Surround Yourself with Books, Save Humanity


Although I certainly have little patience for the fetishization of books as decorative status symbols, I have a deep affection for the physical, dead-tree book as a medium. Unlike an electronic device, to see and hold a single volume is for me to feel the thoughts and ideas it contains seething within its closed pages, like there is a flow of energy that is eager for a conduit through which it can propagate. I love that. And I feel it both before and after having read a meaningful book.

As a consumer of books, however, I also find ebooks almost miraculous in their convenience and utility. In a single device I can have literally thousands of books at the ready, which expands to millions if my device is connected to the Internet. I can infinitely annotate these books, entirely nondestructively. The device even provides its own damn reading light. Books feel great, I adore them, but to dismiss the ebook and particularly ebook readers like the Kindle is absurd.

But in one crucial way, ebooks’ greatest strength also is their greatest weakness. And I mean weakness, not flaw, as I’ll explain.

I’m thinking about this because of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, a book that is all at once easy, enriching, and gut-wrenching to read. Among Snyder’s 20 lessons for avoiding life under some kind of Trumpian Reich are his recommendations that we a) support print journalism and b) read more books. Now, it’s fairly obvious why good journalism needs to be bolstered in times such as these, for it may very well be the last layer of defense we have from a media entirely made up of propaganda. He writes:

The better print journalists allow us to consider the meaning, for ourselves and our country, of what might otherwise seem to be isolated bits of information. But while anyone can repost an article, researching and writing is hard work that requires time and money.

That’s very clear. But by print journalism, does he merely mean deeply researched, sourced, and fact-checked reporting regardless of medium, or does he also mean that this quality journalism must be, by necessity, literally printed on paper? I’ll return to that in a bit.

Back to books. Right now, my 7-year-old son is enamored with a series of kids’ nature books in which one animal is pitted against another in a “who would win” scenario (like crab vs. lobster or wolverine vs. Tasmanian devil, for example). He’s collected eight or so of these slim little books, and he loves them so much, he’s taken to carrying them – all of them – around with him wherever he can.

“Daddy, I don’t know what it is,” he says, “but these books have just made me, well, love books!”

I’m delighted that he’s so attached to these books, that he has this affection for them. I know that wouldn’t be possible if he only had access to their contents on a tablet. The value of the content is no different, but he can show his enthusiasm in a real, physical way that a digital version wouldn’t allow. The objects, being self-contained with the words and pictures he loves, take on more meaning. And by assigning so much meaning to the objects, he imbues the content itself more meaning too.

What does a kids’ book with a tarantula fighting a scorpion have to do with resistance to tyranny? Let’s see what Snyder has to say about the contrast between books and digital/social media:

The effort [of propagandists] to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal. We have slowly fallen into it.

Snyder cites examples from dystopian literature in which the fascist state bans books and, as in 1984, the consumption of pre-approved electronic media is monitored in real time, and in which the public is constantly fed the state’s distortion and reduction of language, all “to starve the public of the concepts needed to think about the present, remember the past, and consider the future.“

What we need to do, what we owe it to ourselves to do, is to actively seek information and perspectives from well outside official channels, to fortify our consciousness from being co-opted and anesthetized, and to expand our understanding of the world beyond the daily feed. Snyder says:

When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.

But what if the screen is displaying the same concepts as those books? “Staring at a screen” when one is reading an ebook is a very different practice than staring at it for Facebook-feed-induced dopamine squirts. Even more so if the screen with the ebook is on a dedicated e-reader like a Kindle, which intentionally withholds many of the distractions immediately available on a phone or tablet. Heck, I read Snyder’s book on my Kindle.

You won’t see me arguing that ebooks are inferior to physical books when we’re talking about the usual day-to-day reading of books, hell no. But in the context of this discussion, think about how we get ebooks onto our devices. They exist digitally, of course, and in the vast majority of cases they come from a given corporation’s servers with the ebook files themselves armed with some kind of digital rights management in order to prevent anyone from accessing those files on a competitor’s device. (Not all ebook sales are done this way, but they are very much the exception.) When we buy an ebook, in most cases, we’re not really “buying” it, we’re licensing it to display on a selection of devices approved by the vendor. And so it is with most music and video purchases.

