Ode to the e-reader

My new Paperwhite. If you look carefully, you can see my Bad Self-Published Novel on the screen.

I bought my first Amazon Kindle e-reader in 2012. It was the entry level model at that time, and it cost me $79. It had 2 GB of storage.

The Kindle has changed the way I read — I probably read more books in the six months after I bought it than I’d read in the previous three or four years. You can, of course, spend full price for your favorite author’s new release or that book that all of your friends have recommended. But you can also find lots of fun and interesting books for short-time sales, for $3.99 or even $1.99 or 99 cents.

You can borrow e-books through your local library. In Tennessee, that’s done through the Tennessee Reads website. You have to have a valid, current library card from one of the participating libraries. (By the way, Shelbyville-Bedford County Public Library is still listed by its old name, Argie Cooper Public Library, in the dropdown list, which I’m certain has confused some people.) The book downloads to your Kindle or other e-reader, and then deletes itself automatically when your loan period is over. If you finish sooner, you can delete the book and “return” it manually as a courtesy, which then makes it available for someone else to borrow.

If you enjoy classic literature, there are scores of titles you can download for free from Amazon’s public domain Kindle library. Back when the movie “John Carter” came out, I downloaded Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original John Carter novels, without paying a penny. I’ve also downloaded a couple of Jules Verne novels, including my childhood favorite “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.”

By 2015, my Kindle still worked pretty well — except for the four-way rocker switch which was used for things like navigating through menus. I got a great deal on the then-current entry-level model, which had touchscreen controls instead of the rocker switch and page turn buttons. I bought one for $49 as opposed to the $79 list price. I gave the old Kindle to a family member, although I don’t think she was ever able to set it up due to a lack of wi-fi access.

Recently, my 2015 Kindle has had battery life issues. One of the many advantages of a dedicated, monochrome e-reader (and I’ll get to those advantages in just a moment) is that it normally has fantastic battery life, and can go weeks without recharging depending on how and how often you use it. Lately, though, my Kindle would have much shorter battery life, and would sometimes be completely run down when I got ready to use it.

I got online and discovered that Amazon has a Kindle trade-in program and that there was a special limited-time promotion which made this program even better. The basic program is that you can trade in your old Kindle for a small amount of money on an Amazon gift card. You can use this money on a new Kindle or on anything else Amazon sells. But the special limited time promotion is that you get the normal trade-in credit PLUS a 25 percent discount on a replacement Kindle (the discount, unlike the trade-in credit, can only be used on a Kindle).

Originally, I was going to just get the basic, entry-level Kindle, but I decided to spend a few dollars more and get the Kindle Paperwhite, the next step up. It has a higher resolution, for more attractive and readable text, and it also has a built-in light. My sister-in-law, one of several family members visiting for a graduation this weekend, has a Paperwhite and loves hers.

My friend from college, special effects wizard David Manos Morris, has pointed out that the entry-level Kindle has the capacity to hold and play audiobooks, which the Paperwhite does not. But I haven’t really gotten into audiobooks, and if I do, I can easily play them from my phone.

In any case, the Paperwhite arrived today and I think I’m happy with my decision. The screen, with much higher resolution than the old model, looks great, and I think I’m going to be very happy with it.

Let me stop at this point and explain, for anyone who’s confused, what I mean by a dedicated e-reader. Amazon has muddied the waters a bit by using the trademark “Kindle” both for dedicated e-readers (Kindle, Kindle Paperwhite, Kindle Voyage, Kindle Oasis) and for its Kindle Fire line of tablets.

Here is my best description of the difference between an e-reader and a tablet, and why you would want to consider the former.

A tablet, like the Kindle Fire, the Apple iPad or the Microsoft Surface, is a backlit, full-color touchscreen. It’s a multi-purpose device. Yes, you can read books on it, but you can also watch video, play computer games, surf the web and so on.

A dedicated e-reader is meant primarily for reading, and it’s specially engineered to be appropriate for that task. E-readers generally use a black-and-white screen, often driven by what’s called “e-ink” technology. These screens are specifically designed for reading printed text.

E-ink screens do not require backlighting (although some models have a backlight that can be turned on and off). Without the backlight, an e-ink screen is clearly readable in any situation where you would read an ink-and-paper book. If you normally like to sit next to a table lamp to read a book, you can sit next to that same table lamp and read an e-reader screen, with or without the backlight. If you like to read while laying out by the pool in a lounge chair, well, an e-reader works just fine. Many tablet, smartphone and laptop screens are extremely hard to read in bright sunshine, because the backlighting can’t compete with the glare caused by the sunlight on the reflective surface of the screen. An e-ink screen, though, works perfectly in bright sunshine.

E-ink screens, particularly when used with no backlight, are easier on the eyes than computer, phone or tablet screens.

