August 31st, 2010
It’s been an exciting week. A division of Readers Digest linked to a blog post by my girlfriend about The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (She’d reported it was Amazon’s most popular free mystery ebook).
And then another blogger noted that she’d also shown up the head of Barnes and Noble. Len Riggio, who actually founded Barnes and Noble, waved around a print edition of The Count of Monte Cristo while seeming to imply that customers wanted to own the book itself. It become a controversial symbol — especially since my girlfriend had just finished reading the same 1,300-page book on my Kindle!
In fact, she’d decided that the book is “the quintessential expression of what a novel is about. Interesting characters, exotic locals, beautiful language, intriguing plots that twist and turn, and ultimately, redemption and love.” The Kindle had brought the ebook to a new generation of 21st-century readers. So what did she feel after reading it on my Kindle?
* * *
The Count of Monte Cristo, published in 1884, is a justly famous novel. The novel as an art form was still pretty new at that time and Dumas is a master at the craft. The book moved along briskly, keeping me intrigued at every step. A young man with a bright future is taken down by jealousy and political maneuvering, then returns incognito as a count, wealthy beyond all imagining (how convenient) to plot revenge against the three men who caused his torturous imprisonment.
The Count of Monte Cristo was published in serialized form, like serveral other old novels I’ve recently read on the Kindle (including The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu and Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). I like the idea of reading these stories in installments over weeks or months, getting to know the characters, savoring the language and masterful descriptions of time and place. This story is very compelling and hard to put down. I found myself reading faster just to find out what could possibly happen next.
This is a novel very much of its day. Its plot draws on France’s chaotic political landscape during the early 1800′s, with the Royalists and Bonaparte-ists being in favor and then out of favor over a couple of decades. Out of favor meant easily imprisoned, and that is indeed how Dante gets to prison: by being wrongly accused of connections to Bonaparte, and because a power-hungry magistrate ignored facts in order to further his career.
Dumas had experienced this personally. His father, himself the son of a nobleman, had been a general in Napoleon’s army who fell out of favor and left his family impoverished at the time of his death in 1806 (when Dumas was an infant). I learned about the fluid nature of French politics in the early 1800s in history class, but I’d never thought about what it meant for the average citizen. This poverty followed Alexander Dumas and his family, even after the return of Napoleon, and fed his imagination.
Dumas faced other challenges as a result of his mixed-race heritage, even as he became a famous writer. His grandfather had married a native Haitian woman, a fact that surprised me because no one mentioned it when I was growing up. Wikipedia says that this heritage affected Alexander Dumas all his life, despite being famous. Once after being insulted he retorted, “My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends.” (Note to self: never insult a writer.) This prejudice certainly contributed to his knowledge of what it means to live as an outsider, which is a theme of this novel.
He also traveled widely, and indeed wrote The Count of Monte Cristo while living in Italy. In fact, he visited the island of Monte Criso, a real place, while he was living in Florence in 1841. The novel itself travels widely, taking the reader from Marseilles to the dungeon at Chateau d’If, to the high seas with pirates, and then to Rome — including the catacombs and illegal gangs robbing Roman citizens — plus a short stopover in Turkey, then to Paris, and the French country-side. It’s quite a ride, and all the more remarkable because traveling in the mid-1800s was rare and restricted to the noble classes.
Also rare was the use of the telegraph system in France. The telegraph was a new technology and still a bit mysterious when Dumas made it a small but crucial plot point in the story. At that time, telegraph towers were built on hills 30 miles from each other so that messages could be quickly relayed all around the country. Edmund Dantes (the Count himself!) visits a telegraph tower, interviews its employee, and then pays him a sum to allow him to retire comfortably in order to delay a message. This delay will result in the firing of the operator, and will destroy one of Dante’s enemies.
What about the lesbian plot line? It turns out that Eugenie (the daughter of one of the Count’s enemies) is engaged to the son of another one of the Count’s enemies.The son is lukewarm about the engagement, acknowledging that she is good-looking, but not enticing. As the novel progresses, the only time Eugenie is happy is when she is playing at the piano with her piano teacher and vocal coach, a winsome young lass named Louise. Hmmmm.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, I thought. I’m too sensitive to insinuation because of my years as a young single woman in San Francisco. But no! The hints become more obvious until at last, when her father is ruined and exposed, Eugenie packs her dowry, her jewels, her winsome piano teacher, and a passport with a masculine name. Then she changes into men’s clothes and runs away from Paris with her love.
Meanwhile, her betrothed, also disgraced, has run away from Paris as well. In a delightful plot twist, he ends up arriving at the same hotel as Eugenie and Lousie several hours later and much worse for the wear. The telegraph comes into play again, having sent the message all around France to be on the lookout for this young man. The gendarmes are watching, but he escapes to the roof. He drops down a chimney hoping to hide — but falls directly into the room of Eugenie and Lousie, who, despite having being booked into a room as brother and sister with two twin beds, are naked and sharing the same bed. (Gasp!) Louise wakes up and finds a man in the room, and starts screaming, which brings the gendarmes along with capture for the young man and shame for the two women. The book is made up of story after story with these delightful plot twists and exciting scenes.
Dumas is above all an excellent story teller, and sets each scene beautifully and with care. His descriptions of Carnival in Rome, where Dantes first meets the young men who will introduce him to Paris society, are masterpieces of writing. “The air seems darkened with the falling of confetti and the flying flowers. In the streets the lively crowd is dressed in the most fantastic costumes — gigantic cabbages walk gravely about, buffaloes’ heads bellow from men’s shoulders, dogs walk on their hind legs; in the midst of all this a mask is lifted, and … a lovely face is exhibited, which we would fain follow, but from which we are separated by troops of fiends. This will give a fair idea of the Carnival at Rome.”
This is a wonderful novel, the quintessential expression of what a novel is about. Interesting characters, exotic locals, beautiful language, intriguing plots that twist and turn, and ultimately, redemption and love. The last line in the book is beautiful and poignant, and an exquisite and uplifting ending to a marathon reading experience. Oh — no quote. You’ll have to read it for yourself.
