The Misadventures of a Kindle-Wielding Lawprof

So, I decided to get a Kindle this summer. I liked the idea of having lots of books in one place, not having to haul the usual load around. I liked the idea of searching a book easily, of highlighting text and copying it out (no more typing up long blockquotes!), and I was told that I could get IT to upload my exams onto it. Grading (and paper editing) at the beach! What’s not to like? I cheerfully handed over my $300 to purchase this magical new wonder. The results since have been decidedly mixed.

On the bright side, the device is light and portable. The book prices are nicely low (though I ordered a few books that I already had, since I wanted them readily available, so there was an extra cost there). And the searchability of the e-book is really, really cool. That’s almost enough reason to buy the thing, all by itself. But . . .

On the down side — there are major, massive gaps in the book catalog. I located Al Brophy’s Reparations Pro and Con and Randall Robinson’s The Debt. But Martha Minow’s Between Vengeance and Forgiveness and Roy Brooks’ Atonement and Forgiveness are not listed — and these are recent, common titles from well known presses, not obscure old treatises from eighty years ago. I put in requests for both Minow and Brooks (and many more), and crossed my fingers.

And there is a second, major, non-negotiable down side: Endnotes. As in, they don’t exist. Or rather, they exist, but I can’t access them from the text. I called customer service, and was told that I need to click up to the note, and then highlight it, or before it, or after it, or down. I’ve tried all of those, multiple times. I’m getting nothing.

The cheerful customer service rep told me that some books don’t have endnotes coded in by the publisher, and so endnotes don’t work as links (In other words — my words, not hers — they are essentially useless for those books.) But she assured me that this was relatively unusual. (I asked whether I could tell when buying a book if the endnotes are functional; she said no.)

I’ve bought three books with endnotes, and so far not a one of them is letting me access them from text. Either I have the worst luck in the world (a possibility) in stumbling on those rare uncoded-note books; or I’m just not doing it right (also a definite possibility, though I’ve clicked every combination I can think of); or the lack of coded notes problem is a lot bigger than the cheerful customer service rep knows about (I would test the theory more, but I’m not going to spend money on more endnoted books without some assurance that I will be able to access them).

(Update: Scratch that. I figured the problem out. I went ahead and bought Infinite Jest after double checking Matt Yglesias’s post about it, how it had definitely-working endnotes. And it turns out that the endnotes in it are different. They are obvious hyperlinks, and they obviously, easily work. So yes, I bought three non-coded books in a row — all heavily endnoted academic books. Recall that there is apparently no way to tell, ahead of time, whether a book’s endnotes will actually work on Kindle. I’ve been told the only solution is to beg the publisher to create a new Kindle version that has working endnotes. That doesn’t sound too promising, but I’ve done it for the titles that I have.)

So it’s a pretty, searchable, expensive device that doesn’t have all the books I want, and doesn’t let me see the endnotes in the books it has. That’s not really a winner in my — err, book.

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5 Responses

  1. Jay Baller says:

    Outside of the performance of the Kindle, as a law professor surely this should interest you re. the Kindle.

  2. Frank Pasquale says:

    Very interesting cautionary tale.

    You mention “highlighting text and copying it out (no more typing up long blockquotes).” Have you been able to do that? Simon & Schuster’s Adobe e-reader would not let me copy a word from a book I bought from them.

  3. That is one thing which is working well, yes. I only have a small number of books I ended up downloading (because I can’t tell when the notes will be accessible) but the highlighted portions show up very nicely at the Amazon page.

    Other things which are working very well:

    -It reads Word docs nicely. I sent a law review article to it, and I’m able to read the document, search it, and so on. The notes work, too, as long as they’re properly set up as links in Word (which Westlaw does when you save as a Word doc.) Putting docs onto it is free if I do it via USB, or very cheap if I use Amazon wireless. (15 cents per MB — very cheap.)

    -It lets me download the book text onto my computer an an e-book! But — it’s in a wonky proprietary DRM format (a .tpz file) which I haven’t been able to get to open. I’m not quite sure what program opens a TPZ; whatever it is, I don’t have it.

    If I get this feature really working well, having an e-book version of books on my PC (copyable, I hope) will be really nice. This alone could be worth the price.

    -It also has a nice catalog of free public-domain books. I know they’re free elsewhere and not hard to find. Still, it’s nice to be able to load up Heart of Darkness and Pride and Prejudice and The Scarlet Letter — I am definitely taking this with me next time I go to the doctor’s office.

    So, yeah. In my mind, it is exactly two (major) steps away (or maybe two and a half) from being an amazingly useful little gadget. As it is, I keep vacillating between amazed and frustrated.

  4. Craig Martin says:

    This is a helpful thread, thank you.

    I do not yet have a Kindle, but have been researching it and other devices. I spent a long time talking to Amazon’s customer service reps.

    It seems to me that two more huge downsides to the Kindle are that you cannot mark up pdf files that are not OCRd. So while Lexis or Westlaw files in pdf format are fine, scanned materials cannot be marked up, highlighted or otherwise worked with. They are read only.

    The second problem is the one adverted to above, which is that you cannot store your read and marked-up books/documents on your computer. For copyright protection purposes, you are limited to working with your Kindle books on the Kindle, or an iPhone. Combine these two issues, and you are stuck with some marked-up pdfs on your computer, some marked up books on your Kindle, and no way to integrate all your work in one place.

    The Illiad from iRex looks to have solved this problem, but it is considerably pricer, and hard to get your hands on to try out before making the commitment.

  5. Ray Campbell says:

    For me, one key benefit of the Kindle is that it will read documents to you (not PDFs, but Word, RTF or native Kindle format). I have a longish commute, and listening the Kindle gives me a chance to become familiar with law review articles and books that I otherwise might not get around to. It’s no substitute for a close reading, but it is a great way to do a first read of something that might or might not merit further attention. The voice quality is not that bad – there’s a definite computerland accent, but nothing like the text to speech software of years past.