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A $45.13 Amazon Kindle story with a happy ending

CNET News' Stephen Shankland thought he'd wait a few years before moving to electronic books, but Amazon's Kindle app for iPhone had different plans for him.

What's black and white and read all over? Books on my iPhone.
Black and white and read all over Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The Amazon Kindle world just snuck up on me and removed $45.13 from my wallet. And the experience turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

I'm not technophobic, but I honestly was planning on sitting on the sidelines for this particular episode of the digitization of the world. I figured electronic books would arrive in good time as Net access expanded, devices grew more sophisticated, publishers and distributors hashed out the business issues, and legal complications of Google Books ground themselves through the courts.

I'm not opposed to reading text on a screen, though print is easier on the eyes. I just figured that--judging by the digital convulsions in the movie, TV, and music businesses--the San Francisco Public Library would be my safe haven for two or three more years.

During that time, e-book readers would get better displays, battery life, network access, and other features, and Amazon's Kindle book readers or some equivalent would grow up to become worthwhile.

What I hadn't counted on was a free Amazon iPhone application that converted me to the new order in a matter of minutes. E-books doubtless aren't for everybody, but one idle moment when I had time to kill showed they are for me.

I prefer reading white-on-black text at night.
I prefer reading white-on-black text at night. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The Shankland Rule
Let me share a little family background to explain this. Specifically, the Shankland Rule, handed down from father to son: "Always bring something to read." It's reinforced daily in airports, oil-change service stations, supermarket checkout lines, and sluggish public transportation.

Of course, the iPhone made compliance with the rule much easier. With it, I spend quality time to ingest text from The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, a jillion RSS feeds, and naturally CNET News. I always bring my cell phone with me, so I always have something to read.

But I like a good book, too, and a couple months ago when I was on vacation I decided I was in the mood for something a little more long-form. I'd gotten a recommendation for a book called "Sharpe's Rifles" by Bernard Cornwell.

I confess I'm one of those people who has a soft spot for the Napoleonic Wars. I began with C.S. Forrester's books about Horatio Hornblower's adventures in the British Navy, then graduated to Patrick O'Brian's deeper and richer tales of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in the same setting. Those series highlight the freedom of the seas, making landbound warfare look plodding and dull, and I inherited the bias, so at first I wasn't terribly interested in the story of an army infantryman named Richard Sharpe.

Books in your archive can't be handed on to your friends.
Books in your archive can't be handed on to your friends. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

It turns out, though, that the core value of a novel transcends all the high-tech trappings of e-books. The Kindle device and its iPhone application let you try before you buy. I tried, and within minutes, I bought.

I wasn't so surprised to find infantry derring-do can be entertaining after all. What did surprise me was how rapidly the medium of the book vanished into the background. A 320-by-480 pixel iPhone screen doesn't hold a lot of text, but it holds enough to transport me to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in 1809.

Technological advantages
The technology proved to be important in several ways, though.

First, I loathe going out shopping--the time, the traffic, the parking, the item out of stock--so I'm a good candidate for e-commerce. Novels zip wirelessly to my iPhone in no time flat, facilitating impulse buys I probably wouldn't make at all in the real world. Try before you buy was a good-enough replacement for dust jackets and other real-world evaluations.

Second, although the real Kindle device is probably better than the iPhone app for reading under most conditions, the iPhone's backlit display let me read in bed, at night, in the dark, without disturbing anybody. I dim the screen as low as it will go, switch the text to white on black, lock the orientation to portrait mode, and dive in.

Purchasing a book is a cumbersome back-and-forth between the Kindle app and the Amazon Web site.
Book purchasing is a cumbersome process. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Third, I'm in the midst of moving, and have acquired resentment for all the physical objects I've accumulated. My iPhone didn't get any bigger when I downloaded the books or make it any harder to move. I enjoy being surrounded by real books--I see people's libraries as a reflection of their personalities--but I also enjoy not being encumbered.

Rough around the edges
Not all is perfect. Here are my gripes about reading books through the Kindle iPhone app.

• I couldn't buy books through the iPhone Kindle app. The Kindle app can open an appropriate Web page for searching and buying in Safari, which works, but it's an awkward handoff to the browser and return to the Kindle app. Happily, you can purchase the e-books with a PC and a browser, which helps when you know in advance what you're looking for. Using the iPhone app also works, but you have to locate a separate e-book version.

• Text is fine--I use the second-to-smallest setting with no trouble. But plenty of books have artwork, graphics, charts, and photos. I had to really squint at a graphic of the Battle of Assaye.

• The application was a bit buggy, losing my place and sending me to the last page a few times. Flipping through a lot of pages to find my spot is a lot slower in the application than with a real book. I envision a similar problem browsing for a particular book if my electronic library gets large enough.

Text worked well enough for me on the iPhone. This map of the Battle of Assaye was pretty tough going, though.
Graphics are hard to read on the iPhone. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

• The world of e-books has inventory issues, just like real-world book stores do. I was thwarted by the unavailability of "Sharpe's Fortress" in e-book form.

• My biggest dislike is that I don't really own my books even after I paid for them. Amazon has just granted me access to them.

I'm not as concerned as some with Amazon's George Orwell book recall fiasco, in which the company reached out overnight and deleted Kindle copies of books it concluded it didn't have rights to sell after all.

But when I read a good book, my impulse is to lend it to friends and relations who might like it too. With the Amazon service and its digital rights management, forget it.

But at the modest pace I consume books, these blemishes are endurable, so I predict $45.13 won't be the last of it. Oh, look, Alex Haley's "Roots" is available for $9.99...