* * *
August 30th, 2010
As the Kindle soars in popularity, at least one bookstore is already in trouble. Barnes and Noble put itself up for sale, and New York Magazine just ran a touching profile of the company’s founder,
69-year-old Leonard Riggio.
“I still like books,” he said, though it didn’t really need saying. All around him, in a conference room that evoked an elegant old library, were shelves lined with hardbound classics. Books had made Riggio a fortune… Books had been very good to him, and now they were dissolving into the ether…
Riggio wanted to say something, but he couldn’t quite find the words, so he burst out of his chair and charged over to one wall. “I don’t know how you can intellectualize this,” he said, “but a book is …” To continue his thought, he pulled down a copy of ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, shook it, felt its substance. “This bound volume of Dumas is content. We have to understand people want to own this content. They want this. It’s very important.”
The magazine’s reporter visited the million-square-foot warehouse in New Jersey where Barnes and Nobles has its East coast distribution hub. (It’s “long enough to fit the Empire State Building sideways,” and stocks at least two copies of every single title that’s in print.) The article makes an interesting point: that bookstores earn more money on book sales than the publishers do. (Though Riggio once argued that “People in the world of literature tend to look down on people who make a profit.”)
Yet today, the hardware-based Kindle is Amazon’s best-selling product, and the Nook is also Barnes and Nobles’ best-selling product. “As [their new CEO] sees it, the superstores can serve as platforms for marketing their own replacement technology,” the magazine notes. “Walk into any Barnes & Noble, and the first thing you’ll see is what Lynch calls the ‘shrine’ — a counter where salespeople introduce the Nook. ”
But at the middle of this historic change is a 69-year-old man who founded a chain of bookstores. Now he’s left with a tablet-sized piece of electronics in his hand, and New York Magazine seems to
catch him showing some ambivalence.
“You know, I’m going through a thing — the record shows how old I am,” he said. “I’m going through, you know, like, ‘Oh my God, do I need this? At this period in time, to be as busy as I am…?’”
“If this was a Nook,” Riggio said as he flipped through the pages of The Count of Monte Cristo, “I just look at is as, well, here are the pages, and we magically erase the pages and another book appears.” As a business strategy, he was wagering that this convenience would inspire readers to spend more. But personally, Riggio remains unswayed. He doesn’t use his own Nook. “I like to hold the book instead of the device,” he said. “I would rather own multiple books than a single book that carries everything.”
And there you have it: The head of the company that sells the Nook doesn’t actually want to use a Nook. As New York Magazine puts it, “for all his newfound enthusiasm, he still can’t imagine a world in which the bookstore — or what he likes to call the ‘cultural piazza’ — is replicated by a piece of plastic…”
Thanks to Mike Cane for the link.
August 27th, 2010
She’s reading an ebook on her Kindle, and then the camera pans back to reveal she’s reading it at the beach. (“Silver moons and paper chains,” the background music sings. “Faded maps and shiny things…)” The camera pulls back before you can read the whole page, as though Amazon’s trying to tease you. But one day, I decided I finally had to find out: exactly what ebook is that?
Google provided me with the answer — and a link to a web page with the complete text of the page she’s reading! (“I reached across the table but he shrugged me off, grabbing my keys and heading out the door….”) I should’ve noticed that the woman’s Kindle was displaying its title at the top of the page — “Where the God of Love Hangs Out.” It’s a collection of short stories by Amy Bloom, and Amazon will even send you one complete story as a free sample if you go to the book’s Amazon web page. (It’s a funny, sexy story called “Your Borders, Your Rivers, Your Tiny Villages” — about committing adultery while watching CNN!)
UPDATE: I’ve just discovered that I’m now Google’s #1 match for the phrase, “I reached across the table but he shrugged me off.” But who exactly is Amy Bloom? She once worked as a psychotherapist, according to Wikipedia, but now lectures on creative writing at Yale University’s English department. She wrote the TV show “State of Mind” for the Lifetime Network, but was also nominated for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. And it turns out that a sample of her short story isn’t the only thing that Amazon’s giving away for free…
I’d begun investigating the next logical question: Okay, who’s singing that song that’s playing in the background? The singer’s name is Annie Little, and Amazon is giving away one of her songs for free in their “mp3 downloads” store. It’s the song that appeared in Amazon’s second Kindle ad — a duet that Annie recorded with her fiance, Marcus Ashley, called “Stole My Heart.”
“Once upon a time, I saw you
walk along a moonbeam. What a
lovely girl. I followed you around the world.
Uh-uh oh, I love you. Don’t you see?
You stole my heart in one, two, three.
I love you. Yes it’s true.
You stole my heart, and I’m gonna steal yours too.”
I remembered Annie’s story. Amazon held a contest for the best home-made ad for the Kindle, and Annie’s song appeared in the winning entry — a cool stop-motion animation video suggesting all the stories you could read on your Kindle. (While in the background, Annie sang “Fly Me Away.”) You can also download “Fly Me Away” — the song which plays in the background of Amazon’s Kindle commercials — but they’re now charging 99 cents for it. And in addition, the couple has recorded two more songs, and they’re selling all four together as an EP for just $2.97.
1. Stole My Heart
2. Telegrams to Mars
3. Fly Me Away
4. Still Missing You
With a little more research, I discovered a few more secrets. The complete versions of the songs are longer than what’s aired in the commercial, so click here if you want to read all of the lyrics for “Stole My Heart” or “Fly Me Away”. (They’ve been transcribed on the couple’s web site.) I guess the last thing I discovered is that it’s hard to resist the couple’s charm — and their endearing message that true love…is a little bit like reading your Kindle.
“You’re my favorite one-man show,
a million different ways to go.
Will you fly me away?
Take me away with you, my love.”
August 25th, 2010
Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a controversial opinion piece about ebooks. A former book editor and a business professor argued that publishers needed to sell advertisements in ebooks in order to offset their shrinking profit margins. “[A] digital book is far less profitable than its hardcover cousin priced at $25,” their article argued. But according to responses on the web, there’s a problem with that argument. It isn’t true.
