Search This Blog

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

6 Books in a Backpack: Episode 1

It was raining when I get up this morning and I might have chosen to be lazy and hang around at home if I hadn't previously set myself up for action. But I had so I load six books in a backpack and set off on my little red bike in the rain.

The source of this motion and the source of several more trips I have planned over the next few weeks are the result of a thought I had a few weeks ago, a thought that found expression in the following email.

From: Kent Peterson
To: bcc
Date: Tue, Nov 23, 2010 at 6:51 PM
Subject: 6 Books in a Backpack

OK, this is going out blind CC to a mess of folks. Some of you I see often, some I haven't seen in years. I hope if you are getting this you at least go "Oh yeah, Kent, I remember that guy..."

Anyhow, I'm always looking for excuses to get out, ride my bike someplace, chat with folks, think about things. I had this random thought today about how I have a lot of books that are good, on all kinds of subjects, that I probably won't read again. Maybe I should get rid of them, then I'd have a bit more room to get more stuff and...then I had the thought. Here goes.

I take 6 books. Not 6 junky books but 6 books that I like. That I'd recommend to a friend. Six books that I'd be happy to keep actually. I put 'em in a backpack and go off somewhere to meet up with a friend. Probably a coffee shop. Heck, let's have the friend pick the spot.

The friend and I show up at the meeting place. We each have a pack with 6 books. We show what we brought. We chat about books. We chat about old times. We have a nice beverage. Maybe we swap a book, or two, or six or none. No big deal. The rule is this, however: You can't bring home more books than you left home with. You can come home with the same books or different books but not more books.

Got it?


You're the friend. This can happen any time. Propose a time & place. Don't worry if it's too far or too inconvenient. If it doesn't work, I'll tell you. These days I'm working Fri, Sat, Sun & Monday but things change and schedules can flex. But if you've got some time on a Tue, Wed or Thursday, think about a meet-up.

BTW this can be one of my weird excuses for travel. Portland folks, I'm thinking of you.

Also, please steal this idea and clone it around to your friends. But anytime you feel like tossing 6 books in a backpack and going someplace, let me know.

I hope everyone is having a lovely time.

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

PS, if this is of zero interest to you please ignore it!

As it turns out, I got quite a few responses. Tomorrow I'll meet up with my friend Lexi in Seattle, but today is episode one of 6 Books in a Backpack and I'm meeting up with my pal Joe at the Starbucks in Lakemont.

This particular Starbucks is most of the way up Cougar Mountain and I'm on a bike with little wheels and 3 gears. Even though the trip from my house in only maybe 6 miles, that last mile up the mountain makes me feel like I've gotten a workout. I'm damp enough that the warm coffee is very welcome.

Joe rolls up on his Brompton and confesses the same thought I'd had, "If we hadn't set this up in advance, I probably wouldn't have gone out." Part one of the plan is successful, it spurred us both into action. We talk of many things: of bikes, advocacy, randonneuring, jobs we've had in the past, college courses, riding at night & raingear. Eventually, we talk of books.

I'd grabbed six books with Joe in mind and he'd cheated a bit, he had seven plus he had a book I'd loaned him months ago that he was returning. Despite this slight breach of the rules, we wind up swapping nearly everything.

We give quick summaries of the books we've brought. My side of the conversation goes something like this:

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest -- "Steampunk alternate history. Zombies in Seattle. Poison Gas. Airships. Kick Ass Heroine."

Spook Country by William Gibson -- "Gibson's follow up to 'Pattern Recognition' (the borrowed book Joe was returning). Some of the same characters. Great fun."

The Lost City of Z by David Grann -- "Story of Percy Fawcett, last of the old school explorers who vanished into the Amazon Jungle in the 1920s. Since then dozens of people have died going into the jungle trying to find out what happened to him. This book was written by a not-at-all-outdoorsy New York writer who winds up obsessed with the mystery and ultimately goes to the Amazon himself. Since he got the book written, you know he survives but it's a hell of a page-turner."

A Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols -- "Another true adventure. 1968, the first solo round-the-world sailing race. 9 guys start, one makes it back. Awesome stories."

Drop City by T. C. Boyle -- "Novel set in the early 70s. California hippies run into trouble with their commune and move the whole operation to wild Alaska when one of them inherits a chunk of land from his uncle. Great cross-cultural utopia vs reality stuff."

The Signal by Ron Carlson -- "Like a Hemingway novel without the macho crap. Guy goes camping with his ex-wife after totally screwing up their marriage. Great writing, hell of a story."

Remarkably, Joe hasn't read any of the books I've brought and he wants them all.

