Some thoughts about reading, writing, and Kindles…

“Most of us read novels most intensely at two stages of life. First in early adolescence – when one lives with one’s nose in a book. Secondly in late life, when one has time to “get round” to the books one has always promised oneself.”

Or so John Sutherland at the Guardian fondly believes.  You might spot a much shorter version of this post as a comment from me broadly agreeing with that idea. I don’t – it was just for the sake of argument – the conventional novel format has never appealed to me in the slightest, and certainly not in my teens. I much prefer “genre” books – thrillers, police procedurals, s-f, fantasy, horror in the past (but mostly grown out of that – gratuitous violence, even if it is fictional, has little appeal), travel, cooking, baking, bread-making, the outdoors (those last books mostly given away now I’m housebound – they just made me miserable, harking back to a lost past), humour, birding – the list goes on.

True, I did attempt the so-called “worthy” novels I was expected to read when young, and rejected them almost totally as massively boring.  I have never subscribed to the view that having been written many years – sometimes even a century or more – earlier somehow imbues a novel with more merit than modern fiction. That’s rubbish. It just makes it older, not necessarily better, but look at any list of books that we “should” read and they will almost all be by authors long dead, as if death, too, implies merit, which it doesn’t. Utter impenetrability seems to attract kudos, too – but not from me.

I have reasonably broad tastes in literature, as a look at my bookshelves over the decades would have shown – though my current collection, down to a couple of thousand books (it topped 4,000 at one point), is mostly boxed due to lack of space.

The small bookcase alongside me as I write is, for example, home to books by Escoffier, Bill Bryson, George RR Martin (the two surviving volumes of Game of Thrones, most of which have vanished), Mrs. Beeton (in facsimile), John Sandford, Elizabeth David, Mike Harding, Rachel Carson, John Grisham, Prosper Montagne, Bernard Cornwell, Stephen King, Claudia Roden, Rick Stein, Simon Hopkinson, Leonard Cohen, W.B. Yeats, Sarah Brown,  Nigel Slater, T. S. Eliot, and others, plus a whole raft of books on breadmaking.

Until recently there was over a century’s worth of cook-books, but as most were rarely opened these days, and some were getting fragile, I’ve boxed those, too, and moved in more modern books that will get used. I don’t use other people’s recipes, but I do read their books for inspiration. I read cookery books the way others read, well, novels. Which is where we came in.

And in the case of books I dismissed as rubbish in my youth, most of them are now available as free ebooks to feed my flock of Kindles, which was an incentive to give them another try.

I have multiple Kindles because the battery life sucks – Amazon’s claimed 8-week life being based on just half an hour’s reading a day, which shows they have no grasp, at all, of what “reader” as in a person, really means.  And “avid reader” is probably meaningless to them.

Starting the day with a fully-charged Paperwhite 3G will see the battery flat by bedtime** (even though I spend most of my day online, not reading). At that point I’ll switch to, and sync, my Fire HD so I can continue to read in bed (insomnia ensures I’ll have plenty of time for that). The UK’s original Kindle, the Kindle 3, renamed the Kindle Keyboard, and now dumped), had a battery that lasted for days, at a time when I read much more than I do currently but, foolishly, I gave mine away. I am, though, seriously considering buying one more Kindle, the basic model with no screen light (which trashes battery life even on a low setting), as my hospital Kindle, in the hope that it will last for several days*** as the original did, and I can use my Paperwhite 3G after dark.

**Turning off wi-fi helps battery life (Amazon claim a 25% improvement but I don’t trust their figures), but it has to be turned back on before you can sync with other Kindles (if you have them). I think keen readers need at least two – I have a Paperwhite 3G for everyday use, a 7” Fire HD (a pain in the butt as it has no charging indicator), for emergency use when the Paperwhite battery dies (I might switch to my Samsung Tab3 for this purpose, as it’s much lighter – depends on the battery life), and an original Paperwhite mounted on a kitchen cupboard door which holds my recipes.

***A look at the Amazon website put paid to that idea – it has only half the battery life of the original. Amazon says “A single charge lasts up to one month with wireless off based upon a half-hour of daily reading time.” So that, presumably, translates into 15 hours use for a normal person (hey, Amazon, show me one person who reads for a mere half-hour a day, and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t need a Kindle).

In a hospital environment, then, it would last a day.

For my Paperwhite 3G they claim “A single charge lasts up to eight weeks, based on half an hour of reading per day with wireless off and the light setting at 10.”

That translates to 28 hours, which is, frankly, bollocks. Light setting 10 is what I use, but with wi-fi on, for syncing, as I said, and also for allowing updates, I don’t get a full day out of it – more like 12 hours. Probably less as I tend to fall asleep at some point, and the Kindle will turn itself off.

I will, however, as it’s currently fully charged, turn it down to 10, switch off wi-fi, and time exactly how long I get out of it. And I’m damned sure it’ll be a lot less than 28 hours.

