Arun Raghavan

Extremely pithy tagline here

TAG: books

Note to self: On (not) buying books

Dear Future Me, I know you’ve hit that point again. You’re about to buy a few books, you’re this close to hitting “Buy”, but you keep thinking — there must be a better way! You ran out of space on the shelves a while back. The books are stacking up high on the remaining available surface. You joke about how you might die in an avalanche of books if there’s ever an earthquake (but you secretly think that it’s not such a bad way to go).

Aaaand you’re thinking, maybe I can solve this problem for once and for all. Surely advances have been made in the field of ebooks and ebook readers. Surely consumer pressure has jerked book publishers awake to the fact that DRM is truly a disservice to users. Possibly ebook reader hardware has solved the contrast and UX issues that make them just a bit of a pain to read and clunky to boot.

STOP.

You’ll spend the next 2 hours looking up current ebook reader specs, getting excited about them, priming your credit card, then checking out what kind of DRM Amazon, B&N, Kobo, or whoever else has joined the game are shipping. Then you’ll realise you only have two options: rely on people being able to reverse-engineer the DRM forever, or start pirating ebooks, sullying that last bastion of purity in a world that renders consuming art while rewarding artists essentially a non-option outside of some parts of the western world.

So really, do yourself a favour. Go ahead, buy the books. You’ll find a way to make space for them. There might be some under the bed.

George Orwell on literature and intellectual honesty

If you find yourself saying tl;dr very often, you should probably stop reading now.

Madhu, being the awesome cousin that she is, sent me Books v. Cigarettes, a while ago. It’s an anthology of assorted George Orwell articles and musings, amongst which is The Prevention Of Literature — a powerful essay about the function of intellectual honesty in society and its impact on literature. Makes for a brilliant read and got me wondering about how this applies today.

I have no idea about the state of Chinese literature, but I can’t help but believe that exactly the sort of intellectual repression that he talks about must be playing a large part in the killing of Indian literature as well. This is, my opinion from extremely limited reading of Indian writing in English, but I hear similar complaints from friends who read Hindi literature too.

The mass media are a laugh riot of dishonesty, and I know of no real reporting counter-culture, underground or otherwise (the closest that I’m aware of is Kafila, but the authors there seem to be foaming-at-the-mouth more often than not … meh).

So what is one to do?

Footnote: Guess what turned up on Kafila today.

A Bibliophile’s Review of the Amazon Kindle

When it comes to books I’m really old school. Starting from the pleasure of discovering a book you’ve been dying to find, nestled between two otherwise forgettable books in the store, to the crinkling goodness of a new book, the reflexive care to not damage the spine unduly, inscriptions from decades past in second-hand books, the smell, the texture, everything. And don’t even get me started on the religious experience of visiting your favourite libraries. Stated another way, e-books are just fundamentally incompatible with my reading experience.

That is, until I had to move houses last year. It is not a pleasant experience to have to cart around a few hundred books, even within the same city. This, and the fact that some Dan McGirt books that I’ve wanted to read are only really available to me in e-book form finally pushed me to actually buy the Amazon Kindle.

My black Kindle 3G (3rd rev.)

My precioussss

About 3 months ago, I got a black Kindle 3G (the 3rd revision). Technical reviews abound, so I’m not going to talk about the technology much. I didn’t see any articles that really spoke about using it, which is far more relevant to potential buyers (I’m sure they’re there, I didn’t find any good ones is all). So this is my attempt at describing the bits of the Kindle experience that are relevant to others of my ilk (the ones who nodded along to the first paragraph, especially :D).

The Device

We’ll I’m a geek, I can’t avoid talking about the technology completely, but I’ll try to keep it to a minimum (also, it runs Linux, woohoo! :D ed: and GStreamer too, as Sebastian Dröge points out!).

I bought the Kindle with the 6″ display and free wireless access throughout the world (<insert caveat about coverage maps here>). The device itself is really slick, the build quality is good. They keys on the keyboard feel hard to press, but this is presumably intentional, because you don’t want to randomly press keys while handling the device.

