By Sean Carroll | June 24, 2009 8:29 pm

So I broke down and bought a Kindle. As usual, I tend to be open to trying new technologies, but don’t like being at the bleeding edge (where people get hurt). There’s no doubt that electronic reading devices have a long way to go, but there’s also little doubt that they’re the wave of the future, or at least a sizable part of it. And the technology seems to have reached a point where Kindle editions of books are a non-trivial part of the market. My own decision to get one was definitely influenced by the number of queries I received about whether my own book would have a Kindle edition. (Answer: yes.)

And now it’s arrived! So the question is: what’s the first book I should buy? An obvious choice would be Infinite Jest, as the Infinite Summer project is underway and (as I have learned) toting a thousand-page book around on a cross-country flight is less than perfectly convenient. But, of course, I already own that book. And, as Matthew Yglesias points out, you don’t want to buy Kindle versions of impressive books that you can prominently display to buff up your credentials as a person of culture. And the worst would be to display a giant, impressive book on your shelves, but one that was clearly unread and in pristine condition, even though you really did read it, only you read it on your Kindle. Worst of all possible worlds.

The idea, then, is to find a good book that I haven’t yet read, but not one that is too good — not good enough that I’d rather have the dead-tree edition. Any suggestions?

  • court jester

    Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity

  • yj

    is it a Kindle DX ? Or a standard Kindle ? How well does it display PDFs from arXiv ?
    I’m interested in getting one not for reading books, but to stop printing out tons of papers…

  • Fill

    This sounds like One Hundred Years of Solitude territory all the way.

  • Kacee

    Anathem by Neal Stephenson. Big heavy book that would be nice not to lug around, but worth a read.

  • boreds
  • Proportion Wheel

    Underworld, by Don DeLillo. Bulky enough, and underrated.

  • Wanderfowl

    My suggestion: Don’t buy anything. Go to Project Gutenberg or (who uses Gutenberg content) and download any of the thousands of great classics available there, in the public domain, for free. Just download the .txt version, copy to the Kindle, and read without DRM concerns and without spending a dime. “The Count of Monte Cristo” is a very good book that I downloaded from there a while back.

    YJ: I’ve got the DX, PDF support works great for papers.

  • Rakiah

    Blindsight by peter watts

  • George Musser

    One thing that has put me off the Kindle is the screen flicker when changing pages. Is it something you get used to?

  • Supernova

    Possession, by A.S. Byatt. Long, dense, engrossing academic mystery/love story told partly in poems, letters, scholarly articles, and other documents. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is similar and similarly enjoyable, only with vampires instead of Victorian poets.

  • Geoff Arnold

    (1) The flicker? Yes, you get used to it – in fact it fades into insignificance very quickly. (After all, when you turn a paper page there’s a “flicker” as the luminance changes for a moment, but we don’t notice that.

    (2) First book? I agree with “Anathem”: excellent on the Kindle. At some point, you should visit the Kindle books store at Amazon, pick a category – science, or history, or poetry – and sort the results on “Price, low to high”. There’s a ton of fascinating stuff there. I grabbed the complete works of Milton and “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, each of which would be several volumes in paper.

    I’ve been a Kindle user since day 1, and upgraded to a Kindle 2 as soon as it became available. For me, the greatest feature is the ability to download a sample of a book at a moment’s notice. I was watching Colbert on TV last night, and he was interviewing Simon Schama the historian. Before the interview was over, I had a sample of Schama’s new book on my Kindle.

    I’m about to head off for two weeks in Shenzhen, China. Long flights, not a lot to do except work (and I don’t speak Chinese – yet). I’m loading up my Kindle with stuff to catch up on.

  • Kevin Schnitzius

    Terry Pratchett. Discworld. There’s something really impressive about an author who’ll use a whole chapter to set up a good pun. Plus, there are enough Discworld books for several trips to China.

  • jondiced

    If it’s a bad choice for books you want to prominently display, then perhaps this means it is best suited for books you DON’T want anyone to know you are reading.

  • Bryan

    The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

  • p

    I enjoyed Watership Down or This Perfect Day very much.

    First by Richard Adam the second by Ira Levin.

    Or perhaps something more in your interest, a proper account of religious thought – beelzebub’s tales to his grandson by Gurdjieff.