Those ebooks are then transmitted over wires and/or wireless frequencies that are owned by another corporation, access to which we are once again leasing. So even if you are getting DRM-free, public domain ebooks in an open format like ePub that is readable on a wide variety of devices, you probably can’t acquire it unless you use a means of digital transfer that someone else controls.

You see what I’m getting at. Ebooks come with several points of failure, points at which one’s access to them can be cut off for any number of reasons. Remember a few years back when, because of a copyright dispute over the ebook version of 1984 (of all things), Amazon zapped purchased copies of the book from many of its customers’ Kindles. It didn’t just halt new sales, or even just cut off access to the files it had stored on its cloud servers. It went into its customers’ physical devices and deleted the ebooks – again, ebooks they had paid for. Customers had no say in the matter.

This was more or less a benign screwup on Amazon’s part. Presumably it had no authoritarian motives, but it makes plain how astoundingly easy it is for a company to determine the fate of the digital media we pretend we own.

This is about permanence. A physical book, once produced, cannot be remotely zapped out of existence. While some fascist regime could indeed close all the libraries, shut down all the book stores, and even go house to house rounding up books and setting them ablaze, physical books remain corporeal objects that can be held, passed along, hidden, smuggled, and even copied with pen and paper by candlelight. If the bad guys can’t get their actual hands on it, they can’t destroy it. And it can still be read.

But for ebooks, all it would take would be a little bit of acquiescence from the vendor (or the network service provider, or the device manufacturer) and your choice to read what you want could be revoked in an instant. Obviously, the same goes for video, music and other audio, and of course, journalism. The ones and zeroes that our screens and speakers convert to media can be erased, altered, or replaced and we wouldn’t even know it was happening until it was too late.

Physical books, along with print journalism (literal print), come with real limitations and inconveniences that electronic media obviate. But those same limitations also make them more immutable. It fortifies them and the ideas contained within them. Though constrained by their physical properties, they also offer the surest path to an expanded, enriched, and unrestricted consciousness. One that, say, an authoritarian state can’t touch.

Here’s an example of what I mean, once again from Snyder, with my emphasis added:

A brilliant mind like Victor Klemperer, much admired today, is remembered only because he stubbornly kept a hidden diary under Nazi rule. For him it was sustenance: “My diary was my balancing pole, without which I would have fallen down a thousand times.” Václav Havel, the most important thinker among the communist dissidents of the 1970s, dedicated his most important essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” to a philosopher who died shortly after interrogation by the Czechoslovak communist secret police. In communist Czechoslovakia, this pamphlet had to be circulated illegally, in a few copies, as what east Europeans at the time, following the Russian dissidents, called “samizdat.”

If those had been the equivalent of online articles, they’d have been deleted before they ever reached anyone else’s screens.

There’s one additional step to this, one more layer of intellectual “fortification.” It’s about the act of reading as something more than a diversion, more than pleasure. Because if we only read the digital content that’s been algorithmically determined to hold our attention, or even if it’s one of our treasured print books that we read for sheer amusement, we’re still missing something.

Today I happened to see Maria Popova of Brain Pickings share a snippet from a letter written by Franz Kafka to a friend, in which he explains what he thinks reading books is for (emphasis mine):

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

We don’t need books to achieve mere happiness. To expand our intellectual and moral horizons; to give our minds the armor they need to withstand the assaults of misinformation and stupification; to be made wiser, more empathetic, and more creative than we are, we need to read those books that affect us, “like a disaster” or otherwise.

To fully ensure that we have those books, that they can be seen and held and smelled and shared and recited and experienced outside the authority of a state or corporation, they need to be present, corporeal objects. They need to exist in the real world.