At first glance, the e-ink display on the new device is brilliant, the contrast in daylight is really good (more about this later). It’s light, and fairly easy to use (but I have a really high threshold for complex devices, so don’t take my word for it). The 3G coverage falls back to 2G mode in India. I’ve tried it around a bit in India, and the connectivity is pretty hit-or-miss. Maybe things will change for the better with the impending 3G rollout.

The battery life is either disappointing or awesome, depending on whether you’ve got wireless enabled or not. This is a bit of a nag, but you quickly get used to just switching off the wireless when you’re done shopping or browsing.

Reading

Obviously the meat and drink of this device is the reading experience. It is not the same as reading a book. There are a lot of small, niggling differences that will keep reminding you that you’re not reading a book, and this is something you’re just going to have to accept if you’re getting the device.

Firstly the way you hold the device is going to be different from holding a book. I generally hold a book along the spine with one hand, either at the top or bottom (depending on whether I’m sitting, lying down, etc.). You basically cannot hold the Kindle from above — there isn’t enough room. I alternate between holding the device on my palm (but it’s not small enough to hold comfortably like that, your mileage will vary depending on the size of your hand), grasping it between my fingers around the bottom left or right edge (this is where the hard keys on the keyboard help — you won’t press a key by mistake in this position), or I just rest the Kindle on a handy surface (table or lap while sitting, tummy while supine :) ).

Secondly, the light response of the device is very different from books. Paper is generally not too picky about the type of lighting (whiteness, diffused or direct, etc.) In daylight, the Kindle looks like a piece of white paper with crisp printing, which is nice. However, at night, it depends entirely on the kind of lighting you have. My house has mostly yellow-ish fluorescent lamps, so the display gets dull unless the room is very well lit. I also find that the contrast drops dramatically if the light source is not behind you (diffuse lighting might not be so great, in other words). There are some angles at which the display reflects lighting that’s behind/above you, but it’s not too bad.

The fonts and spacing on the Kindle are adjustable and this is one area in which it is hard to find fault with the device. Whatever your preference is in print (small fonts, large fonts, wide spacing, crammed text), you can get the same effect across all your books.

Flipping pages looks annoying when you see videos of the Kindle (since flipping requires a refresh of the whole screen), but in real life it’s fast enough to not annoy.

The Store

I’ve only used the Kindle Store from India, and in a word, it sucks. The number of books available is rubbish. I don’t care if they have almost(?) a million books, but if they don’t have Good Omens, Cryptonomicon, or most of Asimov’s Robot series, they’re fighting a losing battle as far as I’m concerned (these are all books that I’ve actually wanted to read/re-read since I got the Kindle).

When I do find a book I want, the pricing is inevitably ridiculous. I do not see what the publishers are smoking, but could someone please tell them that charging more than 2 times the price of a paperback for an e-book is just plain stupid? Have they learned nothing from the iTunes story? Speaking of which, the fact that the books I buy are locked by DRM to Kindle devices is very annoying.

While the reading experience is something I can get used to, this is the biggest problem I currently have. From my perspective, books have been the last bastion of purity where piracy is not the only available solution to work around the inability of various industry middlemen to find a reasonable way to deal with the Internet and it’s impact on creative content. I am really hoping that Amazon will get enough muscle soon to pull an Apple on the book industry and get the pricing to reasonable levels. And possibly go one step further and break down country-wise barriers. Otherwise, we’re just going to have to deal with another round of rampant piracy and broken systems to try to curb it.

(Editor’s note: This bit clearly bothers me a lot and deserves a blog post of its own, but let’s save that for another day)

The Ecosystem

A lot of my family and friends love reading books, and a large number of the books I buy go through many hands before finding their final resting place on my shelf. This is not just a matter of cost — there is a whole ecosystem of sharing your favourite books with like-minded people, discussing, and so on.

