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Stephen King test-drives the Amazon Kindle

The new Kindle from Amazon.com won’t replace books, says Uncle Stevie. But a good story’s bound to be compelling no matter how it’s ingested

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Stephen King test-drives the Amazon Kindle

What did I do during the holidays? Read a good book, of course. It was called In Pale Battalions, by Robert Goddard. Goddard’s British, and his tales of suspense and mystery have recently been reissued in America. I’d never read him. Now I’m glad I did. Set mostly during World War I (but with a leisurely framework that allows the story to stretch comfortably all the way to 1968), In Pale Battalions is a story of sex, secrets, and murder — all the good stuff, in other words. What makes it especially riveting is the malevolent demon-woman at the novel’s center: Olivia Powerstock’s greatest talent is making those around her suffer. And Goddard is clever, giving the reader not just one solution to what happened at drafty ole Meongate Manor, but three — each fuller and more satisfying than the last.

A book to remember, in other words, but one I’ll remember another way: as the first book I read on my new Kindle.

Most of you will already know what that is, but for those of you who have been living in a barn, your Uncle Stevie will now elucidate. It’s a gadget available from Amazon.com. The advance publicity says it looks like a paperback book, but it really doesn’t. It’s a panel of white plastic with a screen in the middle and one of those annoying teeny-tiny keyboards most suited to the fingers of Keebler elves. Full disclosure: I have not yet used the teeny-tiny keyboard, and really see no need for it. Keyboards are for writing. The Kindle is for reading.

There are two controls on the back. One is the on/off switch (duh). The other turns on a wireless connection called Whispernet. With this you can download books directly from the electronic ether, where even now a million books are flying overhead, like paper angels without the paper, if you know what I mean. The catch: For now, you can only order the ones at the Amazon-run Kindle Store. The advantage: It’s cheaper than your local big-box store, with $9.99 as the price for many new releases. But a book is a book, right?

Or is it? One of my writer friends expressed strong reservations. Although raised on TV and weaned on the Internet, this talented young man made a strong argument for books as books: beautiful objects that take up real space in our lives. ”Books do furnish a room,” people used to say when I was a kid, and I know what my talented young writer friend means. Covers, for instance. The Robert Goddard reissues have beauties. In Pale Battalions features vivid red poppies, those emblematic flowers of World War I, against a field of green. The ”cover” of the Kindle version is a flat statement of title and author. Borr-ing. On many Kindle books the cover art is reproduced…but in tepid black and white.

NEXT PAGE: ”Then the story simply swallowed me…I wasn’t thinking about my Kindle anymore”

I’ve argued all my life that the story means more than the delivery systems involved (and that includes the writer). I have never been able to understand the prejudice some people seem to feel about recorded books, for instance. Not only are good stories better when they are told out loud; bad stories declare themselves almost at once, because the spoken word is merciless. You cannot, for instance, listen to one of the later Patricia Cornwell novels without realizing how little feel she has for language, or to a Sue Grafton without appreciating her divine eye for the minutiae of ordinary life.

The Kindle isn’t as gratifying as a good book narrated by a great reader…but for what it is, it’s just fine. It’s light, holds its charge, is simple to operate. And for a fellow of my years (a less-than-generous reader recently referred to me in his blog as ”that elderly douchenozzle”), the Kindle has one great feature: You can adjust the typeface. In the printed version of In Pale Battalions, the type is readable but small; after an hour or so, I’d be maxed out. At its highest Kindle magnification, though, the narrative looks twice as big as this, and I can breeze along for twice that length of time, my finger stuttering on the NEXT PAGE button. It’s a boon that makes up for having to charge the gadget at night…which I never had to do with a novel until this one.

Will Kindles replace books? No. And not just because books furnish a room, either. There’s a permanence to books that underlines the importance of the ideas and the stories we find inside them; books solidify an otherwise fragile medium.

But can a Kindle enrich any reader’s life? My own experience — so far limited to 1.5 books, I’ll admit — suggests that it can. For a while I was very aware that I was looking at a screen and bopping a button instead of turning pages. Then the story simply swallowed me, as the good ones always do. I wasn’t thinking about my Kindle anymore; I was rooting for someone to stop the evil Lady Powerstock. It became about the message instead of the medium, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

And did I mention that you can also look up definitions of words that puzzle you as you read? My definition of Kindle: a gadget with stories hiding inside it. What’s wrong with that?