Sunday, November 28, 2010

Kindle 3 Impressions

My wife has an Amazon Kindle 3.  It has changed her reading habits for the better -- she's reading a lot more than she used to -- so it works for her:  does it work for me?

Let me get the negative stuff out of the way first:  I've read two books on it now, and it doesn't seem as convenient to me as a paper book.  Partly the inconvenience is that my wife and I use different font sizes, so I need to switch to mine and back to hers each time I read (I am borrowing her Kindle, after all).  The screen occasionally has a glare problem when I'm reading with my back to a window with the sun shining over my shoulder.  The 5-way controller is too easy to click in the wrong direction.  I'm getting better at it.

I wish it had a dynamically calculated page number based on your selected font size.  A percentage and location code is always shown, but call me old-fashioned, I still think in terms of pages, not percentages.  Really, I'd like to have some idea how far it is to the end of the chapter.  Of course I could just page forward till I find it, but it's too easy to get lost on an e-book on the Kindle, and I don't mean that in a good way.  If you think you're moving back, but you move forward instead, it can be a daunting task to get back to where you were.  That probably doesn't really make a lot of sense until it happens to you....

I hope it never does.

There are a host of other user interface annoyances, but I'm not going to go into them here, because even though I can pick nits like you wouldn't believe (with anything -- it's part of my training as an engineer), I like the Kindle.

The device is the right size, the right shape, the right weight, and even the right texture.  It stays in your hand(s) well.  The screen (my biggest concern, originally) really is readable:  I never experienced eye-strain from using it.  Searching for a word or ordering a new book may be a little iffy with the keyboard and 5-way controller, but the reading experience is wonderful.  And face it;  reading is what you'll be doing with your Kindle most of the time.  I appreciate that the Kindle is not one of those "oh, and you can read books on it too!" devices like the iPad.

One odd thing I noticed when reading on the Kindle was that I didn't move my hands much.  The Hunger Games was an exciting read and the device is light compared to a paper book.  But that meant that my hands stayed in one position for a long time, which is not good for arthritic joints.  I'll have to train myself to move my hands a bit to replace the movement I get with a paper book from turning the pages and shifting from left page to right page.

The page forward and page backward buttons fall "to finger" readily.  One issue that both my wife and I found, was that we expected the left-side button to move us back through the book, and the right-side button to move us ahead.  Actually, the large buttons on either side move us forward, and the smaller ones move us back:  simple, yes, but we still mess it up as often as not.  See above comment about getting lost....  The paging buttons allow one-handed and left-handed operation.  Battery life is excellent.

I like the Kindle, but I still prefer my paper books.  As time passes and e-readers get progressively better, I don't doubt I'll buy one.
But not everyone should get an e-reader.

Like my 84 year old mother.  I love her, but we're talking about a woman who sometimes can't get her fan to work without my help.  Yes, her fan.  Don't even ask about her VCR, television, cordless phone, alarm clock, photo frame, answering machine, microwave oven, etc.  When she mentioned that one of my brothers was going to buy her a Kindle for Christmas I thought, "well, there goes whatever free time I might have had."  She'd heard about e-readers, but had never actually seen one in action.  My wife and I had her try to use my wife's Kindle, and Mom very quickly realized she wanted no part of it.  One of the striking things for me was realizing she had absolutely no idea what a cursor was.

The reasons my mother would have liked a Kindle (if she could have handled using one):  it's light -- heavy books tire her out, and she could have increased the font size for easier reading.  At her age, however, with her complete computer illiteracy, it just wouldn't work.

For everybody else -- have at it!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

I am not Katniss Everdeen

A month ago, if you'd asked me how I felt about first person narratives, I would have told you that they don't interest me.  I can't think of anything I've ever read that cried out for first person, anything that couldn't have been done as well or better in third.  Except, of course, things like detective novels and the rare book that seems to need first person to "put you right there in the story."  But I can't think of any non-detective novels that I remember as needing first person.

The biggest problem I've had with first person point of view is that I'm not the person I'm reading about.  Maybe I can identify with them on some level, or empathize with them, or try to put myself in their shoes, but....  I'm not an alcoholic inventor who repeatedly goes on benders and then sobers up to find he's invented something, but he has no idea what the invention does.  I'm not a star-crossed lover contemplating suicide as the only way out of his predicament.  I'm not a 16 year old girl who's been sent to an arena to fight 23 other young people to the death to provide "entertainment" for the capitol.