The Kindle device itself isn’t conducive to sharing (if I’m reading a book on the device, nobody else can use the device, obviously). Interestingly Amazon has recently introduced the idea of sharing books from the Kindle (something Barnes and Noble has had for a while). You can share books you’ve bought off the Kindle Store with someone else with a Kindle account, once, for a period of 2 weeks. This in itself is a really lame restriction, but even something more relaxed would be useless to me. Almost nobody I know has a device that supports the Kindle software (phones and laptops/desktops do not count as far as I am concerned).

So in my opinion, the complete break from the reading ecosystem is a huge negative for the Kindle experience. When I know I’m going to want to lend a book to someone, I immediately eliminate the possibility of buying it off the Kindle Store. This is true of all e-books, of course, and might become less of an issue in decades to come, but it is a real problem today.

Other Fluff

The Kindle comes with support for MP3s, browsing the Internet and some games (some noises about an app store have also been made). These are just fluff — I don’t care if my reading device has any of these things. Display technology is still quite far from getting to a point where convergence is possible without compromising the reading experience (yes, I’m including the Pixel Qi display in this assertion, but my opinion is only based on the several videos of devices using these displays).

The Verdict

Honestly, it’s not clear to me whether the Kindle is a keeper or not. It’s definitely a very nice device, technically. I think it’s possible for Amazon to improve the reading experience — I’m sure the display technology will get better with regards to response to different kinds of lighting. Some experimentation with design to make it work with standard reading postures would be nice too. The Kindle Store is a disaster for me, and I really hope Amazon and the publishing industry get their act together.

Maybe this article will be helpful to potential converts out there. If you’ve got questions about the Kindle or anything to add that I’ve missed, feel free to drop a comment.

*Gasp*

It’s been long since I wrote about anything non-specific. I guess it’s a common symptom amongst bloggers from my generation (age jokes will draw ire). For me, it just stopped being so important to say anything, what with every major insight seeming pretty ciichéd and/or obvious by the time I got down to writing it. Can’t you just see the brain cells sizzle away?

As I was wont to do in days gone, let me start with books. I spent a long time re-reading books, sometimes more than once. Seemed to take a lot less effort than reading new books. Ditto movies, when I had enough time to watch them. Of course, bite-sized chunks of TV series were easier to grok as well. With a conscious effort now, I’ve started reading more new stuff, the latest of these being Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Gripping book, that. Incidentally, if you’ve not read Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, you’re missing out on what I am certain is one of the best SF works in recent times. Have been promised access to the remainder of his novels featuring Takeshi Kovacs, so looking forward to that.

On the music front, I sold off my guitar a year and a half ago (the neck warped too often) and now intend to buy a new guitar. Saw a fairly decent and not-too-pricey Granada at Furtado’s, and it’s now somewhere near the top of my acquisition list. As before, my tastes are (a) relatively esoteric, and (b) temporally out of phase. My latest obsession are the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, about whom Rolling Stone has a brilliantly written article that borders on idolation.

Moved to a new house, and unpacking and settling in slowly proceed. All the running around before this and now mean that I still have to establish a proper working environment and discipline. I’ve been trying (with only moderate success) to maintain a reasonably “normal” diurnal cycle. Should be more successful as things settle further.

I’ve got a couple of work related blog posts lined up in my head, but that’ll have to wait for later. I hope this particular post heralds some exercising of atrophied writing muscles.

Good night, world.

I don’t know

Today was the last day of Alfaaz, the literary festival at college. The last 2 days have been horribly busy, so I missed a lot of good stuff. I did make it to the book fair, though. I browsed around, found a lot of popular stuff, and some less common stuff, particularly from Yoda Press and Undercover Utopia. The former had some really interesting books. I picked up Rahul Roy’s A Little Book on Men and A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s In Those Days There Was No Coffee. There was more interesting stuff (particularly a “Sexualities” series of which the Rahul Roy is a part), but with budget constraints and what have you, this is what I could get. Apparently they have their books at Blossoms so not all is lost.

