Thursday, January 14, 2010

Middlemarch on the Kindle

I've now finished reading the novel and, although I was warned that I'd be disappointed by the ending, I wasn't really, although frankly after a certain point I had just put myself in Eliot's hands and she could have done anything to conclude her story. Now I'm interested in reading some secondary criticism: all my Victorianist readers, what are some great articles or essays about Middlemarch?

On a related but very different topic, one thing I forgot to mention in my progress report was that I was reading Middlemarch on a Kindle (and I should probably also specify, on a Kindle DX—the larger screen is wonderful). Middlemarch is, like many public domain books, free to download through the Kindle store, although people who get frustrated by inessential details might find the frequent errors in paragraphing irritating enough to shell out the few dollars for an official release. (Basically, the problem is that there are too many new lines—paragraphs break in the middle—but in almost all cases it is after a sentence, and the new lines aren't indented, so it's easy to tell where a real new paragraph begins. There are also a handful of simple typographical errors probably resulting from a visual scanning program—Balstrode for Bulstrode occurs maybe about four times. At any rate, I will continue reading free copies when I can.) Additionally, Project Gutenberg has a lovely option for downloading a Kindle-friendly file of its texts—the mobi. Some public domain books (like Jude the Obscure, strangely) are not available in a free edition in the Kindle store, so this is quite useful.

I think a lot of people assume that reading on a Kindle is like reading on a computer screen, but I actually found it—in terms of eyestrain—infinitely better. The technology is different, for one thing—Kindles are not backlit (which is its own kind of issue when you're trying to read late in the night next to someone who wants to sleep, as I was at one point), and not having light bombarding you is tremendously easier on the eyes. Secondly, I feel like part of the eyestrain of reading on a screen is the constant multi-directional adjustments that scrolling and navigating pages calls for, especially if you scroll as you read, bringing up new lines every few seconds; on the Kindle, your eyes move like they do when reading a bound book, and the "next page" button requires no more adjustment than flipping a printed page.

Other functionalities of printed books that are important to me—writing marginalia, underlining, dog-earing, etc.—are imperfectly approximated by the Kindle, but the approximations aren't bad. You can "highlight" blocks of text, and you can write notes, both of which are viewable when reading back through the text, but which are also collected in a file called "My Clippings" which displays all these highlighted selections and notes along with the "location" of the source in the text and the time you created it. (One related note: I have yet to figure out how to, or if I can, get the current time of day to display on the Kindle.) This has its uses and its drawbacks—it's nice to have everything collected and ordered in one place to obviate incessant flippings through the pages, but it also means that if you're reading more than one thing at a time, then the "clippings" quickly get a little jumbled. I was reading some of Pope's poetry (also free, and it displays fine) earlier this month, so there are a bunch of highlighted selections from that which interrupt the chain of notes and highlights from Middlemarch. It's very easy to figure out which is which, but I can imagine that if I were reading and marking up four or five texts at once, it might grow tedious. More generally, the "My Clippings" file should really be something more like a sortable spreadsheet rather than a simple text file—capable of being ordered not only by date, but also by source; its navigability could be greatly improved. Similarly, there are unfortunately no hyperlinks to take you to the "location" in the text from which the "clipping" comes; you have to copy down the numbered location, go to the actual text, and search for that location—it works, but again it's tedious.

With the text itself, navigability is not terribly strong either; you can search the text a number of ways—by word or by location, but often I find I have more of a visual memory of the spot on a page where something I forgot to mark but now need is than I do a memory of actual words from that section (although I have to admit this is far from a perfect method—I am frequently off). In a large text, simply paging through is not an option—you can flip actual pages far more quickly than the Kindle can load them. Of course, none of these issues apply to a straight-through read, and sometimes that's probably all you want or need.

Rortybomb had a post last month asking about the usefulness of a Kindle for reading pdfs; I didn't have mine yet so I didn't respond, but I did in part get my Kindle for this functionality. For classes, I am assigned many, many articles or chapter selections which are available in pdf, and it is expensive and environmentally evil to print them all off and frustrating to bring my computer to class so I can refer to them. (I'm also a little concerned about the wear and tear all this toting causes my laptop.) Carrying a Kindle instead seems ideal, and it certainly is as far as weight, portability, and the rest goes, but there are a few drawbacks. As with reading on a computer, not all pdfs allow searching or scrolling with a cursor, so in many cases all you have is basically a picture of the text. That's not really a problem for a short document, but in anything of some size, paging through is, once again, somewhat tedious. It's tedious on a computer as well, and that's because this is more of a consequence of the file type than it is of the Kindle, but obviously a paper copy eliminates the problem. You can mark up a paper copy all you want and flipping pages is much faster. I think it's worth losing that functionality, however, to avoid the printing and environmental costs and to gain the ease of portability and storage. It's tremendously simple to plug your Kindle into your computer (through a USB) and simply move your pdfs from your hard drive to your Kindle. And again, the actual reading experience (I find) is much nicer on a Kindle screen than it is on a computer screen. And you can very easily solve the problem of marking up the document by the simple, low-tech solution of listing your annotations with pen and paper and bringing that along to class.

I am planning on using my Kindle to buy some new books as they come out this year; there are a few that I'm really looking forward to and which I would almost certainly buy in hardcover (the new André Aciman and the new David Mitchell foremost). Now, I have a cheaper option that also will help (in small measure) stanch the overflow problem of my bookshelves. I am undecided about purchasing books for my classes on the Kindle; I think I may try it next year when I'm a little more used to navigating it, but this term I will probably continue purchasing the printed versions.

I imagine there will be better electronic readers to come out in the next couple of years, but early adoption of anything always has its own pleasures and frustrations. I think the Kindle is useful and pleasant; if this is any kind of testimonial, I never wished I was reading the 800- or 900-page Middlemarch in a printed form rather than on its screen.

Edit (1/19/10): Scott has some great additional thoughts about the Kindle and reading classic literature at Conversational Reading.

3 comments:

Rohan Maitzen said...

Though the ending of Middlemarch is in some senses disappointing, to be sure, it's hard for me to imagine being disappointed by it, if you see what I mean. But Chapter 42 is my favourite.

Just by the way, I have a Sony Reader (the touch screen kind) and it has quite nice bookmarking and annotation options. With a little forethought, you can create a pretty good customized index; you can view the notes or bookmarks for just the text you are reading, and sort them by kind of annotation or by comment, and more. The reading experience with the e-ink is definitely different from reading on a computer screen, though like a book, it does require good light! I'm trying (again) to read A Suitable Boy, in the print edition, and keep thinking that if I had it in an e-book, I'd be making my way along much better because I could carry it around for those rare moments of incidental reading.

I find the smallish screen slows down my reading a bit, helping me concentrate on smaller pieces at a time. I think this is a good thing--it works against skimming, in other words.

I like the Sony because it doesn't use a proprietary format. But it can't really handle PDFs (in theory, you can reformat them on your computer to fit the Reader screen, but I haven't gotten that to work yet). For those, I really have to use Adobe (the fuller version with highlighting and annotation functions is great).

Molly said...

I think Eliot is a masterful writer...except when two characters need to openly communicate their love to one another. And coincidentally, this very week I'm reading Neil Hertz's George Eliot's Pulse for my class on methodology in Victorian studies.

Jacob said...

The version of Middlemarch on feedbooks is quite good, and has been spot-checked for errors (as have the other books on the site). I've had little luck with the freebies from amazon.com.

http://www.feedbooks.com/book/575