Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Annoyance of Amazonian proportions

When people ask me if I dislike Amazon, I find myself struggling to explain my issues with the website that for so many years has been my primary source for books, discs, and DVDs (as well as potato peelers, utensils, bedsheets, and more). I can't easily go into my dislike of their pricing methods, or the way I've always felt the reviews are slightly skewed (in this, though, I suppose I have only myself to blame). Disliking their "Best of the Month" feature is a matter of my own personal taste, and my personal views on the Kindle are perhaps not singular, but are not shared by most. Then, of course, a story like this comes along (via A Momentary Taste of Being).
Eric Engleman, who covers Amazon for TechFlash and the Puget Sound Business Journal, reported yesterday on a six-year-old patent, granted last week, which, according to Engleman, “describes a system of paying to electronically preview ‘one or more chapters, sections, pages, paragraphs, or sentences from a work’ with variable fees based on the genre or publisher, or ‘consumers’ past viewing behavior or purchases.’” Amazon, at least according to the language of this patent (which credits Amazon C.E.O. Jeff Bezos as one of its inventors), expresses concern that the current preview model—which includes an especially handy word-search function—may discourage customers from actually buying books.
I suppose I'm so frustrated by this story because it looks like just another example of Amazon trying to charge for ridiculous things (or, additionally, charge excessively). I am saddened to think that Amazon's latest money-making patent might actually work, much in the way their setting of eBook prices (unfairly high, no matter what publishers would like to think) lead consumers to getting used to something pointlessly and unfairly expensive.
As was mentioned at The Book Bench (and A Momentary Taste of Being), there is much stupidity in this move. When I go to a bookstore, pick up a book in my hands and plop down on the floor, I get to flip through as much of the book as I want. Heck, I can always finish the book if that's my aim, even if I don't for fear of this. Charging for something so limited as a ten-page preview is just... dumb. Worse is the idea that people will in fact chalk up money for such a scam. While Amazon is clever for trying to cash in on convenience, it seems inappropriate to constantly be coming up with new ways to limit our access to knowledge. This also seems like a foolish move from a practical standpoint. I have purchased numerous books based on the fact that I could preview them. I won't pay to preview - I just won't buy.

For all the price "friendliness" of Amazon, the convenience of having books shipped straight home, and the many years of loyal use, I have to say - this time, guys, you're going too far. It won't be worth it.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The internet, touch screens, and personal preference

A couple weeks ago, I got a phone call from a relative asking me about eReaders. The relative, knowing my interest in the matter, wanted to know if it was worth it getting a Kindle. Then, a few days ago, I found myself discussing the matter again, looking at the development of the market over the past year. Finally, later that evening I saw this article detailing the price drops in Sony Readers (I own a Sony PRS-600; now known, I suppose, as an "old Sony Touch Edition"). So now, a recap of the last year in eReaders.

Since I purchased my Sony Touch Edition a year ago, the eReader market has changed drastically. The day following my purchase saw price drops in Kindles, from the then-standard $300 to $260-$280. The Nook followed suit, and by March 2010, most eReader prices hovered around the $250 mark. April saw the launch of the iPad, which had for so long captivated the minds of tech enthusiasts, as well as eReader junkies. The iPad proved to be a very different product, though, far more multi-purpose than the single-track eInk eReaders many found to be so useful. And far more expensive, at around $500. Still, following the release of the iPad, eReaders went through another few sets of changes - a few more eReaders on the market, significant price cuts, and a couple months ago prices stood at around $150-$200 for standard eReaders (Sony's Daily Edition remained more expensive). Then the Kindle "3" came out, and now a new set of Sonys. So where do we stand?

Simple. It all depends on your needs, and while eReaders these days are significantly better (and better priced) than they were one year ago when I made my purchase, the products are still far from perfect and each of the major eReaders has its flaws.

Amazon Kindle 3 - The most popular eReader by far (thanks in part to Amazon's ubiquity as an online bookseller, as well as aggressive marketing), the Kindle 3 is a good product alone (internet access, note-taking ability, convenience), but falls short on several counts. First is Amazon's closed format and the refusal to move to the popular, open ePub format. This places a lot of books and digital libraries out of Kindle users' reach, though they for the most part don't know it. Problematic, too, is Amazon's "sticky finger" issue - the ability to wipe books from devices, to keep track of notes made in the margins, etc. The somewhat bulkier design (and difficulty in actually taking notes) adds to a device that is very good, but technologically frustrating.