So, please, do use that Kindle for all it’s worth; use it to read all the books that wake you up, blow your mind, and change your life.

But also, if you can, surround yourself with books. In a very real way, they might just save us all.

Books: Too Sexy for Words

I love physical books. I also love my Kindle Paperwhite and I also love my iPad. All of them are wonderful objects, and oh yes, they allow me to read. The reading, you see, is the important part.

You wouldn’t know it, though, from the testimonials of some who dismiss ebooks and swear only by physical codices. In her essay in The Guardian, Paula Cocozza gives a slight nod to the pleasures of reading on paper versus screens, which I do not disagree with, but much of the column is a celebration of the physical book, not for its contents, but for its physical properties and how they can be creatively embellished upon:

Once upon a time, people bought books because they liked reading. Now they buy books because they like books. “All these people are really thinking about how the books are – not just what’s in them, but what they’re like as objects,” says Jennifer Cownie, who runs the beautiful Bookifer website and the Cownifer Instagram, which match books to decorative papers, and who bought a Kindle but hated it. Summerhayes thinks that “people have books in their house as pieces of art … Everyone wants sexy-looking books,” she says.

Do they? And if they do, well, so what? People want sexy-looking everything!

This obviously doesn’t speak to the superiority of books over ebooks as means to reading. It’s a display of fetishism for a product, the reduction of the book from medium to fashion item. If overly expensive smartphones are gaudy status symbols, then what do you call artsy displays of shelved volumes that are never actually opened?

I’ve actually come to appreciate physical books more than ever lately as I have tried very hard to steer my attention away from the constant stress and panic of social media. Kindles are actually great for that all on their own, since they can’t do much of anything other than display, notate, research, or purchase book content. (Oh, and they’re self-illuminating, which is a huge leg up on mere paper.) But there is that one additional step of removal from the online swarm that one can achieve with a physical book that is often deeply refreshing, and I am finding at times necessary. I am re-learning to treasure that.

And as much as I do appreciate a book’s physical properties (yes I am one of those “I love the smell of old books” weirdos), I don’t concern myself with books as art objects or accessories. My positive associations with books as objects, the reason I like the smell of paper, dust, and glue, has almost entirely to do with what’s inside them, how the words affect me, and how the experience of reading saves me from the world.

It’s fine to argue that physical books are better than ebooks. But if all you’re talking about is which makes for a better subject for photographic projects, you’re missing the whole point.

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The Bridge to the Everything Store: An Epilogue

Damages were paid today to many, many people in the aftermath of the Apple iBooks price fixing case. Paid, specifically, to iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon customers, those whom the government determined to have been harmed by Apple’s collusion with the publishing industry to keep ebook prices high.

$400 million was awarded to customers. About twenty-five of those 400 million were given to me in the form of Amazon credit. Credit I could not use, of course, because a little over a year ago Amazon exiled me for “excessive returns.” I had made several heartfelt entreaties in those days, but was each time denied. I was banished.

Being legally owed today’s settlement credit, but unable to do anything with it, I decided to ask Amazon what should be done. I suggested they might just cut me a check, and if not, I would next ask if they could simply award it to my wife (who got a way bigger credit than me, but whatever). Of course, I also suggested that they might just reinstate me.

Here’s part of the response I got back.

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And that was that. All my sins forgiven, and even an apology given to me for “any inconvenience.”

I am once again welcome to roam the virtual aisles of the Everything Store. Wiser, more cautious, but welcome.

Perhaps this has something to do with the political climate. Perhaps Jeff Bezos, who loathes Donald Trump, wishes as Hillary Clinton does to build bridges, not walls. Or perhaps this was Amazon being in a celebratory mood over their moral victory over the behemoth Apple. Whatever the reason, it’s good to be back.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some heavy Wish List maintenance to attend to.

