Living with the…Kindle Paperwhite

I love books. Actual, physical books.

In fact when I first heard about e-readers the idea just turned me cold. How could people give up the feel of a proper book in their hands, the artwork on the sleeves, and all those creases in the spine that acted as waypoints for the adventure you’d just experienced? What grey, cold, computer could have the same heartwarming effect?

Well, as it turns out…the Amazon Kindle.

I bought my first Kindle as kind of an experiment. The slim plastic casing was lightweight, easy to hold, and in direct sunlight the pages looked, well, like a book. I tried in vain to fight the lures of this temptress, but in truth, she had me once I read my first e-inked line. The transition was swift. When perusing the listings on Amazon I’d check to see if new titles came in digital formats. Second-hand bookshops, once a sanctuary to me, slipped from my mind and faded into legend. Only something that could be emailed to my device was worthy of inclusion in my collection.

I had been digitised.

Where once I was a man whose home was packed with books, now the shelves were empty, an ebook collection nestled in the slim belly of my Kindle…and I was happy.

But there was one area in which the little device struggled. Well to be honest it didn’t struggle, it outright failed. Low light. If the sun went behind a cloud, the lightbulbs chose to shine in different directions, or my warm glow of literary self satisfaction faded, then the Kindle became next to useless.


I tried various lights that could be attached to the Kindle, but these all quickly became annoying. Some were bulky and added weight, others were tiny and flapped about all over the place like epileptic stick insects. I considered the official Amazon case with a built in light, but the hilarious price of £50 soon put paid to that idea. No, I was a dayreader now, and that is how it would stay. Unless I sat by a desk lamp of course.

Then came rumours of a new Kindle…one that would bring light to the word. I held my breath. Could this be true?

Slowly rumours transformed into speculation, then tentative, leaked technical specs appeared. So, the prophesies were soon to be made plastic. Glory be! Shortly afterwards the Kindle Paperwhite appeared, replete with an internal light and the promise of eternal happiness. Well, the happiness was only available through certain outlets, but the light remained standard. Lo, the Paperwhite had come into the world…and it was good.

After spending the past two weeks with this luminescent device I must admit that sadly…it’s rather wonderful. I say sadly because it now means a frantic scramble to gather together enough cash to buy the damn thing. Thus it was, as ever shall be.

What makes the Paperwhite so attractive is the illumination itself. I’ve tried reading books on my iPad, Nexus 7, and various mobile phones over the years. It’s not a terrible experience, but my eyes tend to tire quickly when staring at small text on those harshly bright screens. The Kindle Paperwhite glows in a more gentle fashion, allowing you to spend longer reading and less time Googling for symptoms of cataracts.

Have you seen the light?

The design is elegantly simple too. Gone is the keyboard that wasted so much space on my old unit, replaced instead by a touch-screen. Thankfully there’s no swiping involved. You just tap the left side to go back, the right to go forward, the top to bring up a menu, and the bottom to see how much of the book remains. Actually this is a great little feature as the lower display swaps between the rather random ‘Loc’ display – which acts as a page number – to a far more useful option that uses your average reading speed to calculate how long it will take you to finish reading the book. Simple, brilliant, and mildly accurate.

Otherwise it’s business as usual for the Kindle. Meaning that the extra functionality (distractions) tablets and phones offer are sacrificed in favour of a dedicated reading experience. It’s hard to convey just how powerful this simplicity is. When you pick up an iPad you can read, then check your email, quickly update Facebook, maybe order another book from the Amazon website, then watch that video that your friend has just sent, possibly a quick game of Ski Safari, then….what was I doing again?

On a Kindle you pick the device up with a solitary purpose in mind – reading – and with the Paperwhite you can now do that anywhere at all. The battery still lasts forever, you can load new titles from your computer or have them delivered straight to the unit from the Amazon store, and the compact design means it’s comfortable to hold for long literary sessions.

If you’re a reader then there’s no better device on which to enjoy the words of others.

Let me tell you a story…

A poor life this, if full of care,

We have no time to stop and stare.

                                      –  William Henry Davies

I love the Internet. Love it with a passion. To me it’s a gateway to a world of knowledge and people that otherwise would ever remain a secret. I see it as a great emancipator, which empowers the weak and chastens the strong. It is a playground, a wonderland, the finest learning tool ever created, and largest high street that can be imagined. Where else could you watch free videos that teach you how to play Hendrix riffs on guitar, interact with friends on several continents simultaneously, then settle down to a torrent of abuse from twelve year old Americans with virtual machine guns while they teabag your prone body? Truly it is the marvel of the modern age.

Hmmmm, Tetleys.

It is with great dismay then that I’ve been noticing a downside recently that has me quite worried about where we’re heading. As a working journalist I’ve long been observing how print media is changing and will of course eventually be replaced by digital and online content. The problem here is that the change in pace at which news must be delivered is, I think, causing problems with the quality of writing/content that is being produced. The recent release of the iPhone 5 was a prime example. Such is the need for page hits and Google rankings now that content producers are all involved in a mad race to be the first out the door in regards to reviews. The thinking seems to be that if you don’t catch the initial buzz then people will have already read other reviews and yours is dead in the water. So reporters are filing content faster and faster in the need to be seen, which can only suggest that they aren’t spending any significant time with a product at all before telling you their findings. High quality is being compromised in favour of high velocity.

Of course top publications are privy to advanced releases and then embargoed on their reviews until a set date, but it seems these privileges are only being granted to a favoured few while the rest scrabble around for the scraps. This is not an entirely new phenomena, but the pressure of the increased pace now suggests that this might become more significant as times goes on. After all if a handful of sites always have the first news and reviews or the latest products then it could mean that others just never get visitors and eventually fade away.

