Last week was a momentous one for the avaricious consumer within me - I got hold of a 'toy' I've been lusting after for ages, yet have been denied on the unfortunate ground of geographical disadvantage.
I finally got my mitts on an Amazon Kindle which, until last Monday's release of the 'international' version, was only available to folks living in the US. For the uninitiated (heavens, where have you been?) the Kindle is an e-reader - a dedicated device that stores and displays digital, downloadable versions of regular books. Its pencil-thin 14x21cm frame can hold the equivalent of up to 1500 books - enough to keep the most voracious reader occupied for a little while.
Despite the fact that I am a compulsive gadget buyer and will surely die should I not continue to amass an ever growing collection of technically advanced yet potentially useless gewgaws, I always make some attempt to justify my purchases. Sometimes that can be quite a tortuous process resulting in a complex excuse, I mean justification, which would be quite a challenge for even the most credulous of us to accept as realistic.
This time, though, justification was an absolute doddle: the only thing I buy more of than gadgets and gizmos is books. Be they paperbacks, hardbacks, fact, fiction or fantasy I must have a ready supply of things to read around me. Work colleagues will attest to the regular deliveries from Amazon, and Mrs Grumbler will confirm that, in extremis, I will resort to reading the nutritional information panels on breakfast cereal packets if there's really nothing else to hand.
And don't ask me to part with a book once Ive bought it - dear me no. I'd rather give away the children (there is no truth in the rumour that I'd actually like to do that). So, there are, as a result, books all over Grumbler Towers - a situation which drives the good lady wife to distraction and threatens to cause friction in our otherwise happy existance. Now there's finally a gadget (and a very pretty one at that) which stores books! How fantastic is that? Even 'er indoors likes it despite the fact that I'll probably never let it out of my sight!
So what's this particular marital aid like, and will I go blind if I use it too much? Here it is, on the left. I've already quoted the size, in case you think that size is an important characteristic. It weighs about the same as, well, a book really. And the screen's a particularly nice 'electric-paper' thingy that shouldn't be (and hasn't so far been) a cause of any eye strain. In regular operation you can hold it in either hand, which is a relief if you get a tired wrist. And there's a handy text-to-speech format which is almost like someone else doing it for you. I've got to say that I absolutely love it and I just can't get enough! (Am I stretching the marital aid joke too far?)
Now, if you want one of these - and you should want one - there may be a couple of things with knowing.
At present, you have to buy it via the Amazon US website where it's advertised at $259 (it was twenty bucks more than that, but the price was reduced days after release and - get this - Amazon sent us early adopters a refund!) But then you need to add shipping - which is in the order of $20, and excise duty - another $45 for the customs men, damn their eyes! Of course, if you happen to be in the US for a visit, you can save quite a bit of this.
Now, once you have the device, it needs to be registered. If you've bought it for yourself, this will already have been done for you. This associates it with your Amazon account (where else would you get the books to put on it) and also sets the 'country' for the device. Since my 'main' Amazon account address is based in the UK, so was my country set. This is important!
Amazon's goal is to have every book it sells available on the Kindle. In practice, there are about 350,000 on the US Kindle bookstore, and 290,000 on the UK one. This really shouldn't present a problem - or so I thought at the time. After all, they're gonna put the popular ones on there first, arent they? As long as you aren't after the Siberian edition of the 1968 Toenail-clipping Collector's Almanac youre gonna be golden, right? Wrong, actually.
Now, my reading tastes might be eclectic - the first book I searched for was 'The Fourth Bear' by Jasper Fforde, having just been lent (and hugely enjoyed) its prequel 'The Big Over-Easy' in paperback. No luck. OK, so I'll try the greatest living author - lets look for anything by Sir Terry Pratchett. Nope, nothing, nada. There was a book about the great man, but nothing by him. OK, lets aim for a classic then - how about Isaac Asimov's 'Foundation', my own dead tree copy having sadly shed its pages, lost its cover, and been regretfully consigned to the recycling bin some months ago. No. That's not there either. I tried a few more, my heart sinking with each fruitless search. Had I finally got my hands on the kindle, only to have nothing to read? Oh cruel, cruel irony.
Still, I'm nothing if not resourceful - I'd had the Kindle delivered to the US, I was in the US at the time, so I set the beast up to think of itself as belonging to the land of the free. Nothing wrong with that, is there? It's pretty easy to do this, by the way. Just use a US 'delivery address'. If you wanna try that on iTunes you'll find it a lot harder, because that system uses your credit card address - whatever you try. Now, let's go book buying again, shall we? This time, everything I searched for is on the store. My guess is that the UK store will catch up with the US one soon, and when that happens I can go 'legit' again.
There are other implications of letting the Kindle think its US based. For one, now that I'm back home in Blighty, buying a book and having it delivered 'wirelessly' (the Kindle makes use of the 3G mobile phone networks) incurs a roaming charge of $1.99 on top of the book price. Of course, you can avoid that by downloading to a computer then USB transferring, but where's the fun in that, eh?
The other twist involves our old friends the pirates, I mean customs and excise, again. Dead tree books are exempt from Value Added Tax - I assume because they are 'food for the brain'. Not so digital books - is that not silly? Anyway, the upshot is that technically, I'm rooking the VAT-man for about a quid every time I buy a book while sitting at home. I don't *think* they'll hunt me down like a dog, but if they do, Ive got the two quid I owe them here in a jar.
I will doubtless discover more oddities, and I might note them down here. I've had to resort to a little trickery to get the Kindle to play nice, but I'm still rating it nine out of ten for now...
Oh yeah. Brindle... refers to the colouring of a horse. Or cow. Or dog. Not Kindles though - they can be any colour you like, as long as its white...