Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Listening to My New Kindle

I received a Kindle 3G as a gift from a fan, which I greatly appreciate. We met each other in an online game a month ago and were chatting. I told him about my novels, the Pirates of the Narrow Seas series featuring a gay lieutenant during the Age of Sail, and intrigued by my telling him the Kindle would read aloud (which I had heard from print-impaired friends), he decided to buy a Kindle and my book. He liked them both, and so, last week, when we were chatting again, he bought me a Kindle as a gift.

Due to a neurological disorder, I have had great difficulty in reading and writing for more than a decade now. As a young person I used to read two paperback books a day. It was quite routine for me to sit down and read a 300 page book from cover to cover in a single sitting. Now it takes me six to nine months to read a paperback because I can only handle it in small increments of a few paragraphs or a couple of page at a time. Moby Dick is an extremely long book this way. I do a great deal of reading because I write and editor tanka poetry, but the good thing about tanka is, it's short! That's about the right size chunk for me.

When he told me he bought me the book, and I was waiting for it to arrive, I had a sudden bout of grief. I have become inured to being functionally illiterate -- to read a bill, or a cereal box, or a set of medical instructions, requires me focussing my brain in a way and to a degree it does not normally care to focus. Reading for pleasure had become non-existent -- I have read very few novels since becoming impaired. I read for information because there are things I want to know that can only be hand in a book or website. Reading for fun? Reading wasn't fun. Reading was extremely hard work prone to great frustration.

I contemplated being able to listen to a book, I was struck with how much I had missed it. I wanted to read for fun! In my splurge of book downloading, I downloaded fiction: Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Every single novel by Captain Marryat. Gulliver's Travels.  I was desperate for books, hungry for books, starving for books. I wanted stories.

My first book listened to was Captain Blood. I had never actually read Captain Blood. I saw it as a movie starring Errol Flynn when I was twelve. Thereafter I was an Errol Flynn junkie, with Flynn's swashbuckling heroes imprinted in my juvenile brain as the very model of What A Hero Ought To Be. I had no idea there were books behind Captain Blood or The Seahawk. By the time I knew it, I was neurologically impaired. The notion of reading a novel was no fun. And yet, I had written three novels deliberately invoking those swashbucklers I loved as a kid. (Writing is easier than reading. I am typing this with my eyes shut. I don't need to be able to see to write.) Gerry B remarked on the resemblance between Errol Flynn and my character, Captain Tangle, and he was right.

Thus, Captain Blood was my first book listened to on the Kindle.

It did not go smoothly. First of all, the buttons were so tiny and small that I had difficulty seeing them to turn on the text to speech or pause it. I have to carry it into a bright light to do this, which kind of defeat's the friendliness of a Kindle for a print-impaired person. If you could see, you wouldn't be needing to listen to it. There ought to be a big orange button to press in some obvious location that says, "Speech." Having figured out how to do that much, I didn't worry about the full accessibility feature that would read the menus and other items aloud to me. Short pragmatic lists are within my brain's ability to process.

However, I swiftly discovered that 'reading' is not just a visual activity. The brain must not only process what it sees into words, those words must be translated into meaning. This is something I have trouble with, and my brain lags behind the spoken word. Often I found myself needing to pause the reading in order to figure out what I had missed. Slowly it down was not an option, I found it painfully slow already. Speeding it up doesn't seem like a good idea either.

What I needed was an easy way to click back one paragraph to relisten to it. Kindle doesn't do this. Either it's on, or it's off. There also needs to be protection from fumble fingers. Having arthritis, I don't have good fine motor control. At one point I pressed something, I don't know what, by accident, and sped ahead to the 80% complete part. There was no way to get back to where I was but to click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click... which is not friendly for a person who has problems with their hands.

While listening, I found myself checking the printed text. Reading along at times helped me grasp the content of the story. But the print was too small. In vain I tried to increase the size of the type by following the instructions. Eventually I figured out that you have to turn off text to speech to adjust the font size. That seems silly to me, but as it only happens once, then my text size is picked, it's a minor inconvenience.

I also figured out that if you want to go back a page, you have to turn off text to speech, which is worse than silly, it's a royal pain in the neck. You also can't skip ahead. There were redundant places in the novel where I wanted to skip forward, but the time involved in carrying the Kindle into the light so that I could find the buttons to press to pause text to speech, skim forward, re-enable text to speech, and return to my seat and resume listening, just wasn't worth it.

Ultimately, I let the thing go at its own pace, picking it up and reading along where I needed to to catch important details, or else deciding that I didn't really need to know that particular paragraph and letting it go by uncomprehended. Such inefficient reading is acceptable in a novel, but when reading for non-fiction, it's not okay. I haven't tried non-fiction on it yet.

The Kindle really really needs a way to go forward or back while in text to speech mode, and it needs a way to speed up or slow down the text to speech while in text to speech mode, something that doesn't involve tiny buttons. I envision a large orange button that you press once to turn on or off. It would have sides, like the navigation button, so that if you press the right side, it skips forward, press left it skips backwards, press the top it speeds up, press the bottom it slows down, press in the middle for two seconds and it brings up the text to speech settings. It will also give you a choice of more than just 'male' and 'female' voices.