“Baen, a publishing house that specializes in fantasy and sci-fi, mostly with a militaristic bent, says that they’ve found that e-books significantly increase profits,” responded one commenter at a technology web site, even though that publisher sells DRM-free versions of their ebooks “for substantially less than they sell dead-tree versions.” And then another commenter backed up their skepticism with actual data provided by the New York Times.
Publisher’s Profits Before Overhead
On a $26 hardcover: $4.05
On a $12.99 ebook: $4.56 – $5.54
On a $ 9.99 ebook: $3.51 – $4.26
This isn’t speculation. The Times based their statistics “on interviews with several publishers and consultants who work with the publishing industry.” eBooks eliminate many of the costs associated with stacks of hardcover books, including printing costs, storage fees, and the cost of shipping books (and then shipping back the unsold copies).
“That, obviously, is exactly what logic would tell you,” one commenter concluded. And the Times article suggested the publishers’ real motive might be simple self-preservation — they’re trying to keep up the demand for printed books. In a future with even more digital readers, lower ebook prices would mean “print booksellers like Barnes & Noble, Borders and independents across the country would be unable to compete… if the e-books are priced much lower than the print editions, no one but the aficionados and collectors will want to buy paper books.”
One publisher’s consultant even tells the newspaper point-blank that “If you want bookstores to stay alive, then you want to slow down this movement to e-books. The simplest way to slow down e-books is not to make them too cheap.”
So are publishers being honest about the costs of publishing a book? It’s a hotly-debated mystery, even to those people who are most affected by it: the authors who are actually writing the books! At the end of their article, the New York Times tracked down best-selling author Anne Rice, who admits that “None of us know what books cost. None of us know what kind of profits hardcover or paperback publishers make.”
Most of Rice’s books are available on the Kindle — though not her most famous book, Interview with the Vampire But as the publishing industry faces historic changes, it was nice to see that Anne Rice still remains firmly committed to the future of the ebook. “The only thing I think is a mistake is people trying to hold back e-books or Kindle and trying to head off this revolution by building a dam.
“It’s not going to work.”
August 24th, 2010
It’s one of my all-time favorite trashy novels — and it’s based on a true story.
In 2004, 26-year-old Jessica Cutler worked for Republican Senator Mike Dewine. But at night she’d drink and get romantic with the men of Washington D.C. — and, unfortunately, kept an online blog about it (which she’d meant to share only with her friends). Inevitably, a political gossip site discovered the blog and Cutler was immediately fired — though she was also offered a lot of money to pose for Playboy, and to write a sexy “fictionalized” memoir. It’s an exciting read, and an exciting life — with a real-world epilogue that makes it even more interesting.
The photograph above was reportedly taken on the same day Jessica was fired — and I actually played a tiny role in the subsequent press coverage. The Washington Post hadn’t checked their facts — Cutler was claiming to be just 24 years old, and that she’d already earned a degree in International Relations. On my blog I’d set the record straight — and ended up linked by the same trashy gossip site that had linked to Jessica. And then the internet buzzed with the most tantalizing question of all. Was Jessica’s whole blog also an elaborate work of fiction?
The question was settled by a lawsuit in 2006 — by the one of the men Jessica had written about. A real case was filed in federal court, arguing that he’d suffered “humiliation and anguish beyond that which any reasonable person should be expected to bear in a decent and civilized society.” He’d been counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, but found Jessica was blogging about their sexy dates. (“I told my coworkers about the spanking over lunch… Not sure I should have told them.”) When asked about those wild nights a year later, Jessica told USA Today breezily that “I don’t even remember doing that stuff. I don’t even remember what those guys looked like.”
Some of the men had given her money, according to Jessica’s own blog, and she turned up in news headlines again in 2008. Prosecutors busted a Manhattan call-girl ring whose clients included New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. But Jessica Cutler had been spotted on one of the sex worker’s web pages (a site advertising sexy models), according to the New York Post. When the paper asked if she was now working as an escort, the author replied: “I can’t talk about that.”
Cutler had already filed for bankruptcy, at the age of 29 — but her story actually has a happy ending. Twenty months ago, Cutler got married — to a 29-year-old bankruptcy lawyer named Charles Rubio (of the New York firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy). According to the New York Observer, “They met last March at an East Midtown bar called, appropriately, Redemption.” And one year ago, Jessica Cutler gave birth to their first child — Jessica-Louise.
If anything, the erratic backstory makes her 2005 book even more interesting. She writes about wanting to form a serious love relationship with a man named Marcus — in real life, the man who eventually sued her. The romance provides the book’s underlying dramatic question of whether Jessica could walk away from her life of late-night good times, but the book is also just a startlingly honest account of the ups and downs when you’re very young and very out of control. It’s “one of the most realistic depictions of casual sex,” according to a female friend of mine who read it. “It was amazingly honest.” And if you’re enjoying the “guilty pleasure” of reading Jessica’s story, you’ll know that some of the chaos continued after the end of the book.
I thought Cutler’s writing style was lively and fun, and the book may also offer a glimpse at next year’s smash TV show. Cutler told the New York Observer that HBO had already filmed a pilot for a new series based on her novel for the 2011 season. You can also savor this irony: during Cutler’s short-lived Washington career, her job had been opening and answering the letters sent to a U.S. Senator. She always seems to accidentally find her way to the center of the public eye, and on the day she was married, Brooke Shields even emerged from the same hotel where Cutler’s wedding party had been celebrating. Shields accidentally wandered into Cutler’s wedding party, according to the New York Observer, so as the couple emerged, they confronted a full battalion of paparazzi.
It seems like everyone laughed as they watched Jessica’s notoriety finally passing by, and the newspaper playfully reported one more crucial detail about her new husband. (“Yes, he’s read her book.”) Now you can finally read Jessica’s fictionalized 2005 memoir on the Kindle — but even her ebook suffered one last funny accident.
A glitch in Amazon’s database changed the publication date for the ebook, so now Amazon reports that the book was published 110 years ago — on January 1, 1900!
