Chris Blattman

On the Kindle

Matt the blog reader asks:

A few months ago you mentioned on the blog that you were getting a Kindle. I might be going out to rural Tanzania for a few months early next year, and was considering buying one to avoid lugging out a ton of sci-fi novels. Does it receive the Blattman fieldwork seal of approval?

Let me use this moment to inaugurate the official BSFA: Blattman Fieldwork Seal of Approval. My motto: BFSA, worth every penny you paid for it.

Is the Kindle worthy of the inaugural, auspicious BFSA? I’ll say yes, but only barely.

I like the Kindle’s look and feel (how is that for a cliché endorsement?) but I really, really want a touch screen. I think the iPhone has spoiled me for life (much in the same way that a PhD in California dissolved every cold-resistant Canadian bone in my body and turned me, now back in New England, into Sissy McColdypants). I keep finding myself swishing the screen with my thumb, sighing from disappointment, and then hitting the crummy ‘next page’ button.

Cro-magnon button-punching aside, the Kindle is surprisingly pleasant to read. It fits easily in backpacks, usually nestled up to my laptop. I got the big ‘un, the 9.7 inch DX, but I think I would have been nearly as pleased with the standard 6 inch, at least for fiction. New 6 inch models also work globally now. Supposedly. (I’ll eat my iPhone if it works in northern Uganda.)

Whatever model you get, I recommend the leather cover. I’m pretty sure it brings the likelihood I destroy it down to about 0.50 (from 0.98). I also like the fact that it now feels like opening a book.

I especially like the underline feature. All my favorite quotes are stored in the story as well as a separate file. This is good for later reference, and terrific for blogging.

I wish the Kindle had a built-in reading light, but I suppose I could shell out another forty bucks for the clunky attachment. But of course I won’t.

My big conclusion: the Kindle is a terrific option for fiction. For a 12-week field trip, fiction would take up at least half a suitcase. I can get almost every novel I want electronically, plus the free oldies give me an incentive to read and reread the classics. The rest I can read when I’m home.

Non-fiction presents a problem. If you find yourself reading the latest Malcolm Gladwell or Freaknomics tome, it’s available. But I’m more inclined to read the books and papers behind these works. Academic presses haven’t migrated to the Kindle just yet, and the backstock may never appear, so for at least the next decade I expect to need at least half a suitcase for heavy paper.

PDF files are not much better. Only rarely can you underline or comment on them. Probably only new PDFs will start to offer that feature, and then sporadically. And reading multi-columned text on a Kindle means incessant, annoying scrolling with that cro-magnon button. I’d rather read them on my computer or print them out.

The technology needs at least one more generation before it produces something really exciting. Within weeks of buying my iPhone, I found myself lumping regular mobiles and rotary landlines into the same mental category of: wow, people still use those? It’s less snobbery than love-induced amnesia. The Kindle creates none of that feeling over books. Nostalgia reigns instead, outweighed only by the half-a-suitcase saved.

15 Responses

  1. iPhones work here in Juba, so you may want to crack out the chilli sauce for yours in Northern Uganda!

  2. I have been working in the newspaper industry for the past nine years. I can tell from experience that the Kindle as it looks today is not going to be a success because it offers limited option. We have tested it at work, and it is not that attractive to subscribers. I also think that the kindle should be able to be used across all platforms as far as PC and MAC are concerned. The kindle should not be monochrome, that is the essence of an electronic device that wants to make book obsolete. I think that the iphone and the ipod touch are the biggest competitor for the newspaper industry at the moment. I will not be surprise if the Apple put in the option of downloading the British Encyclopedia or any other heavy volume.

  3. It’s not a bad idea to check in advance whether the fiction you want is available on the kindle as well. I’m in the midst of a 10 month field stint and, while the kindle has saved me a ton of luggage space, was disappointed that a lot of the books on my to read list were not available. For those iphone/itouch lovers – it is actually possible to get a kindle app where you can see what kindle has to offer AND get the first chapter free (as well as the whole book if you don’t mind reading on a mini screen). A bit infuriating that I had to use both the kindle and my itouch to make my kindle reading choices.

  4. The Sony Reader 600 has a touch screen — though I prefer to click rather than swipe when turning a page. Plus it is very cool looking — whereas the Kindle is a bit of a clunker to look at.

    You have to download books via the net and your computer but this is no big deal — anyway you can’t buy Kindles in Canada thanks to our hopeless telecoms.

    But you can sign ebooks out of libraries which you can’t on the Kindle. This is going to be huge I think.

    You can download free books — classic novels over past 50 years at The Burgomeister has a great selection. I think they are in the newish ePUB format.

    There are several software programs for turning PDFs into the ePUB format which is a joy to read.

    There is still a long way to go with this technology — but I love it… it is truly great on long trips.


  5. Thanks a lot for that review.
    I was considering getting the Kindle, but now I’ll wait for at least the next version…
    and yes, please make the BFSA a regular on your blog!

  6. I found the Kindle’s lack of a touch screen absolutely infuriating. I’ve been pretty happy with the Kindle for iPhone application as long as I’m careful about battery life on my email-web-twitter-ereader-iPod-phone device.

  7. If you are looking for a good way to get PDFs into the Kindle Editable format (underlining, bookmarks, comments, etc), try using Calibre to convert your PDFs [free at ]. I have a Sony E-reader that I’ve been using for my overseas travel for about 3 years now, and the Calibre software makes the whole process a breeze.

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