Oh, but I am.  Or rather I should say that I have no problem getting into a story as told from the point of view of a 16 year old girl who's been sent to an arena to fight etc.  I've read "The Hunger Games" and I'm reading the second installment now.  I love the story.  I love the storytelling.  Suzanne Collins has done something I haven't seen before -- she's written a novel in first person that doesn't make me feel like I have to shed my skin and step into someone else's.  The reason I don't feel that way?  Because the transition is effortless.

I mentioned to my wife (I'm reading her copy on her Kindle -- more on the Kindle in an upcoming post) that The Hunger Games was written in third person limited (a POV I'm rather fond of) just like the Harry Potter novels.  She said I was wrong.  And I was.  I recognized that I was getting the entire story through Katniss's eyes, and because it never once felt forced or awkward, I assumed it was third person.  Amazing.  I'm there in the arena.  Maybe others who read it become Katniss, but not me.  Instead I'm looking over her shoulder and listening to her thoughts (just as if it was close third person).  Does this sound confusing?  I suppose it is, but it doesn't matter:  I've got a front-row seat and a mind-link with the main character.

To add insult to injury, I looked at the text and realized it was written in present tense.  Normally I find present tense kind of hokey; it feels stilted and interrupts the fictional dream.  In this case it helps to make the story feel more immediate, and it's use is warranted.

So now I'm wondering how many other novels I've read that have actually been first person but I didn't notice because they were done equally well.  The times I've noticed first person POV have been when the author didn't manage to make it work.  When the POV stuck out like a sore thumb, it led me to the opinion that first person is the problem.  I can see now that the fault lies not in the POV, but in the author.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Bulldozer Has Stalled

I can read just about anything:  cereal boxes, upside-down newspapers, phone books, toothpaste tubes, road signs, books.  When it comes to reading books, I tend to finish what I start.  Sometimes I'm disappointed for one reason or another with something I'm reading, but I still finish.

I'm consistent about the finishing part.  I've probably abandoned less than 10 books in my life, and maybe only half that many.

Much of the time I breeze through my reading.  That's not to say I'm not reading fully or not paying attention, just that the books are absorbing:   Harry Potter, Dante's Inferno, The Hunger Games, War and Peace, Shakespeare, etc.  When things get tough I go into snow-plow mode.  I can plow through just about anything:  The Faerie Queen, Dante's Purgatorio, A Pilgrim's Progress.  [I found out last Spring that even English professors don't read The Faerie Queen by choice, but I didn't think it was that bad.]

There are a few books that I have to be a bulldozer for, because a snow-plow just won't cut it.  While a snow-plow can take to the highway in a storm, a bulldozer never moves that fast.  I went bulldozing for much of William Blake, all of Sigmund Freud after the first week, William James, Dante's Paradiso, parts of Nietzsche, but I finished them.  All.

I've finally  found a book that I cannot finish.  It's been taking forever to read because it's never my first choice.  I've let it fester, half-finished on the top of my dresser for a week now, unsure what to do about it.   I've been coming to the sad conclusion that I'm going to abandon it, but I couldn't quite admit it.  I thought of writing about it here, and this morning I lay in bed thinking about getting some facts from the book for this blog, and that's when it hit me:  I have a physical aversion to opening that book again.  The bulldozer has stalled.

I've finished books I've been bored by, books I wasn't sure if I should bother, some that I wasn't sure if it made sense to finish.  And this is a "classic" international best-seller that I've come to hate and now (finally) refuse to finish.  Yes, the bulldozer has stalled, and not up against some huge and dense boulder-like tome, but against the almost fluffy little book "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

I don't understand what prompted people to buy this book into best-sellerdom.  Did they read it?  I understand it's a philosophical novel, and how it's set in the Prague Spring, and that it's theme is love and sex... and that I can't stand it.  The author comes across as such a mysoginist it makes me want to scream (but it's probably okay because I get the idea that he's a misandrist too).  That, and the way he puts chapter breaks (and there are a lot of them) right in the middle of scenes -- even between two lines of conversation!  Oh, yeah -- and there are what seem like sloppy repetitions of phrases, but that might have been a conscious (though grating) stylistic choice.

