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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 8, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Kindle E-books, Grease and Civilization

I have been a loud skeptic about electronic books. In case you weren't paying attention, here's a list of my objections:

1. Unreadable screens.

2. Limited selection of books.

3. Lose a book, you're out a few bucks. Lose an ebook machine, and you've lost hundreds.

4. As with music, copy protection will be annoying.

5. When the battery dies, so does your book.

6. Just try flipping through the pages, dog-earing, or making marginal notations in an electronic book!

7. They rob the authors, who are paid the same low royalties as for printed books -- while the publisher has far lower expenses and pockets the difference.

8. What if Microsoft creates the ebook software? It will be the end of literature.

Yet I couldn't help but notice that when Amazon.com launched the Kindle, their e-book reader, they seemed to be aware of some of the difficulties.

And over the past year, I've received more and more inquiries from readers who want to know why only a handful of my books are available for the Kindle.

The cynic in me wanted to answer, "Just because you spend $350 on a book machine, I should help you justify the cost by letting myself get ripped off by the irrational royalty system for e-books?"

But the sensible person who occasionally inhabits my head made a different decision.

I bought a Kindle myself -- version 2, which I understand is new and improved. I can't compare -- I never tried version 1.

Skeptic or not, I needed to see whether the people who bought them and used them were idiots, or smart people who deserved to have more of my books available to them.

I've been using it for a week. I tried not to be swayed by the number of people who see it and want to touch it, look at the screen, talk about how their mother wants one or they've been meaning to buy one or ...

The coolness factor will soon fade, if the Kindle actually catches on the way the iPod did. That's not a reason to buy it; and not a reason to avoid buying it.

1. The screen is fine. It's very much like a regular page. It is not backlighted -- which helps with battery life! -- but you can read it in sunlight.

Better yet, when light conditions are poor, you can change the size of the letters on the screen so you can still read them. Anybody who needs really big print can read any Kindle book, and yet you can change back to smaller type whenever you want.

I do a lot of my reading lying on my back in bed. The Kindle is slightly heavier than most paperbacks, and lighter than most hardcovers. You can hold it and turn the pages with one hand.

2. The selection is still a problem. I rarely get excited about the books that crowd the front of the bookstore -- most of my selections are from far deeper in the store, and the "Kindle Store" at Amazon does not yet have many of the relatively recent books I want most.

For instance, I thought it would be useful to get the Narnia books, The Screwtape Letters, and Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, along with Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion by J.R. Tolkien. I'm teaching a class on these authors and carrying them all inside the Kindle instead of lugging a bag to and from class would be wonderful.

Narnia -- no problem, though I had to buy each book individually instead of getting the whole set. Screwtape and Till We Have Faces -- Lewis's two best fiction books -- not a prayer.

And the Tolkien estate has apparently not yet made a deal with Amazon, because his books are not to be had.

What makes up for the lack of depth in copyrighted books is the huge selection of older books that are out of copyright. For instance, I downloaded the complete works of Jane Austen ... for 99 cents. And the poems of Tennyson and Gerard Manley Hopkins for a song.

(Well, not really a song; that would be American Idol; but you know what I mean.)

Amazon seems to have done some kind of deal with Samizdat.com, which has a vast project of scanning in public-domain books. I've bought some of their CDs before and they do a very good job.

But not a perfect one. In Pride and Prejudice, for instance, typographical errors come every ten pages or so. Only one of the typos so far has made a sentence incomprehensible. But it's not as good a result as I'd like.

And there's insufficient labeling in the Kindle Store. For instance, when I bought Bartlett's Familiar Quotations for a buck or so, there were several editions listed but no explanation of the differences among them. The one I bought turned out to be from the 19th century -- the last one (apparently) edited by Bartlett himself.

This means that it contains no twentieth-century quotes, and some of the "familiar" ones are no longer remotely familiar.

Yet it was actually quite cool to read into that version of Bartlett's and see what an educated person was expected to recognize and read in those days.

The worst problem, of course, is that you can't yet get the complete works of Orson Scott Card for the Kindle. Suddenly I understood the frustration of fans of my work who own Kindles. Once you've dropped $350 bucks for the thing, you want to get books for it.

3. Lose it, and you have to buy a new machine. That's a lot of money down the tubes. But you haven't lost the books. Amazon remembers what you've bought, and you're allowed to download them as many times as you want. So you don't lose your library, just the machine.

4. Copy protection simply isn't an issue, because you buy from Amazon and the machine receives the downloads without any intervention on your part. In fact, the constant connection to Amazon is one of the coolest things.

You're connected all the time (as long as you're in a good cellphone reception area), unless you turn off the wireless connection. It's a cinch to get to the Kindle Store and, once you've stored your credit card info on Amazon (which I've already done for years), you can buy a book and start reading it within a few minutes.

5. The batteries live a long time. The machine goes to sleep by itself, but it's easy to wake back up.

Because the screen uses a kind of ink rather than volatile crystals, the "sleeping" screen uses almost no energy and can be quite attractive, cycling through pictures of authors (but not me, you'll be relieved to know) and other literary images.

Recharging is also quick. So the batteries are a nonissue, as long as you aren't somewhere remote from electricity.

6. I got the King James version of the Bible cheaply, and while the software does not handle chapters and verses at all well, it was a cinch to "highlight" passages. And you can access them instantly.

It is not a cinch to organize your highlighted passages, however, so if you mark too many, you might have trouble finding the one you want later. Still, they've done way better than I expected. You can also write marginal comments.

And, for that matter, you can get a pretty good mechanical voice to read the text aloud to you (with headphones, not included). There's some controversy about this, and for good reason -- some people who might have bought much more expensive recorded narrations might simply make do with the mechanical voice.

