Essay

A Podcaster’s Passion for Ebooks

Len Edgerly, who has championed ebooks in his Kindle Chronicles podcast every Friday for six years, discusses his labor of love.

A Podcaster’s Passion for Ebooks

I have always loved books—and gadgets.

That’s why I eagerly bought a RocketBook in 1998. It could hold 10 books. Imagine that! I thought the Ebook Revolution had arrived.

When the RocketBook was discontinued in 2003 I felt disappointed and a bit silly, but I got over it. I ordered an original Amazon Kindle shortly after its release in November, 2007.

That first Kindle was something only a bookish gadget lover could love. The back cover liked to fall off, and you rebooted the thing by sticking a paper clip into a little hole. But you could buy and download a book without connecting to your computer. The tech magic was made possible by free wireless service.

In the summer of 2008, I decided to create a weekly podcast named The Kindle Chronicles. I wanted to talk about Amazon’s ereader and the Ebook Revolution every week with people involved in the story.

Early Kindle adopters were an evangelizing force in those days. We would agree to meet strangers at coffee shops to give free demos, because that was the only way someone could try a Kindle before ordering online.

My first interview guest was comedian and new-media guru Baratunde Thurston, who presciently wondered when social reading would become widespread on ereaders. The answer six years later: not yet.

One of my favorite interviews took place this year with the poet John Ashbery on the occasion of new ebook versions of his work published by Open Road Media. The renowned poet had never read on a Kindle, but he enjoyed hearing what his poems look like on one. As he recited “Runaway” from his Chinese Whispers collection, I thought to myself, “John Ashbery is reading a poem to me over the phone. I will never forget this moment.”

My wife, Darlene, who reads voraciously on her Kindle Paperwhite, has been a popular guest on the show, because of her gentle mocking of my fascination with the details of ereader technology. Sharing highlights on Twitter? She’s not interested. Same for highlighting, notes, X-Ray, or Vocabulary Builder. She just loves to read mysteries on her Kindle. Next question.

I also interviewed my 8-year-old grandson, James, who earnestly proclaimed the Kindle’s benefits. For Christmas, I had used a photo of James to create a custom cover for his Kindle. In our interview, he leaned toward the Blue Snowball microphone and told listeners: “You can take a photo and put it on the Kindle of yourself. You would never get to do that to a book, probably!”

A less enthusiastic guest was New Yorker writer George Packer, whose anti-Amazon piece titled “Cheap Words” led to the most contentious conversation I’ve had on the show. The guest I had the most difficulty understanding was Marshall McLuhan’s son, Eric, a deep media thinker in his own right.

Kindle Chronicles listeners are as crazy about ebooks and the Kindle as I am. They buy more books and read more, with more pleasure, than they did in the old days. They suggest story ideas and interview prospects. I have met some of my listeners in person, over coffee while traveling, and a good number have become regular email buddies.

Troops with Kindles

For some readers, the Kindle has been much more than an added convenience. For example, a Soldier about to deploy to Afghanistan told me on Facebook that ereaders have special benefits for Troops on active duty.

A service member can carry his or her library on deployments, a source of renewal and inspiration during times of waiting for something to happen. A Kindle fits in the cargo pocket of a uniform. With help from listener Ken Clark, I co-founded a nonprofit organization, E-Books for Troops. In four years, before concluding the project early this year, we delivered 1,000 Kindles to U.S. Troops deployed overseas.

Another group I learned about comprises book lovers who can’t read print books because of reading disabilities. Dyslexia is one such condition. A Harvard professor I interviewed had never read an entire book until he happened to try reading a book on an iPhone. The smaller screen enabled him to maintain his attention long enough to finish a sentence, then a chapter, then an entire book.

In my own case, I love how the words of an author seem closer to me on a Kindle, especially when I am reading on an eInk model like the Paperwhite or Voyage. There are fewer words visible at a time, compared with a print book. I can set the font at exactly the size that suits me. I read more, and I read more widely than I ever did before.

I also love how I can jump among different books on my Kindle. The ereader technology allows me to create uber books comprising all my favorite authors. On any given night, reading in bed, I might start with Sherlock Holmes, shift to Passionate Marriage or Flash Boys, and finish with Vital Signs. In the fluidity of my mind’s leaps, the progressions seem natural, enlightening, and fun.

In doing the show every week and regularly sharing my enthusiasm for the Kindle and the company that created it, I have developed a rewarding relationship with Amazon. They don’t pay me any money, except for the Amazon Associates commissions that any blogger can earn by sending readers to links at Amazon.com. But I’ve been granted interviews with Amazon executives up and down the organization chart, and I receive invitations to media events announcing new products.

Jeff Bezos and Len Edgerly

Photo: Jeff Bezos and Len Edgerly

Several weeks before the fourth anniversary of the show, I received an email inviting me to travel to Seattle for an interview with Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO. I sat down with him for 18 minutes in a conference room on the company’s nondescript campus.

As I adjusted the levels on my portable recorder he said, “Usually my laugh eventually blows out the microphone, so hopefully you’re set up for that.”

I’ve been an unofficial missionary for the Kindle and Amazon these past six years, because of my own mix of longstanding passions as a reader and a lover of new technology. The unassuming man I spoke with in Seattle told me he, too, has been a lifelong reader. He’s also married to an author, and he started his company selling books.

“It turns out Kindle is a really easy product to attract missionaries,” Bezos said, “because a lot of people care about reading. A lot of people care about inventing the future of reading. And so it’s super-easy for me personally and for our whole team to be passionate missionaries about Kindle.”

That’s what this comes down to in the end: a love of reading. How the words get from the author’s mind to the mind of a reader has changed throughout human history. I love having a front row seat at the latest chapter of the story.

Listen to episodes of The Kindle Chronicles at thekindlechronicles.com. Subscribe to the podcast at itunes.com.

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