August 23rd, 2010
He’s written Amazon’s #1 best-selling ebook — and its #2 and #3 best-selling ebooks! In fact, he became one of the best-selling authors in the world — two years after his death — and he wrote the first ebook ever to sell one million copies. Yet apparently there’s another strange twist to his story.
There’s now two biographies about author Stieg Larsson — one very good, and one very bad. At least that’s the fierce opinion of one Amazon reviewer who downloaded STIEG LARSSON BIOGRAPHY: The Man Behind Lisbeth Salander. “I am disappointed that Amazon would offer this as a ‘book’ selection,” the reviewer wrote…
“I loved the Millennium series and wanted to know more about the wonderful author who penned them, so I was happy to see a biography offered. However, it is nothing more than what could be gleaned from the Internet in a short Google search. It consists of Kindle locations 1 – 94 which takes about three minutes to read. Certainly not worth the $3.99 charged for less than 6 pages of very generalized text.”
He condensed his position in his review’s title — “Caution: NOT a book” — and advises readers to “Save your money since there is more information in Wikipedia…”
But there’s also more information in a new 294-page hardcover biography about the life of Stieg Larsson, which was just published a few weeks ago. As an expert on crime fiction, Barry Forshaw looks deeper into the author’s whole career, according to Amazon’s description, and he concludes that Larsson’s life “would be remembered as truly extraordinary even had his trilogy never been published. Larrson was a workaholic: a political activist, photographer, graphic designer, a respected journalist, and the editor of numerous science fiction magazines.
“At night, to relax, he wrote crime novels…”
Larsson died at the age of 50, prompting Forshaw to title his biography “The Man Who Left Too Soon.” (Larsson died a full six years before his book became the first ebook ever to sell more than one million copies.)
While it’s ironic that after his death, Larsson drew so much attention from the publishing world, at least he’ll always be remembered for achieving that historic milestone. But it’s even more ironic that the first biography of his life isn’t yet available in the ebook format!
In September a young man named Kurdo Baksi will also publish another biography of Larsson’s life — titled “Stieg Larsson, My Friend.” (Though apparently it’s also available only in the hardcover format.) Still, it’s nice to see that in the middle of the book-publishing feeding frenzy, the author himself is receiving some genuine appreciation from the people who knew and remembered him. And now his loyal fans are discovering that Stieg Larsson has also led them into some new unexpected experiences.
I checked out the sample chapter of the short ebook biography, and was startled by the low quality of the writing. (“Starting in the late 1970′s, he combined his work as a graphic designer with holding lectures on right-wing extremism for the Scotland Yard.”) The sample seems to end in mid-sentence, and it was written by somebody named “SpaceLoops.” (Though it’s currently ranked #7,707 on Amazon’s list of paid ebooks — and #12 on Amazon’s list of journalist biographies, behind the autobiography of Barbara Walters.) But ultimately, at least the skimpy book led one reader to a good experience with Amazon’s customer service.
“Right after I posted the review above, I emailed Amazon customer service about my displeasure that this is offered as a legitimate Kindle selection and requested a refund which they promptly processed. Great service, Amazon!”
August 19th, 2010
It’s a horrible thought, but the Wall Street Journal suggests that ads in ebooks “are coming soon to a book near you.”
It’s an opinion piece, rather than a piece of technology reporting, so the evidence is a bit skimpy. For example, the article notes Google already displays advertisements beside the results of searches on Google books. (“It’s a small step to imagine Google including advertisements within books.”) But they also note that last year Amazon filed a patent for advertisements on the Kindle. The article is written by a former book editor at Houghton Mifflin (William Vincent), who’s presumably given a lot of thought to the future profitability of the book-publishing industry. And his co-author, Ron Adner, is a professor at the School of Business at Dartmouth College.
They focus on the future, arguing that the ads-in-ebooks model just makes sense. One suggestion is to include ads in an ebook’s free sample chapters. (“Because not every consumer who reads a sample chapter will buy the book, it’s reasonable for the publisher to extract some additional value.”) Another suggestion: offer a book without advertisements — for a price. “Seeing ads in the sample may also convince a reader to pay for a premium, non-ad version of the full-length book.” I’m envisioning a massive boycott of the first book that attempts to include advertising — but there could be one silver lining. If the publishers earn enough money on the advertising in a book, they might consider reducing the book’s price, or even giving away new books for free!
In fact, Amazon used to sell ebooks at a loss, according to one analyst, earning its profits by selling the Kindle. But now Apple’s new iBookstore lets publishers sell their books at a higher mark-up. The competition pressured Amazon into offering offer their own publishers the same leeway, and ironically, Apple “has now forced Amazon to turn an estimated 30 percent profit on each book it sells.” It seems like Amazon prefers selling their ebooks at a much cheaper price, and the publishers are the ones who are resisting. But publishers might be willing to finally lower their ebook prices dramatically — if they could make up the difference on advertising.
Ironically, then publishers then have an interest in whether the reader finishes the book. “[W]ith advertising in the mix, a book downloaded 100,000 times but never read…may be worth less than one downloaded 50,000 times and read cover-to-cover.” Suddenly an author who writes an irresistible page-turner is more valuable than the author of a massive tome that takes forever to finish, the article argues, suggesting that in a future where there’s ads in ebooks, “Unread books suddenly become less profitable to a publisher.”
But it’s not clear to me who earns the profit in this scenario — the publisher of the ebook, or the digital bookstore who sells it. After all, advertisers would be thrilled for a chance to “target” their ads to readers of a specific kind of book — and would probably be willing to pay extra for this. But as a technology company, Amazon seems much more likely to deliver these customized ads than, for example, Houghton Mifflin. And hypothetically, Amazon could keep updating the advertisements displayed in your ebooks whenever you sync to their server. Advertisers would love the idea of delivering same-day announcements — so Amazon could charge a high premium for their in-book advertisements.
It’s may all come down to a single question. Would you accept advertising in your ebooks if it meant that the ebooks were free?
August 18th, 2010
My girlfriend just finished reading a massive novel on the Kindle, and wanted to share what she’d learned from the experience.