The other disadvantage of the backlight has been suggested by medical studies which claim that spending too much time staring at a backlit screen at night can interfere with your circadian rhythms and keep you from falling asleep. My Google Pixel phone has an optional setting which automatically turns down the blue tint of the display at local sundown; blue light is thought to be the culprit, and so reducing the blue light may help lessen the problem. If you happen to be looking at the display when it makes the adjustment, all of the colors look off. But your eyes quickly adjust. E-readers, which simply reflect normal room light, are thought to be much less of a problem than colorful backlit screens. They are much more like reading a normal ink-and-paper book.

But why use an e-reader at all? Well, it’s fun to be able to so easily shop for or borrow books, and have so many of my past volumes easily accessible. Amazon claims that the 4GB storage on my new Paperwhite (the same as on my 2015 Kindle, and double that of my 2012 Kindle) is enough for thousands of books. And that just counts the books actually stored on your Kindle. Once I buy a Kindle book, it’s on the Amazon servers, and even if I for some reason needed to delete it, or accidentally deleted it, I could always re-download it, as long as I was somewhere with WiFi access.

All Kindle models have WiFi access, so you can download books wherever you can get onto a WiFi network — at home, at work, coffee shops, libraries, and so on. Some of the more expensive models also work on the cellphone network, and with those you can download books anywhere that there’s a 3G or better cellphone signal. You don’t have to have any sort of WiFi or Internet access to read a book once it’s been downloaded onto your device. The access is only needed when you’re downloading a newly-puchased or newly-borrowed book (or when you’re synching your progress, highlights or notes to the Amazon cloud).

A Kindle is thin, light and easy to hold, but the screen is a little more generous than that of a smartphone. During the week between sending off my old Kindle and receiving my Paperwhite, I finished one book and read another start-to-finish using the Kindle app on my phone. I don’t like the phone experience nearly as well as I do the real e-reader, but it wasn’t as bad as it sounds, either.

So I am a big believer in dedicated e-readers with e-ink screens. I think that what you give up in versatility, you gain in reading comfort. By the way, you can adjust the font size to your liking. Misplace your reading glasses? Bump up the font size. You can always reduce it later. Any book is now a large-print edition if you need it to be.

Kindle, however, encompasses not only the dedicated e-readers but also Kindle Fire tablets as well as Kindle reading apps for phones, computers and other devices. And the Kindle software has a lot of great features, many of them available whether you’re using a dedicated e-reader or some other platform.

My sister-in-law is an English professor. Originally an e-reader skeptic, she was sold when she found out that she could highlight passages and make notes — and then e-mail them to herself, where she could easily incorporate them into whatever she was working on. By the way, you can make notes and highlights even on one of those borrowed-from-the-library e-books (since you’re not actually defacing the source material). The notes and highlights will still be there if you check out the book again in the future (or if you decide to buy a copy for your permanent collection).

The Kindle also has a built-in dictionary. Run across an unfamiliar word? Just touch the screen, and a definition pops up. You can even transfer certain types of documents, like PDFs, to your Kindle, just by e-mailing them to a special individual e-mail address tied to your Kindle.

The Kindle software keeps track of your progress in the book. You can download Kindle software to your computer, phone or tablet, and if you get to page 138 while reading “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” on your Kindle, and then decide to continue reading on your laptop, the software will jump to exactly the right place even though it’s a different device. If you highlighted a passage on one device you will still see that highlight on another device.

The Kindle is also tightly-integrated with the Amazon-owned GoodReads social network. You can (but only if you choose to do so) share what you’re reading and see what your friends are reading.

There are all sorts of cases, in multiple price ranges, sold for each of the various Kindle models. Back when I got my original Kindle, I bought a zip-up, pouch style case — the kind you use for transporting the Kindle but not while you’re using it. That case still fit my 2015 Kindle. But for the Paperwhite, I’ve bought an inexpensive folio-style case. This case also has one use benefit — its magnetic catch wakes the Kindle when you open the cover and puts it to sleep when you close the cover.

Also, when you shop for Kindle online, you may notice that a given model has two different prices: a lower price for the Kindle “with special offers” and a higher price “without special offers.” Definitely go for “with special offers.” You will save money, and the only thing it means is that when your Kindle goes to sleep, the screen saver is an ad for a book or some other Amazon product. (There’s also a banner ad at the bottom of your home page.) Nothing ever shows up when you’re actually reading a book, and the screen savers are not distracting or annoying in the least. And every now and then, the screen saver will be some sort of sale or special value.

E-readers have transformed the way I read. I think a lot of the people who would love them have already tried them, but if you haven’t, please consider this my heartiest endorsement. They’re worth full price, but Amazon often puts them on sale for special occasions such as Prime Day or Black Friday, so keep an eye out if you’re interested.

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