Is the Kindle worth the candle?
As published in
Read on the Irish Times website
Recently I tried to calculate whether buying a Kindle had been worth it yet: whether the generally cheaper cost of books had made up for the cost of the equipment. The tots themselves tell an encouraging story which, barring a technological blow-up, will keep getting better. But reducing the figures to cost and gain was like trying to put a price on experience.
I got the latest available edition of the Kindle in June 2015 for €163.84. They are pretty ugly on their own, but the protective cover, for me, somehow manages to make it look attractively sleek. It is fun to throw back the front cover. It is extremely dependable compared to a printer, computer, or Netflix, and has a battery like an old-fashioned mobile phone’s. It shows no signs to wear and tear.
No perfect calculation of the savings is possible, given the changing costs of books. But these hopefully more or less balance out. That problem aside, my method was as follows: I converted the sterling cost of my Kindle books when I bought them, and their present sterling cost on the Book Depository, both at the exchange rate of the day I bought them on the Kindle.
Incidentally, this research brought home again how sterling sunk after the Brexit vote.
I made the comparison with the Book Depository because they’re cheap (even aside from free postage) and have what statisticians and marketers call a long tail: part of their business model is to sell a little of everything, so it makes a like-for-like comparison easy. Listening to independent booksellers talk about supporting local shops, I do momentarily feel like I personally am responsible for All of Community, but equally I have a budget. Besides, booksellers are mostly interested in selling the big head: the bestsellers.
The bald sums are very encouraging. On the Kindle I’ve only bought 25 books I could easily get from the Book Depository. They cost me €166.91 on the Kindle, and would have cost me €310.71 from the Book Depository. So I have saved €143.80 so far in this category.
But I’ve also saved €30.18 on books that authors were giving away for free on their websites as e-reader files, compared to their Book Depository prices. If they are happily giving away their work for free, and I am eagerly seeking it out on personal websites, it is clearly a perfect match of passions. That puts me ahead of the Kindle’s cost.
As regards other free books: it just does not feel right to read the free out-of-copyright classics you can get on the Kindle Store. For one thing I dislike the drab standard-issue covers they have. But it is wonderful to read about Hubert Butler’s love for The National Being by George Russell and be able to drag and drop it to the Kindle from Project Gutenberg. I haven’t read it yet, but I could.
And there are plenty of books that once were published in paper copies, and now are impossible to get at a reasonable price, except through Kindle. Second-hand booksellers, or perhaps it’s their pricing software, are like mercenary Gollums with precious when they have even very recently out-of-print rare books. One book currently sells for €8.46 on the Kindle, and €169.40 on Abebooks. Of course, I would never buy at these extortionate prices, but including that classic I have notionally saved €215.88 on this category of book.
It hardly comes up all the time, but occasionally I need a particular book now, for work purposes. I’m sure it will happen again. These are all obscure long tail books. So far I have bought four Kindle books in this circumstance, and saved €19.60 in the process.
Short e-books are perfect for Kindle, and reliably cheap. It is good to read something knowing it won’t take for ever to read. Particularly when they are about reasonably current politics, their form is of a piece with the popularity in newspapers of “long reads”. It’s a cliché, but this is a time of frayed attention, and getting depth without mortgaging one’s life is welcome. I recommend A Dangerous Delusion by Peter Oborne and David Morrison, about the Iran Deal.
The ability to export quotes and notes to an email account is a huge plus. The limit on the amount you can take, however, is a grave minus, especially for unstoppable note-takers and underliners such as I am. But they are easy to flip through on the device.
The kinds of books I buy differ on the Kindle, and some of its value is inherent in that. I buy ephemeral books and ones written from perspectives I expect to dislike. You can keep and refer back to any useful information in them while keeping them in a kind of memory hole. On the other hand, you can’t finally dispose of them: if anyone wants my copy of Christopher Hitchens’ memoirs, I’d be happy to give it to them, but I can’t.
I’ve only read one novel on the Kindle, a cheap and excellent political thriller, The Lone Gladio by Sibel Edmonds. I am thinking of getting Michael Dobbs’ House of Cards novels, because the BBC adaptation is amazing. But the disconnection between (call it) poetic imagination and the digital world is so far an insuperable barrier in my mind, whereas facts can be easily digitised. But I ought to test this prejudice, to see whether I’m like the type of person who didn’t see the point of smartphones until they had one.
The fact that it is so easy to buy books at the push of a button means there are a certain amount of turkeys. While doing the sums, I considered discounting these from the savings, especially where I knew it was a spur of the moment decision. But I decided otherwise. How could I know I would not have made the same poor purchases in a bookshop? The themes obviously answered to something in me at the time. And the good value of books on the Kindle allows you to take some small risks.
Why get one, given that you can use the free Kindle app on phones and computers? Well, have you ever got tired of the glare on those screens? And it’s the convenient size of a book flipped back on itself, unlike a tablet, phone or computer. As for books, Bob Johnston, owner of the Gutter Bookshop in Dublin, put it simply and well when he said, “you can have two things.”