People Are Discovering that Reading on Their Phones Doesn’t Suck

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The publishing industry has noticed that a lot of us are reading on our phones. Not just BuzzFeed listicles and Facebook statuses, but real, wordy books. Many years ago I thought it was quite the novelty that I had managed to read all of Frankenstein on my iPhone 3G, and didn’t hate doing so. Today, I read almost all my books on my phone.

This is to the exclusion of tablets and e-readers, and very intentionally so. A while ago it dawned on me that owning three remarkably similar (and expensive) devices that all performed widely overlapping tasks seemed decadent and redundant. At the same time, I had become enthralled by phablets, a.k.a. big screen phones. With quad-HD displays boasting over 500 pixels per inch, and phone screens not too different in size from a mass market paperback, the phablet easily replaced my iPad and my Kindle for book reading.

I’m not alone! In a piece in the Wall Street JournalJennifer Maloney reports:

In a Nielsen survey of 2,000 people this past December, about 54% of e-book buyers said they used smartphones to read their books at least some of the time. That’s up from 24% in 2012, according to a separate study commissioned by Nielsen.

And tablet and e-reader use is down as well. And it’s not just phablet people, even normals with their smaller iPhones 6 are reading full-length books on their phones. (Maloney says that both iPhones 6 are “sharper” than previous models, but that’s not correct, as only the iPhone 6 Plus has a higher resolution.)

There obvious concern is that deep reading will now be lost to the universe of notifications our phones provide:

With all their ringing, dinging and buzzing, smartphones are designed to alert and distract users, notes Naomi S. Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and author of “Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World.” Even when a phone’s alerts are turned off, your brain is still primed for disruption when you pick it up, she said. That could make a phone worse for reading than an e-reader.

But “could” is not the same as “will.” Sentient people have to decide for themselves what they are going to prioritize. During a busy day, one might grab snippets of reading, but leave their notifications fully armed, because life does go on. But at night, say, the pings can be disabled, the display backlight can be dimmed, and you have a wholly different reading experience.

And of course there’s still dead-tree books, which I’m trying to read more of in order to go easier on my eyes at night before bed. The biggest problem with them, of course, is that they don’t sync. The book I read in a codex format is stuck inside those leaves, and I can’t dig into it at will from my phone wherever I am. Thus, some books become relegated to the bedside table, and that’s more or less fine.

Because there are plenty of books waiting for me on that big phone. The very device I wrote this post on!

Hold On to Your Kindle (Exiled from the Everything Store, Part IV)

Here is the deal for an Amazon refugee in terms of the Kindle. (The story behind that is here, then part 2, and part 3.)
I continue to have access to any Kindle content I’d already purchased, which is substantial, and I have a lot of books still to get to.

I continue to be able to purchase Kindle content on my existing devices. I happen not to own an actual Kindle e-ink reader now, and do all my reading on my LG G3, though I might like to have a real Kindle e-reader again at some point. But.

What I can not do is register a new Kindle e-reader to my account, meaning that there’s no reason for me to ever buy a Kindle device because I wouldn’t be able to activate it and get my stuff onto it. Or, at least, that’s what I’ve been told.

I sold the Kindle I used to have when Amazon kicked me out, because I assumed I wouldn’t be able to buy any new books on it. Wrong move.

So if you ever get the boot from Amazon, hold onto your Kindle. You can’t get another one. Well, I guess you can acquire one, but you can’t do anything with it.

And may whatever god you believe in have mercy on your soul.

Exiled from the Everything Store, Ctd.

Much to my surprise, folks have been far more interested in my banishment from Amazon than I expected, and my post has generated enough discussion and debate that I thought I ought to clear up a few small points that I didn’t directly address, if for no other reason than some folks are making assumptions about this and that. Whatever, it’s not a big deal, but it can’t hurt to clear up some things.
I did not intend to imply at all that I thought Amazon was in the wrong for closing my account. The post was meant to express my sense of alienation at the sudden turn of events, not a rant against Amazon. I mean, I’m not happy about it of course, and I wish they’d given me a warning before this happened, but it’s a business that they’re free to run as they choose. I operated under what I understood to be their rules, maximizing for myself what they allowed. And they didn’t like it, and they kicked me out. Shapow. That’s their right. I didn’t think I was doing anything unethical, though I have no problem with people who think that I was. I also don’t at all begrudge Amazon for doing what they did. I do not at all feel “entitled” to do business with anyone.

