Saturday, September 19, 2009

21st Century Reader Man

We are a family of readers. Our living room has shelves filled with books, as well as the basement and even the kids' rooms. Even our spare room is lined with them, along with a couple of comfy chairs and a couch, making it the equivalent of the in-house library. It's an eclectic collection, with the titles running the gamut from fiction to travel to history and everything in between. In fact it's not uncommon for us as a family to swing past a Borders for coffee and some browsing as post-dinner entertainment. Not too exciting, I'll grant you, but it passes as a big night out in our world.

So I when I received an Amazon Kindle as a gift recently, I was both excited and wary. I recognized the benefits of this latest e-reader immediately, from the ability to hold many volumes at once when I travel, to the easy-to-hold form factor. But I also love the look of books on the shelf and the ability to share a favorite with others by simply giving them the volume. Still, the advantages along with the novelty of the device have combined to outweigh the shortcomings. Indeed, I find myself reading more and faster than I did in the recent past. And there's the added benefit that when I fall asleep holding it I'm less apt to wound myself, as opposed to when I dozed off while reading "Parting the Waters," a 900 page history of the early civil rights movement. My stomach still hurts.

One of the big draws of the device is both the price and speed with which you can access books. With wireless delivery included, you can pick out a volume and have it downloaded in under a minute for less than it costs to drive to the store and buy it with a real cover. This goes for new releases, like Richard Russo's "That Old Cape Magic" and Pat Conroy's "South of Broad." But it also is true for hundreds of oldies but goodies, from "Alice in Wonderland" to "Frankenstein," many of which are available for no cost at all.

In fact, if you sort the list of available books by price, there are over 3800 volumes which cost nothing, perhaps double that if you raise the price to $.99. Lots of classics and political tracts to be sure, but a smattering of new novels by contemporary authors as well. Some are there as loss leaders to entice you try a new writer, others just to help fill out the catalog. But no matter the reason, it's hard to resist downloading a book that cost ten bucks or more in any store when doing it electronically sets you back nothing.

Then again, you get what you pay for. For sure, it's hard to dispute the value of a free copy of "The First Men in the Moon" by H. G. Wells or "The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson" by Mark Twain. But nestled in the same price range are others I'm not so sure about. For while it's true I haven't read "An Introduction to the Mortuary Customs of the North American Indians" by H. C. Yarrow, and it might just be a steal at the price of zero, I think I'll wait for the movie to come out to make that determination.

Then there're those contemporary novels that sure feel like they might even be overpriced even at that particular price point. Take "Irresistible Forces" by Brenda Jackson, blurbed as follows: "Taylor wants a baby, not a relationship. And sexy, intelligent Dominic has perfect everything. Their procreation vacation is a whirlwind of sensual ecstasy. But when it's over, will either of them be able to say goodbye?" That sound like a winner to you?

But rather than jump to conclusions, let's read the reviews from other readers: "Even as a freebie the book's too expensive. Those are hours you'll never get back people." Or "The plotting is stupid, the writing is excruciating, the dialogue ridiculous. There wasn't a single good part to the book, well, except maybe the part when I realized that I didn't have to finish it." OK... think we know where we stand with this one. And while you can't and shouldn't judge by the title. I think I'll also take a pass on "Zombie Punter," "Murder in the Massage Parlor" and "Data Entry Hell."

It was the poet Robert Frost who said, "Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can't, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it." Unfortunately, too many of the latter have discovered vanity publishing. Perhaps they would be better served by an admonition from Will Rogers: "Never miss a good chance to shut up."


Marc Wollin of Bedford publishes this column as a blog available for the Kindle. Currently, it's ranked at 94,019 and falling. Lucky for you can read it for free regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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