Kobo Mini (product, not a book)

Posted: November 3, 2014 in Uncategorized
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It always irritates me when I read reviews online for new products. How can you tell how durable something is if you’ve only had it for a week? [I also don’t like it when people review books they haven’t read. “I can’t wait to read this book! I love everything Jasper Fforde writes, so this will be amazing!” and amazon has five stars for it. As if professional fiction writers never have off days.] So, I’ve owned my Kobo Mini for over a year, and I finally feel somewhat qualified to write a review.

I really like it. I wanted an e-reader that wouldn’t strain my eyes; I’ve read a few books on Kindle for PC and Project Gutenberg, and they make my face hurt. So, all the colored readers were out because they use the same LCD screen as my computer. I also wanted something that is as close to reading a book as possible, so I skipped any of those that light up or have any other extras. The Kobo Mini is not the only one to use e-ink and not have any frills, but my local shop was having a sale, so of course I got it. Forty bucks? Awesome.

Here’s how it works. There’s the reader itself, which is small enough to fit in a standard men’s dress shirt pocket. If I’m wearing a shirt without pockets, it also fits in the back pocket of my jeans. When I bought it, I plugged it into my computer and downloaded the accompanying software, so when I plug it in to charge, I can use my computer to manage the books on the device. I can also read books on the computer with this program, but as I mentioned, I’m not into that. I can go to the Kobo site, or my local bookseller’s, and buy whatever books I like, and then upload them to the device. I can also buy books on the reader directly, so long as I have a wifi connection. Every time I buy a book, the local shop gets a cut, so no matter where I am in the world, I can support the local economy of the place I love.

The Kobo people send me emails every few days, letting me know about upcoming sales, offering me coupons, and recommending books to me based on my shopping patterns. Sometimes their recommendations make sense, sometimes not. They keep trying to sell me magazines. I don’t read magazines. The sales items seem to mirror those of physical bookstores, which doesn’t make any sense to me. Stores have sales because they need to move a specific product; online, I don’t see the same need. Does it matter to Kobo which books I buy, so long as I’m spending money with them? It’s not like they have three thousand copies of the latest Grisham staring at them from the display shelf. I’m pretty sure that when I buy an e-book, they just copy the file to my device, so they only have one copy of each book sitting on a hard drive somewhere. Nevertheless, they have sales on former bestsellers that aren’t selling well any more, and other novels that aren’t quite as popular as they’d like to be. When I get a coupon, it can only be used on a specific list of books, which means that even when they send me the “You haven’t bought anything in a couple of months, so take 30% off your next order” coupon, I can only use it on books that I don’t really want anyway. Also, when a coupon says “unlimited,” this only means that you can buy as many books off the approved list as you want, not that you can use it on any book you like. Some sales are only available in certain countries. I’ve kept my credit card billing address in the United States, so I can buy books that aren’t typically available in this happy-to-censor country, but sometimes I can’t access the sales because Big Brother not only watches, but blocks. [That billing address trick also works for amazon.com, which also has region-specific items.]

The reading experience is mostly good. I tap the screen on the right side and it flips forward, I tap it on the left and it flips back. In the middle takes me to the menu. If an insect lands on your screen, it can turn the pages whether you’re ready for them to or not. I once had a fly flip me back five pages very quickly. I tend to hold the device in my left hand so I can turn pages with the fingers that curl around on the right side. I guess I’m too lazy to read a book with two hands if I can do it with one. However, if you always hold the book in the same position and always tap in exactly the same spot, after a year and a half that spot will lose its sensitivity, just like the mouse touchpad on a laptop, so it’s a good idea to tap in different places on the right side of the screen. When I read a book, I seldom begin at the beginning and read straight through. I often flip around, like when Anton Mallick told me about one of the tragic events of his life, I had been reading several months of his life and I wanted to check how close the event was to the beginning of his journal, so I went to the Table of Contents in the menu screen, and jumped straight back to the first page. To get back to the page I was reading was a little more cumbersome. I went to the appropriate chapter, but some books are only split into two or three really long chapters instead of following the author’s divisions, so there’s a slider at the bottom that allows you to move to specific pages. If there are over seven hundred screens in a chapter, and you have fat fingers, it can be hard to locate the exact page you want. This became a big issue when I was reading Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, because only about 40% of the book is regular text and the rest is notes and references. He didn’t footnote the notes so as not to clutter the text – in some e-books (Foucault’s Care of the Self) you can touch a footnote number and the note will appear in a pop-up. With Solomon’s book, I found the notes after I had read the text, but if I had had the physical book I would have read it flipping back and forth the whole time, and enjoyed it more. But most of what I read is fiction without footnotes, so it’s not a common problem for me.