And as I mentioned, there was no warning. But, curiously, they did send me an email early on that I can only paraphrase as, “We see you returned a bunch of things, is everything okay?” To which I said, again paraphrasing, “Yes. Is everything okay on your end?” To which they replied, paraphrasing, “Yes.” I suppose now that their check-in was intended as a veiled warning, but it sure didn’t translate that way to me.

There’s been some noise in the comments about my hurting third-party sellers by returning their merchandise. If it helps, and whatever if it doesn’t, the only third-party devices I returned were those that were damaged on receipt or simply the wrong item. Two HTC One M8’s in a row arrived damaged, and the third was the wrong color.

Also, I think some people thought I was doing this in order to procure review units, to, like, write reviews. I mean, I do write reviews (well, more essays and reflections), but no, this was to find the right phone for me. That’s all.

And this isn’t a clarification, but some new data: I saw that there was a sale on a Kindle book I was interested in, and I assumed I couldn’t buy it. But on a lark, (remember I still have access to all the digital things I’ve bought), I tried, for shits and giggles, to buy it from the Kindle app on my phone. And it worked! I bought it! I have it now! I don’t know if that will last, say, past the expiration date of the credit card I have on file, since I won’t be able to update it since I can’t log in to my account anymore. But it’s a little something, I guess. And I guess my pre-order of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves will still go through. Maybe.

Oh, and I’m not having comments on this post because I don’t feel like moderating them. Comments on the original are still open.

Update, June 2: Nope, I can’t buy Kindle books, and I can’t get Seveneves from Kindle. Bought it on Google Play instead.

Exiled from the Everything Store

Ha, banishment! be merciful, say ‘death;’ For exile hath more terror in his look, Much more than death: do not say ‘banishment.’

Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene III

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What if one day you heard from some nameless representative at Microsoft, and they told you that you were no longer allowed to use any of their products or services? No more Office, no more Windows, and for that matter no Xbox or Minecraft. Or what if Google forbade you from using any of its services? It gets tougher, doesn’t it? Not only would you have to use a different search engine, but no more Gmail, no YouTube, no Google Maps, no Hangouts, oh, and don’t plan on buying an Android phone.

Even taking this out of the realm of the purely-digital, you can imagine how many walls you’d run into if, say, you were prohibited from using products made by Proctor & Gamble, or consuming anything made by Kraft or the Coca-Cola company. You’d find yourself constantly having to rejigger your thinking, and rule out items and services you’d never had to give a second thought to. Kraft foods, Google services, and all the rest, they were always just there.

Over the past few months, readers of this blog (all seven of you) will know that I’ve been experimenting with smartphones, on a long and emotional quest to find The Perfect Device for me. I would buy a phone, try it out for a bit, and if it didn’t suit, send it on its way. Sometimes this meant selling again on eBay or Swappa or some such. But quite often, it involved buying devices from Amazon (either new, direct from Amazon itself, or from third party sellers on the site). And as you probably know, Amazon has a lenient and simple return policy – one of the many reasons I’ve been a delightedly happy Amazon customer since its beginnings in the 1990s – and I made liberal use of it. I would buy a phone off Amazon, give it a go, and when it didn’t work out, neatly send it back within the allotted return window for my refund.

I did this several times.

And you know that when you have a new phone, you want to protect it, right? Especially if you might return it. So I’d often buy cases for my trial devices, sometimes more than one in order to try a couple out and see what suited me. The ones I didn’t use, I’d return. If I returned the phone for which the cases were purchased, well, of course the cases would go back too.

