very greatly reduced in value.

Same problem with maps and graphics. I don’t know what Amazon did to get the graphics into their .azw format, but I’m guessing they were scanned as pictures. This of course means the text gets blurred. But also, the graphics end up gray and hard to read.

One thing I did notice – they seemed, just for a fleeting instant, to display much better when XOR’d as the Kindle first refreshed the page. Maybe Amazon should try this. But they certainly need to improve the handling of both tables and graphics to turn Kindle into a device on which you’d happily read non-fiction.

It’s a pity. The Kindle weighs much less and is easier to handle than Diamond’s printed book.

I’m also starting to hit a problem in which many of the books I want to re-read – and be able to carry around with me – just aren’t available.

I’d like to re-read William Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” – a fascinating account of how a madman can make a whole nation insane, and a book everyone needs to read in case we forget how it can happen.

Another favorite author of mine is William Manchester. I’d like to re-read the two-part biography of Winston Churchill, “The Last Lion”.

“Reich” and the two volumes of “Lion” together weigh several pounds, with thousands of pages. They’re heavy and bulky to carry (especially when traveling), and together must make a stack about six inches thick. They’re very awkward to read in bed.

In short, books like this are PERFECT candidates for purchasing and reading on a device like the Kindle. But despite being best-sellers, they are not available…

This week there was a rumor (or leak) on the Web that Amazon would announce a larger-format Kindle for reading textbooks etc. This would be a very smart move. Imagine the cost savings if textbooks (which must be regularly updated) went digital. And the relief of the ten-year-olds who would no longer have to struggle to school with a huge backpack, or a travel suitcase with wheels…

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4 thoughts on “Kindle: Disappointing for reading non-fiction – textbook version soon?

  1. Richard Fink

    I’m already using a Kindle-like device but with a significantly larger epaper screen: the IRex 1000s.It’s the IRex Iliad’s bigger brother.The reason I sprang the $600 for the 1000S was for exactly the purpose you describe: displaying textbook content distributed in pdf format as a part of my wife’s online Master’s degree courses.But it’s been a disaster for that.Formatting is the problem.Amazon has their work cut out for them. I can’t wait to see solutions they come up with.However, I am getting good use out of the 1000S reading-wise because of Feedbooks.com. They’ve got quite a bit of public domain stuff that they output in pdf specifically for the “page size”of the device you’re using.And they have custom formatting options, too.The typesetting can be a little crude, but it’s working well enough to be enjoyable.And, for the first time, the other day a flight attendant told me I had to “turn off my book” during take-off.And so the world of words turns.

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  2. Bill Hill

    PDF is indeed a disaster for reading on screen, most of the time. Unless the screen you have is actually 8.5 x 11 inches, or the pdf has been specifically formatted for your screen size, you end up with either non-optimal scaling, or unpleasant and unwieldy scrolling and panning.I wish people would stop thinking of PDF as an “electronic document format”. It’s really “an electronic method of making portable a document designed for print “.It works very, very well for that. It has revolutionzed workflow for print. It’s a great technology for the purpose for which it was created.But trying to use it as a format for reading on screen is like putting lipstick on a sheep. You might date it occasionally, but you wouldn’t want to take it home to meet your Mom…There are things Adobe could be doing to change that – and perhaps they are.There’s a great deal more Adobe could be doing in this whole area. They have a unique user base in the design and type worlds, and they could be leveraging that much better than they are…We need to reach a place – and I know you completely agree with me on this, Richard – where you don’t have to be a software engineer, HTML jock or AJAX wizard to design a great, readable (and standards-compliant) Web page.The art of design is built on 550 years of experience, since Gutenberg. At the moment, creative designers are prisoners of the technology and its current shortcomings, and the effort (and different mindset) required to master it.Only when that ends will design be free, again.

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  3. Anonymous

    My friend and I were recently discussing about how involved with technology our daily lives have become. Reading this post makes me think back to that discussion we had, and just how inseparable from electronics we have all become.I don't mean this in a bad way, of course! Ethical concerns aside… I just hope that as the price of memory decreases, the possibility of downloading our memories onto a digital medium becomes a true reality. It's one of the things I really wish I could encounter in my lifetime.(Posted on Nintendo DS running [url=http://kwstar88.livejournal.com/491.html]R4[/url] DS Ting2)

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