Because I’m using a black-and-white reader, the pictures are not always what I’d like. Again, not a common problem, but the art is an important part of reading Christopher Moore’s Sacré Bleu, and I also have the digital gallery of Fuseli paintings (only three bucks, and it updates continuously). The good news for pictures is that you can zoom in pretty far without getting a pixellated mass of weird – the image files are more detailed than you might think at a first glance. If I read the magazines the Kobo people keep trying to convince me to subscribe to, this would be a bigger deal.

I find that my reading habits on the Kobo are drastically different than my reading habits in the real world. I’m not a member of any libraries at the moment (you have to renew your card from time to time, and you have to live in the place to check books out of a public library), so I usually read books that I buy. I go to used classics mostly – I got a couple of degrees in literature because I like the old stuff – but occasionally I’ll look at a more recent writer, if I have an emotional response to the book. I really love that moment of discovery, when I pick a book from the shelf and read the back, and an energy communicates itself from my hand to my heart, and I know that this book is mine. I miss that when I shop online; there’s no serendipity in it. However, reading on the Kobo, my reading tends to fall into three categories:

Books that are too big. With physical books, it’s a bit of a production, when you get in line at the grocery store, to pull out your one-volume edition of The Complete Novels of Thomas Hardy. With the e-reader, it’s a cinch. Enormous anthologies like this are supercheap, and would be far too cumbersome in the real world. Besides, there’s something very satisfying about the word Complete. The only drawback is that, when dealing with a book this big, the electronic table of contents becomes increasingly unreliable as you progress. It really is better to begin at the beginning and read straight through.

Books that I don’t want on my shelf in the living room. When I get lonely, erotic stories can be comforting. I don’t mean the specific lack-of-romantic-partner lonely, but any sort of lonely. I know that they’re all fantasies, seldom realistic, but it does tell me that there are people out there who want what I want, even if they’re as clueless as I am about how to get it. The less realistic the situation, the more like me I feel the author is. The e-reader has really contributed to this type of reading for me, because I don’t want guests in my home staring at them. I’m not ashamed of my attraction to other men or my interest in this kind of book, but I get a little shy about the details. However, the stories are sometimes as poorly edited as the ones you see online, and nothing kills an English teacher’s erection like bad spelling and grammar in a published text. One book I had to erase because the author had no idea that discreet and discrete have different meanings.

Books that have been written less than forty years ago. One of the reasons I seldom read what people are writing now is that I don’t take the time to sift through what’s good and what’s bad. The Kobo doesn’t do this for me, but by sticking contemporary stuff in my face all the time, they wear down my defenses. They are a bookseller, after all, which means they rely on people buying books frequently, and the best way to accomplish that is to foster a taste in new books. It’s not something that comes naturally to me, but there have been some really fine books that I would not have attempted otherwise, like Antón Mallick Wants to be Happy (Nicolás Casariego), When God was a Rabbit (Sarah Winman), The Book Thief (Markus Zusak), and Lexicon (Max Barry).

I had an experience this week that really solidified the bond between me and my Kobo. After more than a year of smooth operation, it crashed. The entire screen was completely nonresponsive, and the power switch also failed to yield results. I tried plugging it into my computer, to see if the attempt at communication would jog it into proper function, but no such luck. It doesn’t take power to maintain an image on the screen, so I knew that leaving it on until it ran out of battery would be useless, so I did some surgery. I popped the back off – the grey backing snaps off if you run a fingernail around the edge, and there are six tiny screws underneath, of the size that you only see on computer equipment or eyeglasses. There’s a reset button too, and I tried pushing that with no result. So I pulled out the screws and looked at the motherboard. I saw the memory card, the same kind of micro SD that I use in my phone. I pulled it out and put it back in, but with no effect. The battery is the big silver thing close to the top – it’s wrapped in plastic and soldered in place. You can’t pull it off. So I found the place where the wire from the battery hooks into the board, and very gently separated the connection. Nothing happened. When I reconnected the battery, also very gently, the device rebooted. It was great. I’m not sure if that invalidates my warranty, but I’m also not sure how they go about replacing a dead battery. It’s stuck on there pretty good. When I think of my experience with other electronics, one crash in a year is actually not bad at all. And now that I’ve dug into the inner workings, the intimacy between me and the reader feels more complete.

I’ve tried to give an even-handed description of the Kobo Mini, with both strengths and limitations. In case it hasn’t been clear, the limitations are such as can be ignored or overcome, and the strengths are precisely what I want in an e-reader. If anything bad ever happens to it, I’ll buy another one just like it.

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