Again, I would always return things in the condition I got them, and always within Amazon’s return window. No lines were being crossed that I knew of. Though I used to joke, “I bet the folks at Amazon’s returns department have a picture of me hanging up with a bullseye on it.” Ha ha.

A couple of months ago, I got an email from Amazon customer service telling me that they were closing my account, that I would no longer be able to make purchases from the site or purchase digital content. The reason: excessive returns. I had been exiled from Amazon.

It was dizzying at first. There was the internal flagellation I put myself through (Why couldn’t you just pick one phone and be done with it???), and the embarrassment I felt (My wife will leave me over this). But the most striking feeling was that of alienation, of feeling lost.

I buy everything off of Amazon. Since it first came into being, I found excuses to buy from them over any other outlet. The reasons should be obvious: price, selection, customer service, speed and price of shipping, etc. Over the years those things have only gotten spectacularly better, from having the most books of anyone to having the most of everything of anyone. My wife and I have a Prime account, of course, because why wouldn’t we? My Amazon wishlist is a sacred space for me, where I keep a carefully curated list of the things for which I pine.

I am also a Kindle aficionado. I have had just about every model since the second generation, and even owned the first Kindle Fire, and I kind of liked it! I own a glut of Kindle books that I’ve yet to even begin reading, and at the time of my exile, I had just gotten a Kindle Voyage.

But now, I can’t shop on Amazon, not for phones, books, movies, music, gifts for my family, anything. I can’t get free two-day shipping. I can’t get hassle-free returns. I can’t maintain my special little wishlist. I can’t buy Kindle books, and I can’t buy Amazon MP3s (which are usually priced better than Google Play or iTunes, of course). I can’t stream Prime movies or shows. A powerful, robust hub of not just my online life, but my life, was now inaccessible. Like I said, it was dizzying.

I tried to make my case to anyone at Amazon who would listen: I’d promise not to return any more items, I’d agree to have my account specially monitored, I’d go on a temporary probationary period so they could see me on my best behavior. I wrote emails to countless Amazon addresses, I called on the phone, I chatted online with representatives, and I even emailed Jeff Bezos himself.

Here’s part of the response I got to that email. I’m removing the person’s name:

I’m […] of Amazon.com’s Executive Customer Relations team. Jeff Bezos received your e-mail and asked me to respond on his behalf. [ … ] The decision to close your account is a final decision, and won’t be considering further requests to reinstate it.

I realize you’re upset, and I regret we’ve been unable to address your concerns to your satisfaction. However, we’ll not be able to offer any additional insight or action on these matters, and any further inquiries on this matter won’t receive a response.

We appreciate your understanding.

Regards, […]

And so there it is. I am exiled from the Everything Store.

In the grand scheme of problems one could have, this is certainly no crisis. But Amazon is one of those companies, like Google or Kraft, that entwines itself into your life to such a degree that you rely on it like it was a utility, like it was air. It’s one thing to decide to wean oneself off of a given company’s service, like deciding to avoid using Google or Facebook if you don’t like their stances on privacy, for example. But to be kicked out, to have the door slammed in your face, is quite another.

Now, to be clear, Amazon hasn’t taken anything from me. The Kindle books I own, for example, I continue to have access to. The same goes for music and movie content I’ve bought through them. Their system is smart enough, I suppose, to allow me the use of the things I rightfully own without allowing me to do literally anything else. But given the fact that I (finally) settled on a big-screened Nexus 6 for my phone, and given that I could never again purchase a new Kindle book, I quickly sold my Kindle Voyage. Why bother keeping it?

There are countless alternatives to what Amazon offers. Stuff can be bought anywhere. Alas, it means looking in lots of different places for stuff instead of defaulting to one site, and no shopping site is nearly as easy to use or as, well, familiar with me. But I adjust.