  • Peter Coles

    I always wanted to buy a collection of those cardboard pretend-books that you find on shelves in furniture shops, but I couldn’t find them so I had to buy real ones instead.

  • Mike Haubrich, FCD

    Tom Robbins’ “Jitterbug Perfume.”

  • QUQ

    Given your last post, I’d suggest “Fingerprints of God” by Barbara Bradley Hagerty (2009). Though it was perhaps not her intent, she presents a compelling case for the idea that much of what we experience as mystical/spiritual is simply the result of a shift in the ratios of certain types of brain activity. Good book for making you further question the nature of reality.

    And I can see where you, Sean, might not want it sitting on your bookshelf. 😉

  • Jake Coughlin

    It took me about 3 weeks to adjust to my Kindle 2 from books. The first week I was hyper-aware that “I”M READING ON A KINDLE”. The second week I just wasn’t getting lost in the reading. The third week I made the decision to purchase a Kindle edition of a book that I’ve read before and really enjoyed reading. Then I actually felt the spark.

    So, (a) give it some time and don’t be disappointed if you’re not an instant convert and (b) pick something that you’ve read before and enjoyed it enough to read it again.

  • Ben Finney

    Use the Kindle device, or any other ebook reader, as a reader of DRM-free ebooks. (The works from Project Gutenberg as suggested earlier are a good source.) Unfortunately, that doesn’t include ebooks from Amazon, which are restricted by Kindle-enforced DRM.

    I encourage you to read the article The Future of Reading, illustrating how Amazon go to significant lengths to make their ebooks far more restrictive than real books; and the Kindle is a willing tool of applying these restrictions to you.

  • Eric

    Harry Potter… obviously

  • JaspervH

    Incandescence by Greg Egan.
    The book is based on the idea that the theory of general relativity could be discovered by a pre-industrial civilisation.

  • weichi

    I like the Count of Monte Cristo suggestion.

    Another option – A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. Big, very entertaining, very good, but probably not enough cache to make it worth keeping on your shelf.

  • greg

    If you are a fan of fantasy literature, and if it is available, I recommend Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind

  • rob

    The Kindle reminds me too much of the ipod. A major corporation sees a market that hasn’t been exploited, so they seize the opportunity to buy a monopoly over that exploitation, in part by using digital rights management to their advantage.

    The DX appears to do most of what I need (I’ve mostly just been waiting for PDF support), but I’m gonna hold out for that Plastic Logic reader.

  • sarah

    “Kiln People” a really enjoyable novel by David Brin. Perfect because it’s no longer being published (so you can’t buy it new from Amazon anyhow) but is available as a Kindle edition for $10.

  • Aron Sora

    The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space

  • Phillip Helbig

    “I always wanted to buy a collection of those cardboard pretend-books that you find on shelves in furniture shops, but I couldn’t find them so I had to buy real ones instead.”

    I was at IKEA last Saturday, in Frankfurt am Main in Germany, and there were hundreds of
    what appeared to be dummy books in the bookshelves, with blank covers. Upon opening them
    up, however, I saw that they were real books, in Swedish, mostly classics.

  • Dr William Dyer

    I have long been a fan of Robert Anton Wilson’s books. They are fun books to me given how much information and symbolism he packs into his stories. While being a fan and somewhat an emulator of the likes of James Joyce in style, Wilson can wander into a type of thinking akin to the likes of Deepak Chopra occasionally. That aside, overall I really enjoy the twists and turns of his books and to that end I would recommend 4 of my favorites:

    The Illuminatus! Trilogy
    Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy
    Prometheus Rising
    Quantum Psychology

  • Joshua Zelinsky

    I’ve recently borrowed a Kindle and found it excellent. One good book that was recently Kindled is Naomi Novik’s “His Majesty’s Dragon.”

  • Sean

    I went with Julian Baggini, What’s It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life. Then a couple of freebies: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Three Musketeers. But there are some good suggestions in this thread that I’ll definitely be re-visiting.

  • Blake Stacey

    Kiln People and Jitterbug Perfume and Incandescence are all worth reading, I’d say. (Stop preemptively plagiarizing my recommendations, people!)

    If I were an arrogant self-promoter, or even if I had a smidgen of entrepreneurial spirit, I would consider this the perfect time to finish converting my science-fiction novel to a Kindle-friendly format and then boost it heavily. However, whatever drive I have, the evil of Amazon’s software is stronger. I tried using the converter provided on their website to turn a PDF into something natively Kindle, and the result was horrendous. It didn’t just strip out all the formatting, it managed to add bad formatting of its own. I think there’s a way to get decent output by going from LaTeX through HTML and thence to the Kindle, but I haven’t gotten it to work yet.