NB: Unlike the original, there is no Turn off Wi-fi button – you have to turn ON Aeroplane Mode.

And I see that not one of the Kindles comes with a charger these days, which gets Amazon a “Cheap Bastards” award by any measure! Luckily, my original Kindle 3 did, and I still have it, but any USB-standard charger will serve. Not an iPad charger, though, unless you want your Kindle fried.

Anyway, back on topic, free or not, even though I am at that stage in my life, I’m finding that books I rejected as not worth my time 50-odd years ago still aren’t. And, of course, there is no logical reason why that should not be the case. While my tastes have changed over the years,  I’m still the same person, with much the same standards, and my Bovine Ordure Detector is still in fine working order, with the Joyce setting being particularly efficient 😉 . Bottom line – I never have liked, and never will like, the conventional novel structure. I find it boring. As there is so much in literature I don’t find at all boring, I can live with that, and I  will never be moved to read books just because some list-compiling numpty says I should.

And by the way, the idea that one reads with enthusiasm at only two stages in one’s life is a total crock. Many of us read – enthusiastically, and with a great deal of pleasure – throughout our lives. That I now do so electronically (because I’ve run out of book space), in no way diminishes that.

So what do I like? Well, the above list should provide some insight, but right now I’m trying very hard to like the King & Maxwell books of  David Baldacci (finished the first, halfway through the second), but I find him to be a terribly amateurish writer. Based on sales, I might well be in a minority – that doesn’t mean I’m wrong, just that I have high standards when it comes to what I allow into my head.

He writes “thrillers” but telegraphs up-coming plot twists incessantly. And there is far too much explication – the narrative and dialogue should provide all the information a reader needs, the author should never need to intrude by explaining what he’s writing (so badly), about.

He also commits what, for me, is a capital offence for an author – he randomly throws in polysyllabic and/or obscure words in an attempt, presumably, to display his own erudition. OK, fine, I’ve done that – hell, anyone who writes has done that at some point – but we grow out of it pretty quickly because it impresses nobody** and makes the writer look like what he, or she, is – a pompous, self-regarding, insecure pillock!

**I write to inform and, hopefully, entertain, not to impress (except with my general wonderfulness 😉 ), and regularly run my stuff through a Reading Ease assessment. This piece, for example, scores 68.2 on the Flesch-Kincaid scale, meaning it’s accessible to mid-range US high-school students and above (not sure how that compares to the UK but I doubt the difference is huge). And that’s about what I usually aim for. Sometimes the score will be a tad higher, others a little lower (polysyllabic words will jack up the score – could that be Baldacci’s motivation?**), but always in the ballpark.

**It would be odd, if so. Personally, I want to maximise my readership, not exclude people by using words they might not understand.

Baldacci is also rubbish at describing his characters (his books, by the way, have recently made it to a TV series, King & Maxwell). I’m well into the second book in the K&M series and I have no idea what either of them looks like. I know that Maxwell (a woman), has long black hair and is well-muscled (Baldacci is obsessed with describing musculature – why, I wonder, when he does it so badly?). Other than that, I have no idea what she looks like (in the TV series she’s blonde and slim). I have no impression of King (a guy), at all from the books but, as with Maxwell, the TV version feels wrong. To be fair, though, neither the readers or the screenwriters have much information to work with.

And both King and Maxwell are ex-Secret Service agents turned private detectives, yet – back with the books – seem clueless about their personal safety.

The baffling thing is that the second book topped the Sunday Times best-seller list, but the book is dire  and none of the press reviews match what I’ve read, either – yes, I know I’m more critical than most (once a teacher, always a teacher**), but, hell, it’s my money!

**An adult literacy tutor.

It’s the same with Amazon book reviews – so many are border-line illiterate I don’t know how Amazon expects them to be taken seriously.

True, one can see the potential in Baldacci’s work (which, so far as I’ve gone, isn’t realised), but I’m at a loss to understand, when there are so many fundamental errors, why his publisher hasn’t taken him firmly by the windpipe and set him straight. He has it in him, I’m sure, to be a very much better writer, so why isn’t he?

I’ll try one more book in the series. Not the next in line but the latest, to see if he’s improved. If not, I’ll call it a day.

Finally, and as regular readers will know, I readily admit I have no talent for writing fiction, which is why I don’t. However, based on the first two King & Maxwell books, I might have been selling myself short all these years!

Intriguing footnote: The later King & Maxwell Kindle books are cheaper than the early ones. I wonder why? The bubble burst, perhaps?

2 thoughts on “Some thoughts about reading, writing, and Kindles…

  1. Get some John d mcdonald (Travis mc gee series) crime noir. Mr. Stephen King recommended them to me and I reread them often. Superb fiction.

    • Did the McDonald thing years ago (recommended, I think, by Carl Hiaasen). I sometimes think authors have a reciprocal agreement to plug each other!

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