Barnes & Noble Nook - The Nook gets a lot of press but doesn't actually seem to be that common or popular. As a device, it comes off as a bit awkward - two screens: one for reading, and a touch screen for maneuvering - and also as somewhat simple. It has internet access as well, but reviews indicate that it's clumsy and somewhat slow. I don't know as much about it, but it benefits from having friendlier eBook rules - the ability to lend books, ePub, etc. The Nook costs about as much as the Kindle.

Sony Readers - Sony is still sort of out of the loop. Coming as the only major (if you can even call it that...) eReaders to offer touch screens, it falls short on other counts. The two new updates of the Touch and Pocket Editions leave out internet access (silly, in my mind, if they already have the technology...) but updates screens and maintains the incredibly comfortable note-taking abilities that make the Touch Edition very useful and convenient (hopefully reduce the slight glare as well). Sony continues to embrace ePub and the Overdrive Digital Library, leading the way in digital lending (and thus leading the way in free eBooks!), even as their digital store is awkward and disorganized. Sonys still cost more, but their prices too have dropped significantly over the past year and will likely return to market levels within the next few months.

Apple iPad - Not a real eReader. Used as one, but it still doesn't really qualify. I recent read an article (I can't find it now...) that suggested that the year long price drops in eReaders were as a result of the iPad. While I'm certain the iPad helped, I find myself again needing to point out that the devices aim to do completely different things. People haven't stopped buying eInk eReaders because they can get tablets. I think all that's been said until now proves this.

The gist - As I told my relative (and now you, dear readers), it all depends on what you need and what you want. For readers like myself who refuse to buy eBooks due to ridiculously high costs, the Sonys are still good, even if they annoyingly don't offer internet and demand a higher price (overall it pays off, by the way). Sony's point seems to be that a touch screen is the replaceable equivalent of internet, but they're wrong. The ability to access 3G or wireless internet makes eReaders convenient on a very different level. But that's not important for everyone (especially people who don't want internet access guzzling their battery life...). The Nook is also a good choice, even if in this case the inability to take notes evens out with the lack of internet in the Sonys. Then again, someone might want something simple, organized, and cheap. The standard. In which case the Kindle isn't that terrible - it's just not for me. If you don't care about closed formats, the Kindle is clearly a successful and popular product. I don't believe most Kindle owners actively dislike their Kindles. Then again, I don't believe most eReader owners actively dislike any of their eReaders. I certainly like mine.

Touch screens, open format, internet, price... Buying an eReader today means taking into account many different variables, far more than a year ago. Today would I be so quick to buy an eReader? No. But it's an interesting, growing market. And that, I think, is worth something in itself.

Monday, September 20, 2010

To love thyself...

A subsection of the gender debate that arose following the raving New York Times review of Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" is a small aspect of the New York Times bias: the tendency to love - and glorify endlessly - novels that embody the alleged "New York" attitude and frame of mind. It is not surprising that the New York Times unabashedly loves books about itself, books that fit its own view of life. Unfortunately, this does not always pan well for readers. Setting aside the whole discussion of whether or not the NYT dislikes female writers, I have to wonder why exactly it is that they actually like New York authors. Oh, there are the obvious reasons. People like books they can relate to and presumably New Yorkers have some kind of shared experience that makes them more likely to relate to books about... well, themselves.

I recall something I kept encountering in reviews of "Olive Kitteridge" - that the book embodied the "small town" attitude well. Furthermore, this was often mentioned as one of the possible reasons it won the Pulitzer, which states in its mandate something to that extent. The need to have a book actively identify with a certain group of people is not a new concept, but recently I've noticed that with New Yorkers, it's significantly more pronounced, perhaps simply because the NYT carries a lot more weight than most other newspapers. But what does this say about us as readers, if we simply like what is familiar to us in attitude and mindset? Shouldn't we be broadening our horizons?

This is not to say that the NYT (or any publication, for that matter) is exclusive in liking books only from its own region. As Teresa of Shelf Love so eloquently wrote on the matter of the gender debate: "Imbalance may exist, but it’s an imbalance, not an automatic shunting to the corner." In the case of authors like Franzen (and Lethem, and others I don't want to list now because it'll make my head pop), the NYT displays, yes, its absolute bias for books about itself - books that the reviewers can relate to, that speak to them, that they like. Because when a newspaper reviewer raves about a book, it's not actually the paper that loves the book, but the reviewer - a person who clearly has some kind of attachment to the book.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons I like books that don't take place in our modern world - sci-fi, classics and the like. I invariably find myself reading books that do not have defined Anglicized characters. The problem seems much less pronounced with other countries perhaps because I am less familiar with them, but when reading a book like the decidedly mediocre "The Emperor's Children", so highly praised by the NYT back in 2006 I find myself seeing exactly how a NYT reviewer will love the book, even as I - a non New Yorker, amateur (ahem) reviewer - don't.