* * *
So a couple of weeks ago I mentioned reading The Count of Monte Cristo at a tender young age, and then there, before my eyes, in the Kindle Top 100 Free section, is the book itself! I remembered the basic plot line. A young man with a bright future gets taken down by jealousy and political maneuvering. He plots his revenge against the three men who caused his torturous imprisonment, then returns incognito as a count, wealthy beyond all imagining (how convenient).
I wondered if I would have a richer reading experience now that I’m a adult. Boy! The things I missed the first time around.
And the things I learned reading this book on the Kindle…
This is a two-part post; this week I’ll talk about the things I learned using the Kindle. Later, I’ll talk about the book itself and the surprise lesbian storyline. (She’s the daughter of one of the bad guys…. But I digress).
The first thing I learned is that The Count of Monte Cristo is llllloooooonnnnnnggggg. Like a-real-novel-that-you-check-out-of-the-library long. The end came at location 24681. (The Malacca Conspiracy, the free action thriller I reviewed here previously, is 6554 locations and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is 4274 locations by comparison). Obviously back in 1844, when the book was written there was no TV, no radio, no electric lights, and no Wii — so there was lots of time to read a good book. The novel as an art form was still pretty new at that time and Dumas is a master of the craft. The book moved along briskly, and kept me intrigued at every step.
I found the “Locations” tracking at the bottom of our original Kindle’s screen, in the dark gray area, to the left of the Menu button and the battery life and signal strength indicators. (As you probably already know, the numbers change as you read, allowing you to track where you are in the book.) But the trick is playing with the line directly above that gray bar — the one with all the dots. If you move your cursor one click above the Menu button, it’s placed directly across from this line of dots. When you press the scroll button, the bar highlights and you see little boxes with numbers. These are almost like the chapters in a printed book, and allow you to move through the book without using the “Go To Location” function on the Menu screen.
The next thing I learned is that I’m completely addicted to the Lookup Function! I yearned for this capability while I was growing up, reading voraciously. (You can even use Lookup if you don’t know what “voraciously” means — sooooo easy!). I knew that when I ran across a word I didn’t know, I should get up, go get the dictionary to find its meaning, and fully understand the novelist’s intention. Did I do this? Hardly ever. Yet, now, at my fingertips, I have that ability — and I rejoice!
However, there are two important caveats. The first caveat is that the Kindle doesn’t always provide definitions for foreign phrases or words. For example, “rouleau” was defined, but several other words of French origin were not. Being as Dumas wrote in French, this was a slight drawback for me with this specific novel. Still, it was a fun gamble using the Look Up feature during reading The Count of Monte Cristo. My other caveat is the Lookup Function provides you with every single word in the sentence. Every. Single. Word. I want to Look Up “rouleau” and get the definitions for “eye,” “hundred,” “hand,” and “rose” as well.
The third thing is I became adept as using the Highlight feature (just below LookUp on the menu that pops up when you scroll to a specific row. And you can use the same technique to add a note to yourself just by picking “Add Note” instead of “Add Highlight.”) Magic, indeed, to a reader who spent years thumbing through books looking for favorite passages!
* * *
We love my Kindle, and she loved The Count of Monte Cristo. Click here to read it as a free ebook!
August 17th, 2010
In Amazon’s discussion forum, I’d asked a simple question: Do you listen to music on your Kindle? But the answers surprised me — and shed new light on how people are using their Kindles.
“wow, you can listen to music on your kindle!!!???? okay, so I read that I had that capability somewhere in my manual, but just glossed over it since, I prefer to read in silence.”
It turns out that, while the Kindle can play music, people often think of other devices. One user made this clear when I’d asked what specific music they liked to listen to on the Kindle?
“Nothing. I got an ipod where I can choose which song to listen to.”
And another user quickly agreed.
“That was my reaction… I would probably use my iPhone for that anyway, but I don’t listen to music while I read.”
I’d been curious about what songs people stored on their Kindles, but now I was having trouble finding people who’d even bothered. For the people who wanted background music, there were already several established music players — many by Apple — which offered better features and better storage.
“…the limited storage space on the Kindle 2 prevented me from loading a lot of music. I read a lot so I was listening to the same tracks over and over. In the end I stopped loading music on the K2. I just listen to music on my iPhone where I have my entire music library.
“When I read on my iPad, it’s really great — I can listen to any music I want and I have created several playlists to listen to music based on the type of book I am reading. I think Amazon should put more storage on the Kindle and enhance the music capabilities since they also sell music.”
Another user reported a similar experience. (“I have an iPod Classic with over 13,000 songs on it as well as an iPod Touch with music and the Kindle app.”) But it was nice to hear occasionally they still used the Kindle’s built-in mp3 player.
“Especially when I’m reading on the patio and about to doze off, I’m sometimes too lazy to go get another device and it’s nice to already have some music choices on the reader.
I actually prefer quiet while reading though, so when I do play music, it’s usually to minimize someone else’s noise, such as from the jerk neighbor who thinks he can play the drums.”
So finally, I could get back to my original question. What were they listening to on their Kindle? “My favorite reading music is classic, usually something not terribly climactic. Rachmaninov usually works.” And at the end of the discussion, I was glad to hear that at least one of these Kindle owner shared my enthusiasm for the Kindle’s mp3 player.
“I am not big on big on adding non-ebook features to the Kindle but listening to music while reading seems so natural.”
August 15th, 2010
Mark Twain once co-authored a play with another forgotten writer named Bret Harte. Their legendary meeting was even depicted in an advertisement for Old Crow whiskey (above). Here’s how Twain himself described it.
“Well, Bret came down to Hartford and we talked it over, and then Bret wrote it while I played billiards, but of course I had to go over it to get the dialect right. Bret never did know anything about dialect…”
In fact, “They both worked on the play, and worked hard,” according to Twain’s literary executor. One night Harte apparently even stayed up until dawn at Twain’s house to write a different short story for another publisher. (“He asked that an open fire might be made in his room and a bottle of whiskey sent up, in case he needed something to keep him awake… At breakfast-time he appeared, fresh, rosy, and elate, with the announcement that his story was complete.”) I was delighted to discover that 134 years later, that story was still available on the Kindle, “a tale which Mark Twain always regarded as one of Harte’s very best.”