I buy books over Google Play, for now anyway. I’m looking at the latest e-reader offerings from Kobo with some interest, but it’s a very grudging interest. (I could consider a Nook…kidding! I’m kidding. That’s ridiculous.) The selection will be lower, the price will be higher, the long-term viability will be questionable. But once again, I’m not really wanting for anything. It’s not really that big a deal.

But I can’t help it. As stupid as it sounds, my feelings are hurt. This seemingly-benign juggernaut of the digital age has shunned me for an infraction I wasn’t even aware I’d committed. The rest of the world will go about their online lives, breathing the air of Amazon, taking for granted that it will always be there. As they should, as it is supposed to be. But I’ll be that one guy at the party who’s allergic to everything he’s offered. No, thank you, but I’m not allowed to have any. (Come to think of it, I often am literally that guy.) Whatever services or products Amazon might offer up, I’ll be that one guy who doesn’t get to play. And it feels crappy.

But it’s also fine. It is disorienting, certainly, and I’m still working on getting all my digital bearings. I try to remember what Friar Laurence says to Romeo as the young lover panics and tantrums over his banishment from Verona.

Be patient, for the world is broad and wide.

And so it is. Goodbye, Amazon. I’ll be moving on, now. Jeff, if you change your mind, you know how to contact me.

And hey, Kobo folks, I’d love to take a look at a review unit. I promise I’ll return it.

UPDATE May 9:I’ve got a new post with some clarified points and a little tiny itty bitty smidge of decent news.

UPDATE: Lee Cutrone’s artistic rendition of me outside Amazon HQ:

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Original unmodified header image from Foter.com

Adapting to Reading on Screens (or, Nostalgic for the Smell of AMOLED)

Turns out that the young folks these days prefer to read longform material in print, not, as one might expect, on the screens of their devices. In fact, they seem to be the demographic that most prefers print to digital reading. I find it a tad baffling, but as one of the subjects of Michael S. Rosenwald’s piece in the Washington Post notes, unlike a smartphone or a tablet, a print book asks nothing more of you than to be read. No Twitter streams or YouTube distractions to be found there. I do get that.
I’m sympathetic to a lot of the warm feelings people have about print books. I share many of the attachments to dead-tree books, probably none more so than the smell of old mass market paperbacks. I also completely understand that there is (apparently) greater comprehension and engagement to be had from reading on print versus screens, but it seems that much of that comes from raw physical and visual associations that are more or less incidental artifacts of the form. (E-ink devices like Kindles fall somewhere in between these paradigms, not being as built for distraction as phones, but lacking the individual physical quirks of books.)

So what I’m wondering is whether we’ll just adjust. We’ll find other associations and hangups about our digital reading, maybe even nostalgia! Instead of the feel or smell of paper books, we’ll miss the eye-scratching low-res displays of our first devices, or the feedback (or lack thereof) of a physical button a previous device had that the new one lacks. (Maybe there’s a smell to AMOLED versus LCD?) I don’t think that kind of thing will improve comprehension, but I do wonder if our brains, individually and societally, will just adapt to the pixels.

Because it’s not as though we are evolutionarily optimized for ink-on-codex. There’s nothing about humans biologically that would favor reading in print versus reading electronically. We’re not “designed” to read it all! (Reading is kind of the ur-lifehack.) So as one form of reading becomes less ubiquitous, I don’t see why we won’t simply glom on to the newer way. It may take a couple of generations to shake off all the old baggage, but reading off a screen is no more “unnatural” than reading off a page, a scroll, or a (stone) tablet.

My Tech Setup Going into 2015

I’ve spent much of the final months of 2014 settling myself technologically. This, as you can imagine, is a Big Deal for someone as fussy about their tech as I am. As I’ve recounted on this site, I lost interest in being an iPhone user, and found myself irresistibly attracted to the beautiful cacophony coming from the Android space. Through a convoluted system of sells, trades, and deal-hunts, I experimented with several premium Android handsets, and at several points thought I had found The One (including the literal OnePlus One). I even had what I thought was a damned Rob Reiner-directed romantic comedy when I tried, abandoned, and then reunited with the Nexus 5. But there was to be one more part to that story.
Before all of this, I also looked to consolidate my devices, and reevaluate what I was really using them for. Earlier in the year, I swapped my iPad Air for an iPad mini 2, since at the time I was primarily using the iPad for reading. This also prompted me to sell my Kindle Paperwhite, because it was more or less redundant.