The argument against this theory is that if you have quality then you will have an audience, something I always believed, but recent events have shaken my faith. Last month saw the closure of PC Plus, a UK computer magazine that had been around for twenty six years. It’s not the only victim of the decline in print media, but to me it was an important moment. You see for the past couple of years I’ve been bemoaning the death of quality features in magazines, which instead favour product reviews and celebrity interviews. In many ways those are the things that are better suited to the Internet, due to their structure and shorter nature, whereas features are more the meat of a magazine as they take advantage of the longer form and visual embellishments that a good layout will create. PC Plus had, to my mind, some of the most interesting and informative features of any technology magazine around and even when I didn’t have a PC I would still find myself picking up a copy just to read what they were exploring. Its closure now strengthens the argument against these types of creations and I worry that it might be another nail in the coffin of more esoteric features.

PC Plus 1986-2012

Speaking with editors over the past few months it’s become apparent that the squeeze on readership created by the Internet is causing them to rely more on analysing search data and reader surveys to determine the content they create. In business terms this makes perfect sense, but one of the joys of features I’ve always savoured was being surprised by something I never knew, stories that were unusual, interesting, and not ones I was likely to discover by myself. So if you don’t know what will be interesting how can you tell a publication that you want to read about it? How can this serendipity take place when all the pages are decided by only the popular rather than the wondrous?

Of course I’m an idealist. No question. You could also label me a romantic and my defence would be lacking. There is certainly the truth that I don’t have a publisher to answer to with budget reports and revenue streams. I’m concerned though that as we transition from print to online the art of feature writing will be discarded, replaced instead with Cliff Notes for the terminally short of attention.

When I first became a writer it was because I wanted to tell people’s stories, document their adventures and achievements so others could share in the excitement. The Internet seems a wonderful opportunity to do this on a wide scale, so it puzzles me why I feel it might be the very thing that brings about its demise, at least in a form I think needs to survive.

A letter from the colonies…

Summer’s lease hath proved once more all too short a date, and with her warm embrace but a memory we return to the ebb and flow of life.

In the coming weeks we will explore much in the way of British culture, from riots to crumpets, and many points in between.

But to start the new season I am proud to present to you a guest blog by one of our dear friends Ms Philippa Ballantine. As our kiwi correspondent she shares with us her recent challenge of writing a novel set in Victorian London while she was sat in New Zealand and her co-author Tee Morris was stationed in the US.

I hope you enjoy her musings, and please feel free to ask any questions that it provokes by placing them in the comments.

So, without further ado…please be upstanding for Ms Ballantine.

Dunking ourselves into Victorian London (like the preverbal biscuit).

By Philippa Ballantine

When you’re a writer delving into another city, country or world is always a bit of a risk. People know the places—right down to the smells and sounds—that you are using. However it also gives you a wonderful basis for story that can inspire and spice up your story in many ways.

In London’s case it is distinctly tea-flavoured.

When writing Phoenix Rising; a Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novel, my co-author and I were working in the steampunk genre. (Tee has written this page describing what exactly that might be.) Since steampunk is the past that never happened, that does give us as author a little wriggle room. Writer’s do love wriggle room.

A very recent steampunk video describes the genre as ‘it’s not bound by period, but it is informed by it.’ Huzzah! So we were off and running on the novel, set in London. Neither of actually live in London. Tee is a born and bred Virginian, and I am from Wellington, New Zealand.

So we weren’t locals, and that meant we had to rely on experience and research.

First of all Tee and I have both spent time in London. Tee lived there for four months and I have visited several times. Honestly, there is nothing to compare with the first hand experience of going to a place. So we had impressions and memories and photos to go on. (My memories of a night watching football, eating fish and chips with mushy peas at a pub, have yet to prove useful).

The look of the Thames, might have changed since Victorian times (the lack of caustic fog and pollution being just two things missing) but you get some idea of the rivers appearance, how it snakes through the city. In the sequel to Phoenix Rising, called Of Cogs and Corsets, I spent a great deal of time in the Natural History Museum, and the beauty and typical English majesty of the building made quite the impression. That was why when it came time for a certain villain to break into building to steal something, I knew it was within this particular museum.

So, having been there gives you an advantage, but since this in Victorian London, and neither of us are in possession of a time-machine (as yet), we had to do a certain amount of research. Personally, as a librarian I love digging around in books. There are many online resources that you can use, plenty of encyclopaedias of Victorian London, but one of the best resources for getting the feel of a place and time are images. There are even some early film footage of London available on youtube. Also there are many fantastic books that cover, not only the lives of the aristocracy, but also lives of the poor struggling souls on the street.

But what do you do if you haven’t been there, or have been unable to find the answer in your available resources? Why, turn to your social media buddies! As authors and podcasters Tee and I are lucky enough to have a lovely—and helpful—group of listeners and readers.

If you need Victorian swear words, information on armaments, or how a steam engine really work, these are the people you turn to. Honestly, it’s amazing the variety of talents that are out there. That is something the Victorians never had—though they had more corsets and cups of tea.

But my final refuge of research on being English is my Nana—the most proper lady I ever met. When ever I have a moment of thinking about how a lady in London at that time would have acted I always see her face.

And there is always a cup of tea in her hand…

Philippa (Pip) Ballantine is the co-author with Tee Morris of Phoenix Rising: a Ministry of Peculiar Occurrence novel out now from Harper Voyager. It contains airships, archives and large amounts of derry-doing. Find out more at