I just finished the Rahul Roy book (yes, 1 hour). It’s a short, illustrated, book. Very visual. I guess the intention is to analyse masculinity and its social roles and personal influences in a way that is accessible to people who don’t read much, or at least not much literature of this kind. Of course, the analysis is not very deep (I would have preferred more), but I think the experiment w.r.t. presentation style paid off. The book provides a reasonable amount of food for thought and pointers towards more works on the matter. Good stuff.

My second choice might make sense to some who know me. Being a Tamilian whose only real cultural predilection is coffee (something I do rue sometimes), I found both the title and the topic apt. The book is something of a cultural history of Tamil Nadu. Looks a little more heavy than I want to read right now, but will get to it soon. Happy purchase.

While the Book Café guys wrapping up, they decided that they’d give out a few free copies of Al Raines’ Soul Search Engine (signed!) and November Rain. grin

And the funny part is I went to the fair once, left without buying anything, thought “what the hell” and went back to actually buy the books, which is when this happened. Oh sweet indecision.

I know there’s something I’m forgetting, but maybe I’ll remember and make another post of it.

Y’know, stuff, things

Welcome back to the second episode of Arun Unleashed (though I find myself less inclined to blog these days).

Reading TP‘s Wyrd Sisters. I thought I’d finished all of the older Discworld stuff. Pleasantly surprised to have not. :-)

For those of you that’ve been living under a very large rock, Radiohead has released their latest album, In Rainbows on a pay-what-you want basis. But you need to jump through a couple of hoops to get to the final page.

Nirbheek is a big time Songbird pimp. I finally tried it after much nagging. It is good, if somewhat raw. Their demo video pointed me to this band (actually, guy) called Bonobo (not the component architecture, silly). Good stuff. Wish I could buy it in India. In the mean time you can get some of their stuff too (is this remotely legal?).

I think I used to have a voice

Ah, I’m back. In a revolutionary fit of life changing, I have decided to try to be regular about blogging again. And as I type this out, I have completely forgotten everything that I wanted to blog about. Flup.

Books. I got my hands on a few and, shockingly, read them. Going through a manic Kurt Vonnegut reading phase — Hocus Pocus, Breakfast of Champions, Slapstick, Slaughterhouse 5, and, in due time, Galapagos. But the biggest news item, book-wise, is that I got my very own Rs. 100 copy of Raise High The Roofbeam Carpenters, and Seymour: An Introduction. Pristine condition. W00t.

Our hostel has a little library, and I’m allegedly in the advisory committee for that. They made the mistake of getting me to buy books from Bangalore. You should’ve seen the twinkle in my eye as I entered Blossom with 2000 bucks to spend wisely.

Been looping on this song for a while now — Blink 182 – I Miss You.

Oh, and Poets of the Fall will be here for our cul-fest this time. That’s this Saturday. Awesome. I’ve not made it to the salsa crash-course this time, though, unlike last time.

Placements happen in about a month. I’d taken up some work on the placement team (our placement system is really anti-student — you get one job and you’re out of the process. Stupid.). Walked out in a huff after a while because of the usual kind of stupidity.

Oh, and I got a Canon PowerShot S5 IS. ‘Tis a beaut, no doubt. Now to figure out how to use it. :D Got some nice bird shots thanks to guru . Will post them in a while (gotta leave something for future posts).

And thus I bid thee short adieu.

Kama Ruchi Lokat

Went out to Loka Ruchi today, way down Mysore Road. Amazing North Karnataka food. Brilliant time.

Read Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk. Quite good (albeit somewhat morbid). Theme somewhat similar to Fight Club. This is the book his publishers found too disturbing to publish (Palahniuk, it seems, decided to write something even more disturbing to show them, but they liked it and published it. And “it” was Fight Club).

This Toe (Flash alert!) stuff is brilliant. Would really love to buy this album (New Sentimentality).