10 years of the Kindle and the curious incident of a dog in the day-time

Feel the full weight of Jerusalem, base cur!

Something for the Weekend, Sir? A little worse for wear after the first Christmas party of the season, I stagger up the driveway to be met at my own front door by... a Kindle.

The Kindle is tapping one foot while gauging the weight of a rolling pin in its hands. It is furious. It demands: "And what time do you call this?"

That throws me. My dad used to ask difficult questions like that, questions that offered no realistic prospect of a worthwhile answer. He'd ask things like "Are you going upstairs?" as I was halfway up the stairs, or go full surreal with "What's that jumper you're wearing?"

Yes I am. It's a jumper.

The Kindle is waiting for an answer. Well, I try to explain, while wondering why I never noticed before that Kindles had hands and feet let alone rolling pins, I call the current time "10 o'clock" in much the same way as other people call it "10 o'clock".

I check my watch, just to make sure it is 10 o'clock. Unfortunately, in my confusion, I glance at my right wrist instead of my left. I'm too embarrassed to admit that I'm checking the wrist that doesn't have a watch on it, so I continue to stare at it anyway.

Fortunately, I do wear a Fitbit Alta on my right wrist and I remember that it can be activated by tapping it twice. But in my somewhat bleary state, I am having trouble coordinating two clean taps. I keep tapping erratically in the hope that the display eventually reveals the time. After a few more wayward attempts, I find myself punching at my own wrist with increasing violence, until the Fitbit flies off and bounces across the threshold.

Then it dawns on me why the Kindle is so cross. I had forgotten its anniversary.

Last Sunday, November 19, Amazon's flagship e-book reader turned 10. No one bought it chocolates or sent it flowers. I bet you forgot, too, didn't you?

Suffice to say, I was not permitted to slip into bed that Sunday night with a good e-book. Instead, I was obliged to stretch out on the sofa with (eww!) a printed copy of Mario Puzo's The Godfather that my wife had bought me as a birthday present.

Until then, I'd never got around to reading the original book even though I could recite to you the dialogue from the first two Coppola films by heart. So I spent a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening evening in the company of – no shaming intended – a fat paperback.

The Kindle? It could go sleep with the fishes for all I cared.

During Monday morning's commute into London, of course, I completely changed my mind. Slim and light e-readers are sometimes better than clumsy, lard-arsed printed books. At least they are when most of your reading is shoehorned into periods of travelling.

It's just common sense. When you're staggering around to stay upright in a packed train jostling with hundreds of fellow standing travellers, merely turning one leaf of a 600-page printed tome with one hand demands the dexterity of a brain surgeon performing a conjuring trick.

It's for this reason I still haven't progressed far into last year's birthday present, a hardcover copy of Alan Moore's Jerusalem – 1,280 pages of tightly leaded impenetrable verbosity at unrelenting 7pt. I began reading this on a train but so weighty and ungainly is the volume that, while trying to flip a page using the tip of my nose, the book slipped out of my hand and landed on the head of a dog, briefly knocking it senseless.

I admit to having done some questionable things in my life but bludgeoning a pet animal on public transport was a new experience even for me. By the time I had recovered from the shock, so had the dog, and the long seconds that had already passed contributed to the impotence of my belated "Sorry!"

Weirdly, the dog's owner didn't respond; in fact, it was if he hadn't noticed the incident at all. Perhaps he was asleep behind those sunglasses. But now on a packed train, scrabbling around a slightly dazed Labrador for a fallen book was out of the question. So I had to wait until we arrived at our destination before I could gingerly retrieve the book, which I found sandwiched between the dog's paws and its owner's white stick, before making my escape.

Alan Moore has remained on my bedside table ever since, dust settling on his jacket and a bookmark still thrust up his page 15. If only I'd bought the damn thing as an e-book, I'd have polished it off by now.

Alan Moore's Jerusalem

Hold this for a moment, would you, Fido?
Alan Moore's Jerusalem is a two-hander, possibly three.

The reason I didn't buy an electronic version is that Jerusalem opens with something very important to the story: a double-page illustrated map of The Boroughs of Northampton. And as you know all too well, the ultra-low resolution and maximum JPEG compression of pictures in e-books renders illustrations like this illegible.

No, let's not beat about the bush. The quality of pictures in e-books is utterly fucking appalling.

A writing colleague once found himself inundated with emails from disgruntled purchasers of the black-and-white Kindle edition of his how-to book on Photoshop. He had no idea his publisher would be so dimwitted as to sell it in a singularly inappropriate monochrome reflowable e-book format.

Naturally, in this format, the book's hundreds of Photoshop tutorial screenshots had been greyscaled, downsampled and compressed to shit. They were about as legible as a medieval book of hours viewed through the windscreen of a Citro?n 2CV while driving down a motorway on a rainy night just as your contact lenses slip.

Ten years on from the first Kindle e-reader, the look and feel of flowable e-books has barely improved at all. Pictures look crap. Typography is wonky. The text itself is often the result of a rush job, lifted from a pre-proof copy and still full of the errors that are subsequently corrected in the print version.

It's not necessarily your e-reader or the e-book formats that are at fault. It's that publishers just don't seem to give a shit. What's wrong, they seem to imply, you got it on the cheap, so why are you complaining?

Before you tell me that Kindles and other such monochrome e-readers are declining in popularity because colour tablets are more affordable than ever, I can assure you that illegible pictures, infantile typography and copy errors don't look any more appealing in colour than they do in black and white.

If anything, what's killing off the Kindle is the smartphone. Given that you've already made the decision to suffer the enduringly poor quality e-book experience, you may as well do it on the most convenient device you already have to hand. No need to buy another £150 gadget for the displeasure.

Thus we hark back not 10 years but 20 or more. Through the late 1990s and early 2000s, I would download raw text classics from the Gutenberg Project and read them on whatever palmtop I owned at the time, from my beloved Psions to a rapid sequence of very short-lived Palm Pilots.

What has improved since then? I get a choice of fonts.

Give me responsive HTML any day, or even PDF 2.0. At least responsive HTML is supported on practically all browsers on all platforms, isn't locked into proprietary apps or rely on proprietary firmware, and isn't subject to the zillions of ridiculously kludgy restrictions written into the ePub and Mobi formats.

Forget about saving trees, it's format that genuinely qualifies as "dog-friendly". Save dogs AND trees! That'll keep them both happy.

Besides, as I have always said, it's your moral duty to protect your pets from Alan Moore.

Alistair Dabbs prefers doing it with one hand
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He fails to understand why the full force of ePub 3 remains so underwhelming yet also still so gingerly supported by apps and devices. And don't get him started on fixed layout ePub, the ultimate in incompatible uselessness, a so-called "open" format grudgingly supported by just one app on a single OS.

PS: For me, Christmas starts now. I'll be back in the New Year. See you then.


Biting the hand that feeds IT ? 1998–2017