Harte’s career had already touched another famous writer — Charles Dickens. Before his death, 58-year-old Dickens had sent a letter inviting Bret Harte for a visit in England. But ironically, that letter didn’t arrive until after young Harte had already written a eulogy marking Dickens’ death. (It was a poem called “Dickens in Camp,” suggesting that to the English oaks by Dickens’ grave, they should also add a spray of western pine for his fans in the lost frontier mining towns of California.)
But two of Harte’s famous short stories had already captured Dickens’ attention — “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” John Forster, who was Dickens’ biographer, remembers that “he had found such subtle strokes of character as he had not anywhere else in later years discovered… I have rarely known him more honestly moved.” In fact, Dickens even felt that Harte’s style was similar to his own, “the manner resembling himself but the matter fresh to a degree that had surprised him.”
So last year I’d finally pulled down a dusty volume of Bret Harte stories from my local public library. I’d had an emotional reaction to “The Outcasts of Poker Flats” — and an equally intense response to “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” But Harte’s career had peaked early, and it seems like he spent his remaining decades just trying to recapture his early success. (“His last letters are full of his worries over money,” notes The Anthology of American Literature, along with “self-pitying complaints about his health, and a grieving awareness of a wasted talent.”) Even in the 20th century, his earliest stories still remained popular as a source of frontier fiction — several were later adapted into western movies. But Harte never really achieved a hallowed place at the top of the literary canon.
Yet “The Luck of Roaring Camp” was the first ebook I’d ordered on my Kindle. I’d checked for print editions but hadn’t found a single one at either Borders, Barnes and Noble, or a local chain called Bookstores, Inc. Days later, I’d decided to try my public library, where I discovered a whole shelf of the overlooked novelist (including an obscure later novel called The Story of a Mine). And that’s when I noticed the date that the library had stamped on its inside cover.
“SEP 21 1905.”
I felt like I was holding history in my hand. The book was published just three years after Harte’s death in 1902, and there was an old-fashioned card, in a plastic pocket glued to the inside cover, which showed some of the past check-out dates, including FEB 12 1923 and APR 8 1923.
More than a century later, my local librarians had tagged this ancient book with an RFID chip so you could check it out automatically just by running it across a scanner. A computerized printer spit out a receipt, making sure that the book wouldn’t remotely trigger their electronic security alarm when it was carried past the library’s anti-theft security gates.
I hope that somewhere, that makes Bret Harte happy.
August 12th, 2010
I’m a fan of the comic strip XKCD. So I was delighted when the cartoonist did a special edition that was all about the Kindle.
“Even if I spend months broke and drunk in a strange city, I’ll still be able to use Wikipedia and Wikitravel to learn about anything I need…”
Ironically, it’s very hard to read that comic on your Kindle (though its dialogue is almost legible if you surf straight to the image.) But, to give away the punchline, the female character decides there’s something suspiciously familiar about the idea of being able to learn anything anywhere. And when she examines the Kindle more closely, she makes a startling discovery: it’s actually The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
For those of you who haven’t read the book, it describes a near-magical, all-knowing guidebook that would be crucial if, say, your home planet Earth was destroyed, and you had to navigate through all the other strange alien civilizations. It’s the perfect metaphor for the Kindle’s unlimited (and free) internet access, though I first read that cartoon before I’d even purchased my Kindle. But I still remember it every time I switch to Wikipedia to look up crucial context for the classic books I’m reading. (“Was this book popular in its time? How old was its author…?”)
I even added this capability to yesterday’s list of my favorite Kindle tips and tricks. (It’s possible to instantly search Wikipedia for any topic just by typing @wiki after hitting the Search button.) But the cartoonist’s joke has a special resonance for me, because I’d interviewed Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, just a few weeks before his death in 2001. He’d lived long enough to see a wonderful sight — his six-year-old daughter, pushing her doll’s baby stroller while mimicking the voice of the GPS system in her daddy’s car. And I sometimes wonder what he would’ve thought of the Kindle. “Anything that’s invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things,” Adams had joked, while introducing, of course, a contradicting corollary. “Anything that’s in the world when you’re born is considered ordinary and normal.”
I’ve always assumed that Adams would eventually come around to the idea of using a digital reader. But regardless of Adams’ opinion, the magic of the internet at least lets us peek into the thoughts of the cartoonist who draws XKCD. If you hold your mouse over his cartoons, you’ll discover that the cartoonist leaves behind an extra personal statement for every cartoon. (For example, “Now that the Apple Store is getting rid of DRM, Cory Doctorow will get rid of his Steve Jobs voodoo doll…”) So what was his message for his Kindle cartoon?
“I’m happy with my Kindle 2 so far, but if they cut off the free Wikipedia browsing, I plan to show up drunk on Jeff Bezos’s lawn and refuse to leave!”
Or check out the Kindle version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
August 11th, 2010
MY FAVORITE TIPS
1. Instantly Clear a Note or Search
I discovered this tip by accident. If you hold down the Alt key while hitting the backspace button, your Kindle automatically erases everything you’ve typed into a note or search field!
And it’s also possible to simply change the cursor’s position. (I discovered this while playing Minesweeper on the Kindle, which uses similar navigation keys.) Typing Alt-H will always move your cursor back one space, positioning you to backspace over characters that you’ve already typed earlier (or to insert new letters). Typing Alt-J then moves your cursor forward, if you want to return towards the end of the line.
2. Justify Your Kindle’s Text
This appears to be a hidden feature on the original Kindle 1 that was secretly added into the Kindle’s font menu. Press the font key, and the Kindle displays its usual six choices for your font size. But if you then type the letter J, the Kindle suddenly presents you with two more choices. There’s “Full Justification” and “Left Justification,” and it dramatically changes the way your ebooks will look!
3. Skim Faster
On the original Kindle, holding down the Alt Key while pressing the “Next Page” or “Previous Page” bar also lets you skip forward much more quickly, jumping past several pages each time you press the key.
