A kindle library is a difficult thing to manage

How-to-Rent-Kindle-Library-Books-That-Never-Expire.jpgI’ve been using the Kindle for perhaps six years now, and in that time I’ve accumulated a library of about 500 books. Nowadays I don’t purchase most of the books I read on the device; I check them out from the library. But I do still buy books for four reasons: i) the book is an aspirational one, like The Cancer Ward, that I buy so its presence on my Kindle can someday taunt me into giving it a shop; ii) my friend wrote the book; iii) the book is so new and so popular that it’s on hold at all the libraries and I want to read it right away; iv) the book is relatively special interest, often a foreign translation, and none of my libraries have it; and v) it was on sale for two bucks and I thought why not.

But, as was the case when I bought paper books, most of these books go unread! The Cancer Ward is an example. I also have A Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich. As I recall, I bought both books in the same day. I’m remembering now that I own Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves and Alissa Nutting’s Tampa and Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King (all on sale for two dollars). I bought my friend Evelyn’s book The Crown’s Game and I’ve been meaning to read it, but the moment has never been quite right. Awhile back I bought a pair of classic French crime novels, Arsene Lupin and Fantomas, only to realize that I maybe didn’t particularly enjoy classic French crime novels.

And the strange thing about a Kindle library is that it’s invisible. Each volume represents hours of possible reading, but it’s slender and almost invisible: a tiny notation that you can skip past in an instant. If I owned these books, I could look at my bookshelf and run across them and maybe take them down, but because they’re on my Kindle, I often forget that I own them. For instance the other day I was thinking I should buy The Second Sex, only to realize that I already own it.

I organize my books into collections, each of which is of a relatively manageable size, usually only 10-20 books, so I am capable of dipping in and being like, “Hmm, do I want to read a short story collection? Let’s see what I have!” But do I? Not really. Sometimes it does happen though. For instance I recently read My Brilliant Friend after owning it for more than a year. And I read Crime and Punishment about eight months after buying it. And Romance of the Three Kingdoms was a book I only opened after buying it maybe three or four years ago? But those are the only three examples from the last year. Everything else was either taken out from the library or purchased and read immediately.

So in some ways all this book-buying represents sheer acquisitiveness: something that’s no different from any other form of consumerism. Luckily, it’s not expensive as I used to think it was. Nowadays I collect receipts on all my book purchases, since I write them off on my taxes, and in 2015 I spent $700 on books for the Kindle. Which actually now that I think about it is a pretty large amount, but it’s less than I thought I was spending (in my mind I was laying out thousands upon thousands of dollars), and it’s less than I’ve spent on things (weddings, retreats, trips) that bought me far less pleasure than a year of carefully assessing which books I would and would not buy.

The Kindle Paperwhite is okay, but certainly not ideal

imagesWell, I’ve been using this thing for two weeks now, I think. And it’s pretty good. Gets the most points for the navigation. It’s fairly easy to go back and forth. When you tap a footnote, it doesn’t zoom you over to some other section of the book–the footnote just opens up on top of your document. You can open the table of contents and flick forward or backward to check out what’s around, without ever having to sacrifice your current page.

I like the reading light a lot. It lights up well and evenly and it’s easy to adjust levels. They say you can’t ever turn it completely off, but when you put it to the lowest level, it’s pretty off. However, I’ve found that even when there is some ambient light, it’s often more comfortable to have the reading light on at least a little bit, so there’s more contrast (it helps to alleviate the classic e-reader problem, which is that, since the background is grey and the text is black, it sometimes wearies the eyes.)

I did, however, have to manually recreate my collections, which was awful. It easy took a few hours to do what (by using Calibre) I’d been able to do in a few minutes on the Kobo.

Furthermore, I’ve already experienced major technical glitches. For one thing, I noticed that my battery life was abysmal. I was having to charge it every two or three days. Now, new Kindles often have poor battery life because they’re indexing all the books you put on, so that they’ll be searchable. However, that usually takes a few days, not a few weeks. I eventually realized that the indexing had gotten stuck, so I deleted the index and forced the Kindle to reindex. It continued to get stuck. Most of the time, I managed to get the indexing going again by restarting the Kindle, but eventually it halted entirely.

Finally, I got fed up and decided to just do a factory reset and–from now on–only keep a few books on the Kindle. This is radically different from how I’ve normally done things (normally I like to have a larger number of options as to what to read next), but the alternative was to just accept extremely poor battery life.