But in the long run, I think that won't be a serious issue. While the mechanical voices aren't as annoying as I feared, they don't remotely compare with a good narrator or narrators. People who really care about having a book read to them intelligently will still spring for the good narrations, while people who have trouble seeing or interpreting texts can use the barely-adequate mechanical voice if that's all they can afford.

7. Authors are still getting robbed. And, unlike screenwriters, we don't have a union to help us force publishers and Amazon to switch to a fairer sharing of the earnings. But eventually I think we can work all that out. Meanwhile, because Amazon doesn't sell copyrighted Kindle books for less than the price of the cheapest print edition, we authors are certainly not earning less than we would from print sales.

8. The software actually works, and the Kindle hasn't crashed or locked up once in the week I've owned and used it, so obviously Microsoft played no role in creating it.

The basic design is fairly intuitive. The buttons to turn the pages are big enough to find easily. And when you need to type in words -- as when you are searching through a book, or shopping in the Kindle Store -- the keyboard, while tiny, is more easily thumbable than, say, a Blackberry.

The only problem is speed. Page turns are fine -- we're used to having it take at least a moment to turn the pages of a book. But the buttons don't always get you where you want to go.

There's a Home button that takes you to the list of titles you own. The Menu button is context sensitive enough that you can usually find what you want to do among the choices. The Back button is not the same as the Previous Page button -- it navigates you backward through menues and choices you've made, but not backward through the book.

Fortunately, the Kindle always remembers where you are in all the books you're reading. When, from the Home page, I pick any of the titles, I'm taken straight to the page I was last reading. But if I want to go back to the beginning, I can do that, too.

What takes time is paging through the book. No flipping, I'm afraid.

And when you use the tiny joystick to navigate a cursor around the page, it is not as responsive as I wish. The cursor -- a hand with a pointing finger -- moves up and down the page, but when you hold the joystick continuously, it doesn't stop when you let it up -- it keeps going, sometimes a single line, sometimes more.

But eventually you learn the idiosyncracies and the system is adequate. Highlighting uses the same joystick, and once you've reached the place where you want to start marking, it works just fine.

So what's my review, then? Worth it or not?

Well, for me it was business research; the expense was completely justifiable. But how does a price tag of $350 or so sound to you? Especially if you also buy a cheap case for it (essential) and an extra recharging cord or two? When you consider that you'll be paying full price for any copyrighted books you buy, cost-effectiveness is very much a personal question.

If you need or want a lot of very cheap uncopyrighted books, though, the Kindle will pay for itself rather quickly! Those books are dirt cheap.

No, dirt is actually way more expensive.

But cost aside, the Kindle works. And that's the thing I had not expected. It works, and it works well. Right now I'm carrying several dozen books with me whenever I have the kindle tucked under my arm. It's so small it easily fits in bags or briefcases or purses -- though it doesn't fit in any of the pockets on my cargo pants. (And yes, I intend to keep wearing cargo pants until I die. Style be hanged, those pockets are now my purse!)

So I'm going to talk to my agent and my publishers, and as soon as we can arrange it, all the works of Orson Scott Card will be available for the Kindle.

Now would somebody please get the Tolkien and Lewis estates to get a move on? I would really like to spend the rest of my life with all their books readily at hand.

*

The production of Grease at Weaver was, without question, the best high school production of a musical that I've seen in Guilford County. (There might have been a better one, but I didn't see it.) It was certainly the best musical I've seen at Weaver Center!

Here's the problem, though: I had never seen Grease before -- not even the Travolta/Newton-John movie -- and I didn't realize how stupid and anti-civilized the script and music are. The songs are adequate but uninspired, and the story is basically about getting a decent girl to drop her standards and become a pig.

I remember the 1950s, folks, and the greasers were not cute and funny. They were scary, crude, and dangerous; their "pranks" were destructive and really hurt people. Also, good girls and good boys really didn't have sex -- the modern dogma that "you can't stop kids from having sex" is a flat-out lie.

In the 1950s, social pressure worked for the safety of young women. Good girls really didn't get pregnant, and decent guys didn't pressure them to have sex. Even if they tried, there were chaperones and it was hard to get away by yourselves -- which meant there was almost zero date-rape.

Abortion rates were infinitesimal and birth control could not be had, except condoms, which were very hard for a teenager to buy. And yet the number of illegitimate births was far lower than today, and single motherhood was very rare.

How was that done? Repression, my friends -- sexual repression. Hollywood acts as if sexual repression were the worst thing in the world, but in actual fact there are no medical or psychological ill effects from not having sex for years at a time.

And in a world where very few people (and almost no women of the middle class) were having sex outside of marriage, you can guess how low the rates of sexually-transmitted diseases were among the general population.

There was still plenty of love and romance. And because you hadn't shared the intimacy of sex, breaking up a dating relationship wasn't as traumatic as it is now.

So when I see something like Grease, which simply lies about the way society functioned in the 1950s as it ridicules the most-civilized segment of that society while glorifying the most anti-social element, it makes me really sad.

Grease represents our decadent, self-destructive society congratulating itself for having abandoned key elements of a once-successful civilization.

And do you know what true believers in the Grease "morality" would say to me? Their whole answer is always the same: "If you love the 50s so much, you must want to bring back racial segregation!"

As if ending racial segregation has even the remotest connection to the abandonment of faithful lifelong monogamy.

But look, the directors and students at Weaver picked a musical that didn't have anything awfully indecorous or offensive in it. They aren't responsible for the philosophical and moral messages I detect there. This is the best year of Weaver drama that I've seen, period, and Mr. Taylor and Ms. Rogers are bringing their drama students a standard of excellence unseen in our public schools in recent years.


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