I don’t know about you, but reading Nicholson Baker usually gives me intellectual indisposition. If it were up to me, I would sentence him to life in a room containing nothing but a library card catalog; or at least I would deny him access to the library’s OPAC. But I have to give the guy a little credit, since he is at least pretending to give technology a chance. In this week’s New Yorker he has a characteristically dyspeptic piece entitled “A New Page: Can the Kindle really improve on the book?” Baker bought a Kindle 2 e-book reader and his judgment about it is, at best, dubitante. He admires the device’s wireless capacity to receive information from the Kindle Store at Amazon (the developer of the product) and he is fairly comfortable with his ability to read the device out of doors. But he does not like it much. The gray tones of the screen (“a greenish, sickly gray”) upset him, there are not enough titles available from Amazon, there are no traditional page numbers, the format is proprietary and cannot be used on most other electronic devices, and the New York Times looks crummy on the Kindle screen. And more. I haven’t tried the Kindle 2, but these are all reasonable criticisms, despite the snide tone in which they are made.
Baker points out that Amazon has now brought out a newer device, the Kindle DX, which has a larger screen (9.7” diagonal), enhanced capacities for annotation, and the capacity to handle PDFs. It has a teeny-weeny keyboard that Nicholson describes uncharitably (but not altogether inaccurately) as “a squashed array of pill-shaped keys that combine the number row with the top QWERTY row in a peculiar tea party of unergonomicism.” (I have to report that the Microsoft Dictionary cannot handle the last word – “no spelling suggestions.”) He also reports that Amazon has struck a deal with several universities, Princeton among them, to test the DX’s “potential as a replacement for textbooks and paper printouts of courseware.” Our participation is partially supported by an environmental foundation, since one of the university’s objectives is to cut down on the huge number of pages of copy-paper used by students to print out their e-reserve assignments.
As it happens, I am one of the three instructors who have volunteered to participate in our Kindle DX pilot project. Unlike Nicholson, my default is to give technology a chance, and I am curious to see what it will be like to use the Kindle device for my course reading assignments. I should mention that the predictable has already happened, and an ADA suit alleging discrimination against the visually-impaired has been brought against one or more of the institutions piloting class use of the Kindle. We had planned from the start to make use of the device optional for students, so I hope this will not be a problem for us.
My course, WWS-AMS325 (jointly offered by the Woodrow Wilson School and the American Studies Program) is on “Civil Society and Public Policy,” and all of the weekly assignments are either complete books or book chapters. All but one is available from Amazon, so that was not a problem for me. The 20 enrolled students will each be offered a Kindle DX. They will be able to highlight and annotate text (if they can manage the “tea party” of a keyboard). A bigger challenge, I think (noted by Nicholson) will be finding specific passages for class discussion, since the device specifies “locations” at the foot of each page, and these point only to the Kindle e-version of the text. If you refer to your own analog copy, you have a problem (and if one or more of the students opts out of the pilot, it may make things difficult). The Kindle has an excellent search capacity, so you can find any passage easily, but doing that while carrying on a group discussion may be a challenge. We’ll see. I think the DX does improve on the book in some ways – I will take it on my summer vacation with more books than I care to pack, for one thing. But I will always be devoted to the codex format. I’d just like to see what my class can do with this intriguing technology.