I only recently discovered you can send your own pictures to your Kindle. The file name appears as a separate entry among the ebook titles on your home page. (Just click on the file name, and that picture magically appears!) The pictures are displayed in black-and-white, of course, but it’s still fun to see a familiar image that’s all your own.
Amazon can support almost every format for image files, including .gif, .png., .bmp, .jpeg, and .jpg.The secret is e-mailing the image to your Kindle’s e-mail address, as an attachment. (If you’ve never done this before, just remember that your Kindle’s e-mail address appears on Amazon’s “Manage Your Kindle” page, which has a URL that’s very easy to remember.)
On my original Kindle, I also finally discovered that it was possible to zoom in on any image. Using the scrollbar, I could always scroll up and click to “select” an image — which would expand it to fill the entire screen!
FUN ON YOUR HOME PAGE
5. Skip Instantly To a Different Page of Titles
I’ve always been jealous of people who could jump to a title by typing its first letter. (This is only possible if you’ve sorted your titles alphabetically, which allows skipping instantly through the list to arrive at “the first item that begins with that letter”.)
But it turns out there’s also a skipping trick for people who haven’t sorted their titles alphabetically. Even if your titles are sorted by Author (or by which title is “Most Recently Read”), it’s still possible to skip quickly from one page of titles to the next. Type in the number of your desired page of titles, and the Home Page will automatically refresh to display the titles appearing on that page!
6. Only Show Periodicals and Blogs
This is handy if you’re one of those people who’s actually reading lots of magazines or blogs on your Kindle. The “Show and Sort” menu at the top of the home page will let you zoom in to a smaller listing that shows just your books (without blogs and magazines cluttering up the list) — or, to show only the periodicals and blogs, without clogging the listings with books!
7. View Your Own Documents On Your Kindle
Besides pictures, it’s also possible to send text documents to your Kindle. (It’s something I didn’t even think about for several months, because I was so excited to be reading digital ebooks!) But Amazon’s “approved file types” for e-mailing include all the basic file formats for documents, including Microsoft Word’s .doc format and .rtf , as well as .html and .htm, and recently, even .pdf
8. See Your Reading Progress on the Home Page
Here’s something I didn’t know until I read the Kindle User’s Guide. I actually thought Amazon was just displaying a decorative dotted line below the titles of my books — until I realized it was those heavy dots at the beginning of the line that were indicating how much of the book I’d read! (“Your place in the book is indicated by the progress indicator beneath the book title,” Amazon explains in the user’s guide…)
GETTING WHAT YOU WANT
9. Edit Your Highlights
I’d always get annoyed when I’d try to highlight a single sentence, and Amazon insisted on including a few words from the previous sentence, or the sentence that came after it. But after syncing the Kindle to my PC, I realized Amazon stored them all in a single text file called “My Clippings” in the “Documents” folder. All I had to do was pull them up in a text editor, and I could chop out the extraneous words!
When highlighting a clipping, you can also highlight more words on a single page — just by selecting a smaller font size!
10. Searching Has Shortcuts
By default Amazon searches through the documents on your Kindle, and also offers to run a search on the same words in its Kindle store. But if you prefix your search with special codewords, Amazon will conduct the search in a different location. @store searches the Kindle store, while @web runs the search words through Google. But the most useful code is probably @wiki, which will automatically take you to your search term’s page on Wikipedia!
UPDATE: It turns out I’m now Google’s #1 match for the phrase “Kindle tips and Tricks”. So be sure to click here for “Five MORE of My Best Kindle Tips and Tricks.”
Click here to subscribe to this blog on your Kindle!
August 10th, 2010
My friend Patrick is a professional writer, and over the last 10 years he’s lovingly crafted several special and unusual stories which were eventually included in print-book collections. He’s settled into a cozy life of reading and writing, and he now eyes the Kindle very suspiciously. When Amazon announced their ebooks were outselling print books, Patrick was skeptical.
“Yeah, but those ebooks are all free,” he’d said quickly — maybe just a little too quickly. “All that proves is that Amazon gives away millions of free ebooks every day. And then they claim that that somehow proves their popularity over hardcover-format books…which you still have to pay for!” Patrick was very emphatic, and kept coming up with more challenges to the sales figures for ebooks. “Amazon’s statistics are rigged!” he continued. “Amazon deliberately leaves out paperback books for their calculations!”
I re-visited Amazon’s press release, which specifies that “Free Kindle books are excluded and if included would make the number even higher… Over the past month, for every 100 hardcover books Amazon.com has sold, it has sold 180 Kindle books.” But I still had to wonder. Did Amazon artificially lower the number of print-edition books that were sold, in order to claim ebooks were enjoying a greater popularity? I love my Kindle, so I’d had to ask myself: did I latch onto that statistic to justify my own excitement about this new way of reading? Or had Patrick rejected the statistic to justify his own personal biases? Your perspective is probably different if you’ve spent the last 10 years selling your own writing in printed books…
But the day we had that conversation, I discovered the Kindle had reached a milestone. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo had sold one million copies — the first ebook ever to do so. That’s not a free ebook. It retails for $7.14, and was an international best-seller. They’re even making a movie adaptation starring Daniel Craig (the actor who plays James Bond) as protagonist Mikael Blomkvist, after considering George Clooney, Johnny Depp, and Brad Pitt. I’d like to ask the book’s author, Stieg Larsson, what he thought of his new success — but unfortunately he died nearly six years ago. Ironically, he never saw a Kindle, and probably never even read an ebook.
But it turns out that Stieg’s Millenium Trilogy isn’t the only ebook that’s enjoying huge (paid) sales. PC World notes that two more authors “are quickly closing in” on the Kindle’s “million club” — Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, and James Patterson. Two other authors have already passed the 500,000 mark for sales — Charlaine Harris and Nora Roberts. And PC World speculates that actually, the first ebook with one million downloads may have been the free edition of a Sherlock Holmes mystery by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
But best of all, there’s another author who’s joined them in selling their ebooks — Patrick. Even though he’s skeptical about Amazon’s sales figures, my friend discovered that digital publishing surprisingly easy, so he’s decided to give it a try.