    PDF support is very important for those of us who wander the arXivoverse more than the real world.

  • RantingNerd

    Little, Big, by John Crowley. Another fabulous big book, but one that very few people would recognize on your shelf, so it wouldn’t give you any cool points. The only downside might be if the chapter- and section-headings aren’t properly reproduced in their faux-Victorian-scrollwork glory.

  • Brian

    PDF support is great – and the Kindle DX is quite good for reading arxiv papers, etc.

    Big warning: right now, the Kindle software DOES NOT SUPPORT FOLDERS. So if you want to keep a selection of papers on your kindle for reference, get used to scrolling. This is something I hadn’t seen mentioned, possibly because it doesn’t bother you until you have 50 papers lying around.

    As for books, I’d recommend Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson. Unfortunately Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose isn’t available on Kindle – I suspect the instant dictionary feature might be handy.

  • citrine

    I for one, DON’T want people (other than literally a handful of friends/ family) looking at what I read. The reason? I don’t want to see the flicker of judgment on their faces which boils down to one of the following
    (a) Trying to show off how smart you are, heh?
    (b) I can’t BELIEVE you read that crap.

    I think the Kindle is a great idea for the bookshelves of souls like me who just want to be left in peace re. our choice of reading material (unless we get caught “in the act”).

  • Jared

    Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland – amazingly enjoyable read, but I doubt you’d impress many literati with it :-)

  • Blake Stacey

    PDF support is great – and the Kindle DX is quite good for reading arxiv papers, etc.

    Interesting. I might have to look into getting a DX of my own. . . .

    Big warning: right now, the Kindle software DOES NOT SUPPORT FOLDERS. So if you want to keep a selection of papers on your kindle for reference, get used to scrolling. This is something I hadn’t seen mentioned, possibly because it doesn’t bother you until you have 50 papers lying around.

    $ cd Private/papers
    $ ls -1R | wc -l

    Or not.

  • Mark J. McPherson

    Another vote for starting with a survey of the books available on Project Gutenberg, and there pick a lesser-known work by a master that you don’t see in the bookstores and wouldn’t be likely to pay for the “gamble”. Try some Wodehouse. After a few books down in Kindle, your enthusiasm for traditional books may actually cool. After a few months, I found myself wishing that I could convert many of my old print favorites to Kindle to re-read them.

  • doublechateau

    While I like Proportion Wheel’s suggestion, “Underworld,” I will nominate a book by one of my favorite authors, Mark Helprin. “A Soldier of the Great War.” Fantastic book. And large. Or another large tome, Pynchon’s latest, “Against the Day.”

  • Matt B

    Charlie Wilson’s War. Some of the best nonfiction ever. Great, great, great read. Or anything by neil stephenson.

  • Mary C

    Roberto Bolano — 2666

  • yj

    Mmm… Engadget’s review of the DX was pretty scathing,
    but judging on the opinions here I might reconsider getting one…
    Having no folder support is unfortunate. I was thinking of putting hundreds of pdfs in it, but that sounds impractical now.

  • chemicalscum

    Bezos is a Bozo. They build Kindle on a unixlike (Linux) operating system and then they refuse to support folders, Duh?

  • Ann Nelson

    You can download a bunch of books for free, ranging from classics to crime thrillers. You can go to Amazon and search for the tag “kindle freebie” .

    But I probably should not recommend books to you, as you definitely should not recommend books to me. Once you recommended a reading list on CV and I tried one. I read “the Wasp Factory”. Ick. A book that I strongly wish I had never read.

    The DX would be good for reading physics papers, except that
    still missing is the ability to annotate .pdf. If you don’t mark papers while you read it would work.

    Also missing: the ability to substitute a foreign language dictionary for the usual one, else this would be ideal for foreign language reading.

  • syzygy

    The part of the Dune series written by Frank Herbert.

    An encyclopedia would be nice. I think it’ll be useful to have a source you can constantly check if you want to look up facts and don’t have wireless on your phone.

    If you’re into traveling a foreign dictionary would be useful too

  • Greg Laden

    I totally love/hate my kindle.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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