Kindle Doesn’t Quite Work for Non-Fiction

Felix Salmon writes

I’ve come to the clear conclusion that it simply isn’t suited for reading the vast majority of non-fiction. You might not even notice it when you’re doing it, but when you read a non-fiction work like this one, you tend to flick backwards and forwards a lot, skim past the bits you already know about, re-read earlier passages in light of later ones, that sort of thing. And that’s prohibitively difficult with the kindle, which is designed primarily for reading narratives where you start at the beginning and make your way steadily to the end. Truly narrative non-fiction a la Krakauer is fine, but “learn about the crisis” nonfiction just doesn’t lend itself to being read on the kindle at any price. If you’re the kind of person who reads footnotes, you will get very annoyed very quickly with the kindle whenever they start appearing.

I have come to the same conclusion and have started ordering dead tree books when they are non-fiction. Any book where illustrations are important gives you a suboptimal experience on the Kindle. And as Salmon says, skipping chapters or going back and forth is just very difficult in a Kindle.

But this is not inherently a problem with an e-book. It’s just that Kindle hasn’t addressed the issues involved. One is about laying out a book specifically for the Kindle. Today it is laid out for the actual book and that is essentially sucked in for the Kindle. No doubt the variable font settings on the Kindle make this challenging, but the problem can be solved. And with color e-ink displays coming, there shouldn’t be the wide gap between the layout of non-fiction books and their e-book counterparts.

The other issue is with usability. The big question that I don’t have an answer to (but somebody does) is – can an e-ink display have touch capabilities? If it can, the Kindle reader can easily flip back and forth within a book. The experience might be different from a real book, but much better than today’s Kindle.


  1. I chalk this up to the challenges of being an early adopter. Books aren't being written with the Kindle in mind, and certainly, the Kindle is still a basic e-Book reader.

    Like you, I have found reading non-fiction very difficult to read on the Kindle, especially if it contains charts and graphics. Also, there is something to be said about flipping through books in random order and, occasionally, reading the book back to front. These can't be done on the Kindle yet- and that takes away a lot of the element of surprise and serendipity that comes with the paper-bound books.


  2. iptiam says:

    Give the developers 6 months. They'll solve all these problems.


  3. mbana says:

    Are you referring to the Kindle DX or Kindle 2? I would have thought that since Kindle DX has a larger screen this shouldn't be such an issue.

    I've always perceived this to be a problem with other ebook reader. Reading non-fiction often requires backtracking.


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