I have read very, very few books about my own hometowns. The few books I have read have always thrilled me with the sense of self-reference (Hey, that's my high school! I live off that street!) but also turn me off a little. Why should I read about my own existence? I'd much rather see someone else's. I suppose the NYT doesn't agree with that idea.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Name game

We talk about cover art a lot and how that helps determine our opinion of a book ("Don't judge a book by its cover!" even though we all do), but what about the title? How often does the title draw you in and tell you, "Okay, there's a book I need to read"?

If you're me, often.

I recently purchased Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Enemies, A Love Story", several months ago I read a book called "A Honeymoon in Space", and my obsession with Primo Levi began with the title "The Periodic Table". More often than not, I find myself wanting to read a book because of its title, not so much because of its cover art. Even though I know that typically both title and cover are strongly influenced by the publishers, I can't help but feel that the title says more about the book than a picture ever could.

The thing is, a title can also drive me away from a book. Cutesy titles can be endearingly humorous at times, but often it's titles that are too self-referential or pretentious that make me want to throw the book against a wall. Then there are titles that stretch on for too long and have nonfiction subtitles: "Actual title regarding phenomenon or important character: A Blah's Blah-blah with Blah-blah blah" (find the nearest nonfiction book to you, whether memoir or not; chances are it has a subtitle that fits the bill).

There are formulaic titles too, just as there are formulaic, standard covers. I once encountered on a blog (and now unfortunately cannot find...) a list of words commonly found in historical fiction titles. The blogger cynically said you could take just about every combination of two words on the list and come up with an existing historical fiction novel. The same goes for many ambiguously titled "literary fiction" novels (mentioned here and discussed a little more at length).

This time ignoring the lack of wisdom in titling books so in line with formulas, I have to wonder how much other readers are influenced by titles. I find that a book with a punchy title can entice me even as the summary, the cover, or other factors might not. For example, my decision to read Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian before The Road was perhaps strengthened by the fact that Blood Meridian sounds way cooler based on title alone (it should be noted that I still have not read The Road, which kind of has a lame title). This was also the case with my choice of Meir Shalev's A Pigeon and a Boy over the much less intriguingly titled The Blue Mountain (which has a significantly more interesting name in the original Hebrew: A Russian Novel. Still not as good as A Pigeon and a Boy, but not so boring either).

Ultimately, one of the most important aspects of a book is its title. This is how we remember the book, how we classify it, how we categorize it, and how, in a sense, we define it. Too often I find myself forgetting the exact title of a book because it isn't memorable, or doesn't encompass the book well, or simply makes no sense. This in turn affects my feelings toward the book itself - a book that has an unmemorable title is bound to be an unmemorable book. And though a good title doesn't necessarily imply a good book (The Yiddish Policemen's Unit comes to mind...), a strong title can urge me to pull an unexpected book off the library shelf (The Inverted World) and lead me to a world I would have most likely ignored otherwise.

As for me, I intend to continue seeking out cool titled books. Because hey - who doesn't want to read Captain Blood?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A couple confusing clichés

Last year before reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, I was told that the book is impossible to set aside. Almost everyone I knew who had read it recommended it wholeheartedly and when I needed a book for a trip I was taking, I decided to bring Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece. Turns out everyone was telling the truth - I started reading One Hundred Years of Solitude on the afternoon flight home and was barely able to set the book aside for dinner and sleep. I finished the book the following morning.

The situation I faced with Love in the Time of Cholera (the predictable, cliched second pick for García...) was quite different. It's García's writing I like, in a way I can't really put my finger on. Few writers make me enjoy language quite so much as García, and I like that. On the other hand, I found myself occasionally struggling with the story of this modern classic. Everybody positively loves Love in the Time of Cholera... so why did I only like it? See, much as I like intricacies and complexities, and time jumps and character jumps... I wasn't too into all the characters. In fact, I suspect I liked some characters more than I was supposed to (for the sake of the narrative, that is). There were short moments (short!) that I even felt like skimming through boring passages.

I suspect that because I liked One Hundred Years of Solitude so much and expected a lot from Love in the Time of Cholera, I was disappointed. It's unfair to judge a book by what it isn't - I've said this before and I'll say it again. Still, it's not that I disliked the book. Heck, I even liked it a lot! Its only problem is that it didn't flow as I hoped it would. How do I judge a book like that?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Numerical update

Almost a year after purchasing my Sony Reader, I have read over 30 digital books thanks to the device. And this not counting essays, poems, short stories, assignments, proofreads, textbooks, newspapers, magazines, etc. All for free.