The quality of the voice didn't bother me, although a colleague warned me it was hard to get used to. The strange handling of punctuation and spacing was the most disruptive. For example, it does not pause for an emdash or quotation mark. These sentences simply run into each other, impairing comprehension. When I had to look at the book or stop and read, it was usually because conversations where simply run into text. It also does not pause at a paragraph break, or after a title. So the chapter titles ran into the first paragraph as if they were all one sentence. That's needs to be fixed.

The Kindle is variable in its pronunciation of Roman numerals. IX it pronounced correctly as 9. XXI it pronounced as 'see I.' The Kindle really needs to learn how to recognize and handle Roman numerals correctly. It also fails to understand common abbreviations, such as Mrs., which it read out loud as m-r-s. There were many ordinary words, such as 'succinct' which were not pronounced correctly. It absolutely floored me then, that 'forecastle' was correctly pronounced as 'fo'c'sle.' That means somebody deliberately went in and programmed the Kindle to say focsle -- because that is NOT a reading that a person or machine would produce upon reading 'forecastle.' If Kindle is going to make certain obscure words like 'forecastle' are pronounced correctly, it ought to do the same for all common words.

One kudo, though. It pronounced 'truculent' correctly. That's a relief, because 'truculent' is probably Sabatini's most favorite word ever, and hearing it pronounced incorrectly as many times as he used it would have driven me insane.

That the Kindle is confused by 'bow' of a ship and pronounced it 'bow' as in 'bow tie' I forgive, because deducing which pronunciation is correct requires a correct parsing of the grammar, which seems a little much for a text to speech program to accomplish. Still, I am betting that should Kindle offer a premium text to speech program capable of handling anything thrown at it -- including random bits of French, Latin, and a bad Dutch accent, as Captain Blood does, people would buy it. I would.

The other problem is that there were words I wanted to look up. But, brace for it, you have to turn off text to speech. Then you have to use the teeny tiny buttons to navigate to the word, which became further complicated by all the times I accidentally hit 'Menu' and 'Back.' Okay, forget the built in dictionary. I had my Mac sitting right in front of me, so I used that to look up words.

There was one more problem. The download of Captain Blood was not complete -- and I was missing the last few pages or chapters. Fortunately, having seen the movie, I knew how it ended. I moved on to Candide.

So. A lot of complaints and shortcomings. But what about the purpose of the Kindle, to actually enjoy a book? Can I accomplish that? The answer is a qualified 'yes.'

The most notable thing is that I was able to read/listen to a novel today. There were numerous interruptions and starts and stops, but I accomplished it in one day instead of six to nine months. I am frustrated though, so that I cannot say I exactly enjoyed it. So, I am able to read a book by listening to it with considerably more speed than by reading with my eyes. That's a great positive benefit, but it's not enjoyable because it's frustrating and tiring, and my comprehension of all that I read is imperfect. I know I am missing chunks of the books. Thus, for 'light' reading, it's not very light.

On the other hand, I am going to keep using my Kindle because the reading of a book over six to nine months is fraught with even more frustration and more numerous and lengthier interruptions than the Kindle is. Thus, the Kindle is a great improvement over not having it, but there is a great deal of room for improvement in the device.

Now a great deal has been said by colleagues of mine about the needs to print-impaired people and whether it is profitable for the Kindle to meet them. Accessibility is  generally not profitable, so one must view the provision of text to speech capability in the Kindle as an act of charity. Looked at that way, it can be seen that in the larger scheme of things, the needs of print-impaired people are of no concern to great corporations. I say this with a great deal of irony, since being one of the print-impaired people, I am certainly of the opinion that Amazon--and everyone else--ought to care a great deal more than they do.

On the other hand, the Kindle is cheap. I remembered when a capability of this sort required expensive computers and software to accomplish the same thing, which nobody could afford. I am also well aware of the expense and inconvenience of books on tape, having never been able to afford a textbook on tape, given that I am not officially blind, nobody was going to give me one for free. Thus, Kindle puts a lot of books into the hands of a lot of people that wouldn't have them otherwise.

What Amazon needs to consider are the needs of people who are not blind. I have noticed a great many people like to listen to stories while commuting, while working out, while riding the bus to school, sitting in doctor's office, and so forth. There are vastly more bored people in the world than there are print-impaired people, so making a Kindle that appeals to them will guarantee commercial success. However, bored people will not put up with a funky mechanical voice that can't even read a chapter heading correctly, does haven't a color display, and is a pain in a net to use for music or surfing.

I'm afraid that the iPad is going to beat the Kindle here, except that, there's precious few books available for the iPad and you can't even shop the iBookstore without one and the iPad is too damned expensive. Somebody will come along and make a device that marries the best of both and put them both out of business. That device will be marketed to bored people who want to take their entertainment with them and it will show movies and stuff as well as reading books and surfing the web. It will incidentally be useful to print-impaired people. Sadly, it's not coming to market any time soon.


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