The times have changed. Here’s the new setup going into 2015, and I expect it to stick for a while. “A while,” for me, of course, could mean a few weeks. But it’s looking good for now.

Laptop: 2013 13″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display.

Acquired early in the year, it’s my first new computer in a few years. It’s got the power, portability, and easy-on-the-eyes display that’s poised to last the next few years with aplomb. And I finally have a machine I can run the latest Civ on.

Phone: LG G3.

visual6_visual1I tried this one on a lark, and it was a fine lark. Thin, light, and fast in performance. Its camera and battery life are not mind-blowing, but both very good and superior to the Nexus 5.

And most of all, that display. Now, many tech pundits keep telling us that “quad-HD” displays on smartphones are overkill, unnecessary drains on CPU power and battery life. 1080p is more than sufficient, they say.

Do not listen to these people.

The G3’s display is excellent, and its ultra-high resolution (538 ppi vs. the Nexus 5’s 445 vs. iPhone 6’s 326) makes it wonderful for viewing many things, but mostly for reading text. I admit that it’s as impossible to consciously detect pixels on a 1080p display (such as on the Nexus 5’s excellent display) as it is on the G3’s, but at a deeper level of perception, I’m aware of it. I can’t quantify it, but my body is definitely responding to the difference, even if I can’t specifically make out the difference is pixel visibility.

Plus, the LG G3 allows me to be the “phablet guy” I recently lamented I’d never be able to be, thanks to my wee little hands. The G3 is so well designed as a piece of hardware, that’s it’s essentially as easy for me to use one-handed as the Nexus 5 was. (As Marques Brownlee puts it, “DAT BEZEL.”) This is despite having a 5.5″ screen, the same as the OnePlus One that I couldn’t make work for me. The buttons being on the back of the G3 rather than the sides makes a big freaking difference. If the HTC One M8 had done the same, it might not have been such a dud for me.

The G3’s display size and resolution combine to make it perfect for one particular use-case: It’s just about the best “Kindle” I’ve ever used. It does not feel like reading off a smartphone, nor does it feel like you’re trying to palm a tablet. As a reading device, I’ve never used anything better, save for the benefits of having an e-ink display on a dedicated e-reader.

Add to this the fact that the G3 is fast and fluid, it’s a huge winner for me. I’m delighted with it. My only complaint is that the AT&T variant still doesn’t have Lollipop, and I’m too chicken to flash something onto it myself. But it hardly matters.

Tablet: iPad Air (1st Generation).

I’m going back to the original Air, though with more storage than I had before. Now that I’m a phablet guy, having a “mini” tablet became almost immediately ridiculous. This isn’t to say the difference between the two devices isn’t meaningful, but not meaningful enough. Like the Kindle before it, the iPad mini 2 has become redundant.

I’m replacing it with a used iPad Air (and not an Air 2 because there are almost none yet that are used, and I’m not made of money goddamn it) to return to my former iPad use-case: All the things you want to do on a computing device as opposed to what you have to. There’s still no better way to browse the web, watch video, or play games than on a full-sized iPad, and I am also betting that one of the reasons I’ve written less lately is because the tablet in my lap has not been large enough to invite off-the-cuff, in-the-moment jotting of ideas. I’m hoping that going back to regular-sized iPad will grease some creative wheels.

Now, there will be more overlap between the G3 and the iPad than there ever was when I was an iPhone user. The G3 straddles my invented line between “have to” and “want to,” as I really enjoy using it. But all the better.

Let’s see if I can settle down now, stop putting so much time and effort into getting the perfect tools, and start building something with them instead.