It all reminds me of one of my all-time favorite stories about the Kindle. Author David Sedaris was appearing at a New York City bookstore to read from his new book, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames.” The audience enjoyed the reading, and lined up afterwards for the traditional book-signing ritual. But one man, waiting patiently, had a surprise for Mr. Sedaris. The author looked up to see a smiling man named Marty, who wanted the author to autograph…his Kindle.
Sedaris thought for a moment, then smiled and took up his pen, and added a clever inscription.
“This bespells doom.”
Though I see now that even the book that Sedaris was promoting is available on the Kindle.
August 9th, 2010
Lately my most popular post is the one about William Saroyan — the 1940s novelist who actually turned down a Pulitzer Prize for literature. I’d called him “The Author You Can’t Read on your Kindle,” and while it’s still true, there’s something that’s almost as good. There’s a fascinating biography about Saroyan’s wild life — and the ebook’s two modern-day authors include one of my favorites.
Barry Gifford wrote Wild at Heart, a story about two passionate but unlucky drifters living together on the road. David Lynch adapted it into a movie starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern, and when I saw Gifford speak in the early 90s, he was also working on a movie adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Gifford was hosting a film noir festival, arguing there was a unspeakable truth in the best of the B-movies. Gifford seemed comfortable with the grittier side of literature, and tonight I discovered he’d co-authored this detailed biography of William Saroyan.
“Along with Ernest Hemingway, William Saroyan…was the most well-known American writer of the 1930s and 1940s,” according to Amazon’s description of the book, and the two authors “heard Saroyan’s story first-hand from Carol Matthau, the wife he rejected; the son and daughter he alternately smothered and pushed away; and colleagues like Artie Shaw, Celeste Holm, and Lillian Gish.” (The Boston Herald called it a “beautifully balanced account” of the “triumphs and agonies” in the author’s life.) I think Barry Gifford understands the zest and exuberance that Saroyan brought to his work — and to his life.
And coincidentally, you also can’t read Gifford’s Wild at Heart on the Kindle either. (Though you can buy one of its sequels, The Imagination of the Heart, which Gifford published just last year at the age of 63…)
I’m excited about this book because Saroyan lived a fascinating life. As a young boy he’d lived in an Oakland orphanage, and later served in the army during World War II at the peak of his writing career. (It was just two years after he’d declined the Pulitzer Prize, and two years before his Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story.) According to Wikipedia he “worked rapidly, hardly editing his text, and drinking and gambling away much of his earnings.” And if that weren’t enough, he “narrowly avoided a court martial when his novel The Adventures of Wesley Jackson was seen as advocating pacifism!”
In February, I’d worried that “he’ll be one of those authors who won’t transition into the next generation of media. In our shiny future, we’ll have expensive ‘readers’ with fancy new features — but with a couple of last-century authors who somehow just didn’t make the cut.” So I always get a warm feeling when the digital world finds its way to a little bit of Saroyan. Maybe instead of talking about the man, or his biography, or his biographer, I should just share his advice to young writers of the future.
“Try to learn to breathe deeply; really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell.”
August 5th, 2010
Ernest Hemingway called him “one of the two best authors in America” — and yet his greatest novel isn’t available on the Kindle. Nelson Algren wrote The Man With the Golden Arm, an unforgettable look at Chicago and its lowlifes, in 1950, and it won a National Book Award. But apparently, there’s more to the story — according to The Chicago Reader.
“Her name was Margo. She was a 22-year-old addict hooking for her heroin, and when Nelson Algren met her, in the mid-40s in Chicago, while he was working on The Man With the Golden Arm, he violated the immortal principles he’d set down in A Walk on the Wild Side: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” Algren took Margo in, putting her up in his Wicker Park digs, and eventually got her clean. Years later, when she wrote him a note letting him know she was engaged to a guy she wanted him to meet, he was devastated. His feelings for her had become so strong and complicated that when he tried to put her into the center of a novel he couldn’t finish it.
“About 300 pages wound up in the Algren archives at Ohio State University, and in edited form they make their first public appearance as “Entrapment,” from Entrapment and Other Writings, a new collection of previously unpublished work by Algren edited by Brooke Horvath and Dan Simon for Seven Stories Press.”
But there’s more than just an excerpt from the lost novel, according to the book’s introduction. “Some of Algren’s very best writing never appeared anywhere and was left finished but completely unpublished.”
Other stories appeared only once, in long-ago magazines, until they were finally gathered for this special collection on what would’ve been Algren’s 100th birthday. The hardcover edition was nearly 300 pages long, and “Every piece in Entrapment and Other Writings is irreplaceable.” If you order the sample from Amazon, you’ll get the editor’s introduction, but no actual text by Algren himself. But fortunately, The Chicago Reader has put a stunning excerpt online.
My personal favorite Algren book was always The Last Carousel, another dazzling collection of short works from throughout his career, which he’d published in 1973. At the age of 64, the author had hand-picked each story himself — and towards the end, near the paperback’s 500th page, he’d slyly included an excerpt from this unfinished novel, Entrapment. There was also a funny story about his affair with Simone de Beauvoir, a sympathetic examination of the baseball players in the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal of 1919, and his perspective on watching his great novel, The Man With the Golden Arm, being turned into a Hollywood melodrama that starred Frank Sinatra.
Unfortunately The Last Carousel also isn’t available on the Kindle. But last December I discovered that you can still read one of its most touching stories online. On December 4, 1949, the Chicago Sunday Tribune published “Merry Christmas, Mr. Mark,” a story Algren wrote at the height of career, at the same time as his award-winning novel. The 40-year-old novelist remembered being a young newsboy in the 1920s, braving the snows to sell The Saturday Evening Blade at an intersection by the cemetery — and how they’d tried to swindle their customers.
Nelson Algren always remembered the forgotten people — from jockeys and boxers to drifters and gamblers. And now this new book lets us remember Nelson Algren…