This is not a review.  I'm perfectly willing to put the blame on myself for my failure to finish this book.  I simply do not understand what's so wonderful about it.  My son had to read it in High School, and he thought it was awful and unreadable, if I remember correctly.  I smiled when he told me that, and figured he just didn't have the maturity or the background to appreciate a great work of literature.  Now I know where he was coming from.

What am I missing?  I'm not lacking maturity and I'm not lacking background.  I'm not lacking an appreciation for good literature.  I don't know what it is, but...

I was wrong.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Undue Influence

The media's influence on our minds and actions has been in the... media... a lot lately.  My son is discussing in class whether violent video games beget violent people, and whether stereotypes in games cause or add to racial / ethnic prejudice, etc.  I just read about a study that says romance readers are more likely to accept unsafe sexual practices than others.  Most of this is being looked at in the ethics and morals field, less so in the scientific field of human behavior.  I'm a science guy, so I'm going to look at it from a scientific viewpoint.

Sort of.

But not really.  I'll use a single real-life subject -- myself, so my conclusions are not statistically significant.  So be it.

Let's step into the wayback machine, to a time when I was an impressionable teen / pre-teen.  What books did I read and did they leave any lasting impression?  I can only recall the ones that left some kind of impression, because the rest I've forgotten, although there were many.  The ones that I recall, I may have the wrong title for, or no title at all, but I remember the story.

The Other Side of the Mountain triggered a lasting interest in peregrine falcons, their near-extinction, their successful recovery, and their beauty.  However, I never felt any desire to live in a tree-trunk.

A story, whose title I don't recall, about a boy who had a skunk for a pet.  He was a really cool skunk, but I've stayed a cat person.

A biography of Steinmetz, a competitor to Thomas Edison, encouraged the engineer / scientist part of me, while teaching me that sometimes people fail in spite of all their hard work and intelligence.

Another title-free story about a teenage boy who'd just been blinded through  the carelessness of a classmate with a firecracker.  I've never liked loud noises, and this story put the finish on my dislike of personal fireworks, but it also gave me a deep (though admittedly outsider) empathy for the blind and otherwise physically disadvantaged.

A whole lot of sci-fi -- Asimov's robot novels and Foundation series, Niven's Ringworld, Andromeda Strain, etc -- taught me to look to science and technology to solve problems at the same time they create new ones; to think about the (far) future; the law of unintended consequences; and to remember always that people, no matter how powerful, are still just people.

(Only the first book out of 15 or so of) Castaneda's Teachings of Don Juan, all about peyote-driven hallucinations and stuff like that.  I still worry about my brother that gave me that book.  I did not develop an interest in drug-induced mysticism, although the out-of-body part of the book intrigued me and I delved into that a bit through sleep-states and a bit of self-hypnosis.

Johnathan Livingston Seagull rocked my world.  It spoke to me (unlike Catcher in the Rye -- I don't think I could ever relate to Holden C.).  Alas, I didn't become a seagull, but the book bolstered my determination to make my own way in life.  Which didn't need any bolstering anyway.

There are undoubtedly other books that I'll remember only after this is posted, but these are enough to make my point.  Did these books influence me?  Of course they did.  Did they make me
  • a violent sociopath?  No, but I didn't read much about violent people.
  • a mystic?  No.  While I have a very active imagination, I believe the world is thoroughly grounded in everyday reality.
  • a drug addict?  Not a chance.
  • a person who chooses to live outside society?  No again.
  • an engineer?  Yes, but my father was an engineer and had much more impact on me than any of these books did.
  • a very different person from who I was already turning out to be?  No, my reading didn't so much change my trajectory as it widened certain parts of the path of my life.
Why is that?  Why is it that (so we're told, anyway) some people are at risk of picking up life-altering "evil ideas" from what they read?  Aren't they then also at risk of picking up life-altering "positive ideas" as well?  [Besides, who's to say what are "good" things and what are "bad"?  That brings us right back to censorship.]  Maybe some people have less of a hold on the direction their inner life is heading in than others do.  I don't think the problem is the book / video game / movie, but the person doing the reading / playing / viewing.  If it wasn't a book that sent them down the wrong path, it would be something, anything, else.

I think those people are already in trouble before-hand.