Adventures in Reading

Most of what I’ve written about here at Storytellers Unplugged has been about writing. However, there’s one thing that writers all have in common—we are also voracious readers. It’s hard to imagine a writer who doesn’t consume books at an impressive pace.

I started young, a preschooler reading road signs on family vacations, much to my parents’ chagrin. A few years later, I picked up copies of The Jungle Book and Tales of Mystery and Imagination in a discount bin on one of those trips. The former I must have read, but the latter had a profound impact. Poe’s short stories loom large in my memory—they seem almost as long as novellas in my recollection, and I’m always astonished when I go back to reread one and discover again how brief they were.

I moved on to the Hardy Boys and Agatha Christie, went through my science fiction and fantasy stage when I started university, switched to horror in my early twenties, but always went back to my first love, which is crime fiction. Anyone who follows my book reviews on Onyx Reviews will probably realize that the majority of what I read falls into that genre.

As an adolescent, I was the guy who always had a paperback in his back pocket, even at school dances. During a two-year period when I lived abroad, I read nearly 200 books. The walls of our house are lined with bookshelves, and my to-be-read pile has evolved into to-be-read shelves and is now almost to the point of being a to-be-read wall. I can read anywhere, and can easily put a book down in the middle of a chapter, paragraph or even a sentence if the situation demands.

As writers, we spend a lot of time staring at a computer screen. We u sually read and revise our own drafts that way. Our colleagues and friends send us electronic copies of their works, and we often read them on the screen as well. As a group, we’re probably more likely to read at length on a computer than a general audience. We may gripe and complain about it, but we do it as a matter of course.

Two weeks ago, I received a Kindle 2 as a gift. It was my idea, however, having seen someone using one in the airport on a recent trip. I never travel without at least two or three books, since I can often read an entire novel on one leg of a journey. Books weigh a lot, and they take up space. The Kindle is light and even smaller than I imagined. Less than 1 cm thick, it can hold somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500-2000 books. If you run out of things to read, you can go online with it and buy a new book and have it in your hands within a minute (so long as you’re in the US—the wireless network doesn’t work anywhere else, at present).

My main trepidation was the reading experience. I’m not a big fan of reading from the computer screen, despite what I wrote above. I often print out documents longer than a dozen or so pages so I can read them in comfort away from my desk. However, the Kindle affords me that possibility. I can read from it in bed, on the couch, in the car, in the back yard—hell, even in the hot tub if I’m careful.

The screen is a bit smaller than a standard paperback page, but the text is very legible and you can increase the text size if you need to. If you encounter an unfamiliar word, you can just move the cursor over it and the definition pops up at the bottom of the page, because there’s a built-in dictionary. If you’re really curious, you can enable the free wireless and look something up on Google or Wikipedia. It’s not blazingly fast as a browser, and you have to do a fair amount of paging around, but it satisfies my innate curiosity. I’m always looking stuff up, and now I can do it right from my book. You can create bookmarks, search for specific text, and add notes to any document. The clunkiest thing about the Kindle is the process of scanning back a few pages to pick up a detail you think you might have missed—you have to go one page at a time, one click at a time. Not a big deal, but not as easy as flipping a few “real” pages.

I’ve become a rapid convert. I suspect I’ll do the bulk of my reading from the Kindle in the future. I transferred the manuscript of my most recent novel to it so I’ll have it on hand when I talk to my agent. I also had a friend send me an electronic ARC. Amazon has a mechanism where you shoot them an e-mail with an attached html file or Word doc (PDF is also supported, but it is still experimental owing to the rigid formatting of PDF files) and they return a file in the right format for the Kindle, which you can then transfer over by USB (for free) or they will send it to the Kindle by wireless (for 15 cents). This ARC looks indistinguishable from a published book on the Kindle, and if I could get publishers to send me review copies this way, I’d be a happy camper.

There was a time when I thought I’d reread books but, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that such a privilege will be reserved for only a special subset of books. There are simply too many new books to read to spend precious time with ones I’ve already read. My recent trend has been to buy a book, read it and sell it while it still has some resale value. With NY Times bestsellers costing less than $10 for the Kindle, the net cost is about the same. I may be inspired to tackle some of the classic novels I’ve always wanted to read—many of which are free for Kindle.

I still love books, physical books, the smell of the paper, the whisper of the pages turning, the texture of the rough edges and the embossed covers. But in the end it’s more about the words than the package and I’m perfectly willing to give up the pleasure of holding many books in physical form. The environment will thank me for it, I suppose, since I have probably ended the lives of many trees in my day due to the vast number of books I’ve purchased.

Besides, I don’t want to have to build an extension to the house just to house the next decade’s worth of books.

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