However, the latest Kindle update includes the ability to store your collections in the cloud. This has, to a certain extent, made it a bit easier to keep fewer books in the local memory. Using the Kindle device I can (laboriously) arrange all my books into collections and browse through the titles in the cloud. It’s only when I am thinking about actually reading them that I need to tap on them and download them to the mirrored collection in my device’s local memory. And, hopefully, these cloud collections won’t disappear each time I upgrade devices or do a factory re-set.

I hate hate hate hate hate hate the way the Kindle tells you how far you are in the book

I’m reading Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (on a sidenote, I bet that last name really hurts his citation count. Misspellings alone must cost him big time). And it’s pretty excellent. I read it once before, when I found it in my dad’s study. But I was like twelve, so all that I retained of it is that there is this thing called flow (which is where you’re completely lost in an activity and time stops and you feel like the master of time and space and the universe opens up and everything’s amazing).

What I find interesting is that the book has both a normative and a descriptive component. The descriptive part is just describing flow: when it occurs, how to make it occur, what it’s like, etc. The normative part consists of the assertion that flow is “optimal experience”–basically that it’s the best thing ever, and that the purpose of life is to get into flow.

Obviously not a provable assertion, but certainly thought-provoking and more convincing than most philosophical standpoints, because flow is actually extremely pleasurable, but doesn’t have the same downsides as most pleasurable activities. It’s the best kind of pleasure.

I am enjoying the book. It resonates with me. I experience flow fairly regularly, both when I write and when I read.

For years, writing didn’t involve anything even approaching flow. It was actually extremely painful. But now that I’ve gotten better and refined my techniques, I’m operating on a bit of a higher level. And, true to the lessons of the book, I generally get into flow whenever I’m pushing the limits of my abilities.

Anyway, none of that is the point of this article. The point is that at some point the book started talking about your attention and about how, in order to get lost in something, you need to restrict your attention to just the matter at hand. And I realized that I really really really really hate the way the Kindle tells you what page you’re on. I mean, I always knew that I hated it. But now I knew that I really hated it.

kp-slate-05-lg._V358033061_If you don’t use one, then you don’t know: the Kindle has two progress counters. On the left side, there’s a percentage. And on the right side there’s one of four completely arbitrary numbers: time left until you complete the book (based on your reading speed), time left until you complete the chapter, location (a weirdly arbitrary Kindle-centric number that’s usually in the hundreds or thousands), and page number (but this doesn’t refer to actual page turns on your device…it refers to some weird arbitrary page number, so that it might take three or four Kindle page turns to get this number to change).

All of these numbers are awful! It’s like they were put in there by someone who doesn’t actually like to read books.

The time markers are awful because they focus on when you’re going to finish the book, when you’re supposed to be losing track of time.

The location marker is awful because it makes me keep glancing down and performing quick math to see how many page turns it takes to go up how many locations and how many page turns I’ll need to get to some arbitrary location.

And page turn is the worst of all, because it just makes me glance down with each page to see if the page turn number has gone up.

Oh, and don’t get me started on percentage completion. This was the worst of all, because it made me continually do mathematical operations to try to relate this to the other number and to how many page turns it’d take to make the percentage go up.

It took me awhile to figure out why all these number bothered me when the page number on regular books does not.

It’s because the page number on a real book increments in an orderly fashion. You turn the page and the page number goes up. There’s no uncertainty there. You don’t need to keep looking at it, because you know you’re just one page above the last page you were on.

Anyway, I put down the book, got out some tape, and solved the problem. Since tape doesn’t conduct electricity, it doesn’t trigger the Kindle’s capacitative touchscreen and, thus, there’s no problem putting tape on the screen.

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Tori Spellings’ memoir bricked by Kobo Glo

My sadly-unusable e-Reader

And I have NO regrets. Fine use of a day. Even if it did brick my Kobo Glo. What a piece of crap.

In my search for the perfect eReader, I’ve owned a huge number of them: a Kindle DX, a Kindle 4, a Nook Simple Touch with Glowlight, a Sony PRS-500, and, most recently, a Kobo Glo–basically one for each year that I’ve been using e-readers. None of them have been particularly satisfactory.

