Using the Kindle for Grad School

It’s been close to a month now that I’ve been living with my Kindle 3, and quite an interesting adventure, as (both deliberating and unintentionally) it has made me more aware than ever my reading practices, preferences and occasional inefficiencies.

My motivations for buying the Kindle? Mostly, grad school: I looked at the stack of PDFs for readings for my Transportation Analysis class and my schedule travelling between 3 campuses 5 days a week, and cringed, hard. I already hate the idea of printing mountains of readings off, and also don’t read well off backlit screens. I’ve used those reasons as handy excuses not to do my readings in the past, and it was high time to end that habit fast. I’m a little surprised that I’m the first person I know with one.

This reasoning also eliminated the iPad, which, desirable as it is, felt a little too much like my iPhone, which is distracting as all hell. I need to have hands tied a little bit when it comes to reading; if I can play Sudoku on it, it is part of the problem, not part of the solution. I also considered the Kobo, but in the end thought for the price difference that the features of the Kindle (like free 3G Internet delivery) were worth it.

My set-up to pipe reading into my Kindle so far:

  • daily Instapaper delivery, which is fed from either the Read Later bookmarklet or via the ‘Share’ button in Google Reader.
  • Using Calibre to convert whole RSS feeds into .mobi format, then getting those e-mailed to my Kindle free e-mail address. The Kindle will download documents in this queue for free when I am connected to wifi.
  • One of my profs has a habit of sending us readings by e-mail as PDF attachments. I’m trying to get into the habit of forwarding those e-mails and all their links and attachments to my free Kindle e-mail as soon as I receive them. One thing that would be really nice is to be able to download PDFs in Mobile Safari and have them attached to e-mails I send from my iPhone.

I spent the first week transferring things through the USB cable, which is nice because the Kindle mounts as any old USB storage device — a breath of fresh air after 8 months with the iPhone! — so I can update the Kindle from any computer I happen to be using, and my habits with school/work computers means that I really might easily touch 10 generic terminals in a week, so I rely on the cloud heavily.

I have not purchased anything from the Kindle store yet — and not for lack of options or desire. The Kindle Storefront model butts up against my desire to be frugal by not buying books, so I’ve been confined mostly to downloading samples of books like Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together or Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows in order to skim the table of contents and first chapter. I have access to two university libraries and they are, sadly, both completely uninvolved in my eBook reading life.

Well, that’s not completely true. I use the following workaround in order to get very shoddy-looking eBrary books into my Kindle. That process is currently dumb and the quality on the Kindle of these files is atrocious. Unfortunately one of my required readings is only available from the library this way (and one copy in reserve for ~30 students), so it’s essentially a step up from manual.

  1. Open the book in eBrary in a Java-enabled Mac, take down the ‘real’ page numbers of my readings.
  2. Click Print in the eBrary interface.
  3. Specify the page range I am able to “Print”.
  4. Click Save PDF in the Print dialogue and save the output to my hard drive.
  5. Email the PDF to the Kindle.
  6. Struggle with the zoom and orientation to make that awkward scanned images look remotely legible.

Other than some links to eBook collections from the Vancouver Public Library, which are services like Books24x7 (which as far as I know does not have anything in .mobi or .epub format; fortunately calibre has made converting the former for .mobi mostly trivial), it does not appear the libraries will be supply content to my Kindle anytime soon. Pity, that.

Other gripes? PDFs which are formatted for printing, as many PDFs for journal articles are, are a little sticky to work with. I just discovered yesterday that sending them to the Kindle e-mail rather than simply transferring via cable runs it through a .mobi parser and some articles actually came through really nicely. But for articles formatted into flowing columns, for instance, which the Kindle service can’t reflow, the noting and annotating features of the Kindle actually get broken. Notes and annotations are stored as a plain text file in the Kindle, but for those kinds of documents, strangely, anything I am able to highlight (which is often only content from the left column) gets copied to the text file without any spaces, making it functionally useless for quoting or sharing purposes.

Gripes aside, the Kindle has pretty much made the annoying paper parts of printed PDFs go away, and sloshing reading material in and out of it has been generally painless. On a more media ecology level, this is the first piece of technology I’ve ever had that feel like it won’t age, because it’s already old. The touch screens of the iPhone and iPad, using McLuhan’s terms, feel fundamentally like deeply engaging, cool media; whereas the Kindle, with its molasses slow visible e-ink refresh and 16 shades of grey, feels hot with respect for the power of the written word over the playful instantaneity of the touch screens.

I’ve hollowed out a book to act as a camo-case for the Kindle. The one annoying part is that the power button become inaccessible and I have to turn the book upside down just to get the damn thing out. This will probably be fixed with a ribbon to pull the Kindle out of its groove. It’s nice to pretend I’m not doing anything too high-tech, because the e-ink in particular can look really starting the first time you see it; and really, I just want to read.

One Comment

  1. Sarah P

    Thanks for this write-up, Karen! I’m just getting a Kindle at the end of my grad school career, alas. It might have been good for my PDFs too, though it seems like the technology is still catching up. I look forward to better conversion to a readable format, and the ability to change font size. :)

    Good luck with your degree!

    Posted June 19, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

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