It would not be hard to make a perfect e-reader. All you’d need is the following elements:

  1. Six inch screen – So it can fit in my pocket
  2. Physical buttons for turning to the next page – Because when 95% of your interaction with a device is to do just one thing, then it makes sense for there to be a button to it–reaching over to tap the screen is more work and movement than just resting your finger on the “next page” button and flicking over to the next one.
  3. Lit-up screen – Because the greyish screen of an e-ink reader is particularly unsuitable for reading in low-light conditions
  4. Somewhat-durable – Because I am carrying it in my pocket
  5. The ability to manage collections using Calibre – Because it is hard to manually go through a library of 500+ books on a clunky eReader screen and try to manually sort them into categories

But no e-reader has all these elements. Of them, the Nook Simple Touch with Glowlight probably comes closest, but the physical buttons on that machine are so unresponsive that it actually hurts my thumb to push them. And the screen developed a tiny and extremely annoying defect on my very first day of ownership, so I saw the writing on the wall and returned it.

My regular old $69 Kindle 4 has all of these features except for the backlit screen.

For awhile, I’d resigned myself to the Kobo Glo. The only thing it lacked was the physical buttons. (Although its interface was punishing–the Glo had no back button, or even back functionality, so that if you followed a link to somewhere in a book, then you were stuck there. It was impossible to get back to where you’d come from) It was extremely annoying, but I even finally accustomed myself to the touch-screen interface. But today, after just five months of ownership, the screen froze and it would do nothing. I called Kobo (since it was still within the warranty period), but they insisted that I’d damaged it and refused to replace it.

I’ve since tried to return to my Kindle, but now I’ve become accustomed to the backlit screen.

Ay mi. I think that next I’ll try the Kindle Paperwhite.

Problems In My Life That Have Recently Been Fixed By Scotch Tape

1. My Credit Card’s Faulty Magnetic Strip

I had taken a picture of my credit card and was about to upload it before I came to my senses.

For at least the last twelve months, my credit card has been getting refused at gas stations, grocery stories, drug stores (including every CVS, for some reason), and anywhere else that requires you to swipe yourself through. Sometimes a friendly cashier would go through the rigamarole of swiping the card through again with a plastic bag wrapped around it, which somehow allows it to miraculously work (I tried to do this once myself, and made a total hash of the procedure). I kept meaning to call in and get my card replaced, but day after day, month after month, I put it off. The result: literally hundreds of minutes of my life lost to fumbling for a different card or swiping again or messing around with a plastic bag.

Then my savior appeared! At the CVS here in Charles Village, a cashier gave me a contemptuous look and then pulled out a few inches of scotch tape and stuck it onto the magnetic strip. Shouldering the load of her disgust, I swiped the card again! And it worked!

Since then, I’ve had zero problems with the card. This much-put-upon woman was, admittedly, not very friendly. But her grumpiness was a creative grumpiness. Out of a desire to never again deal with my stupid card problems, she utilized a simple piece of folk wisdom (or, I dunno, I’m just assuming this is folk wisdom…maybe it’s her own invention?) to solve my problem forever!


2. The little percentage completed indicator at the bottom left corner of my Kindle

For years, I haven’t been able to complete a page on my Kindle without a quick glance at the progress indicator to see whether this page turn made the percentage completed number go up. Although a small distraction, I found that it repeatedly broke my absorption in the given text. Oftentimes, I’d waste some seconds in calculating how many percentages I was reading per hour and how many percentages I’d get through by the end of the day and how many page turns it’d take before the percentage went up. It was all just a thorough-going waste of time.

But it wasn’t until I began to read Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit that the percentage sign became truly an impediment to progress. Little Dorrit is really fucking long (more than 250,000 words), and there was just no way I was going to get through the thing unless I could forget how long it was. And there was no way to forget how long it was when I could read for half an hour and see that little percent only go up by three or four points.

Something had to be done!

After remembering the credit card miracle, I realized that my answer was close at hand. I went back to that same CVS and bought some scotch tape. Then I came home and taped a tiny black chit of paper over the place where the percent sign goes.

Voila! Ever since then, I’ve been blowing through the book (I’m almost halfway done).


3. The blinky LED on my phone charger

Okay, this just poor design. People charge shit at night while they sleep. And they charge shit in their bedrooms. And the last thing you want in your bedroom is a surprisingly bright LED light. And yet, every damn thing in the world has an LED light on it. With a charger, this is particularly silly, because you can just see, by looking at the phone, whether the charger is working.

Anyways, tape to the rescue!!!


4. The battery cover on my laptop

My HP Laptop is magnificent. But it just has one problem. The battery cover comes loose whenever I slide it backwards. Since my hands rest on the front of the laptop when I type and exert a constant (though slight) forward pressure on it, the damn battery cover is always slipping out.

Well, no longer!

Okay, I kind of added in that last one a bit gratuitously, since by that time I was wandering my apartment with tape in hand and looking for things to tape. But the other three are pretty legit, I think.