We go through his books. Aside from returning Gibson's Pattern Recognition, Joe has three books he doesn't need to describe, since I've already read them. But we both agree that they'd be good books to go into my future trade pile so I take Woody Allen's Getting Even, Steve Martin's Cruel Shoes, and Timothy Egan's The Good Rain.

Since he's brought one extra book, I pass on the volume by P. G. Wodehouse. I enjoy Wodehouse's stuff immensely, but I read his works as Project Gutenberg files on my Kindle or MiniDroid.

Joe totally sells me on John McPhee's The Founding Fish. Joe confesses, "I'd never even heard of the shad until I read this book and McPhee makes them fascinating." I've read other books by McPhee, so I know what Joe means. I'm looking forward to digging into this one.

I admit I'm a bit nervous in taking on Ken Follett's massive World Without End. Joe tells me it's set in the 14th century and it's the sequel to another huge Follet novel set in the 12th century. "But you don't need to read 'em in order and it's really, really good. It totally moves along and you'll learn a lot." It's books of this size and scope that made me basically give up watching TV. I found that when I gave up watching every damn episode of Law & Order, I suddenly had the time to read thousand page novels. That seems like a better use of my time.

Joe's final selection is Nice Work by David Lodge. "Laugh out loud funny," he assures me. "Really, I was reading it on a plane and laughing. People kept looking at me. It was embarrassing."

So Joe has six different books and I have six different books. We load the books into our packs and head out to the bikes. It's stopped raining.

I've never been to Joe's place and he doesn't live far away, so I go over to check out his bikes. Joe is a guy with a proper set of priorities. His cars stay outside. His garage looks like this:

That brings episode one of 6 Books in a Backpack to a close. I have more trips like this planned and I hope the idea spreads. If you're anywhere near my part of the world and want to swap some books, drop me a note (kentsbike at gmail dot com). If you want to do something like this with your pals, please do so.

Keep 'em rolling & keep reading,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Review: Amazon Kindle

First off, I'm going to start off with my standard disclaimer: I make money off of Amazon. Not a lot, but it's what keeps this blog going and it's where the bulk of my adventure budget comes from. When readers like you click on any Amazon link here and buy anything fromAmazon in the next 24 hours, a percentage of your purchase dollars go to me. It doesn't cost you anything more but Amazon pays me for the referral. So if you buy stuff that way, thanks.

If you are thinking, "hey, he's just talking about X because he wants me to buy it!" (and in this case X is a Kindle), well, yes, I certainly do have an incentive to sell you stuff. But I bet you don't come here to be sold stuff. I bet you come here to find something that might be interesting, useful or of some relevance to bike riders. The Kindle scores well on all three counts.

I've written briefly about my first big bike tour back in 1982, when I was fresh out of college. I rode solo from Minnesota to California. For company at night in camp, I read paperback books I picked up along the way. Books are heavy, so I'd only carry one. When I'd finish the book I had, I'd give it away and buy something else. Of course the trick was picking the right book, one that would match my mood. And while it would have been nice to carry a whole library with me, there was no practical way to do it at the time.

Now there is. Now we have things like iPhones, Androids, Nooks and Kindles. The Internet has a wealth of stuff ready to be grabbed and read. I'll let other people rave about how cool their iPhone is and tell me how I should have waited for an iPad. That's OK. I understand gadget enthusiasm. It is the enthusiasm that has inspired me to write this post.

The Kindle is an electronic book reader. It's not the first ebook reader and it certainly won't be the last, but it is the one that made me hit the "Buy Now" button last week. It's not a move I made lightly, it's a pricey little gadget after all, and it is something I'd dismissed long ago as being to limited, restricted and intentionally crippled to be of use to me. I not only dismissed the Kindle, I pretty much echoed Cory Doctorow's negative impressions of the device that he posted on Boing Boing back in 2007.

Some people think the three words "I love you" are the hardest to say, but I find saying "I was wrong" is much harder. I spent a couple of years bashing the device without revisiting my assumptions or checking out the revised Kindle. When I finally did re-examine the world of ebooks, gadgets, and the status of creative content in our evolving digital age, I found that I had to utter those three words. I was wrong about theKindle.

I've long been a believer in things like Open Source and the Creative Commons but I'm also a believer in checking out at least some of the more reasoned opposing views, so I bought a copy of Jaron Lanier's book You Are Not a Gadget. Jaron makes some interesting points in favor of the value of closed systems and the need for methods to compensate those who create the art and products that enrich our lives. We can't all give everything away or support ourselves with advertising. Of course, it is a bit ironic that a paper book called You Are Not a Gadget may turn out to be one of the last paper books I buy and that it served at least as a partial inspiration for me to buy yet another gadget!

Steve Jobs also ironically helped me push the Buy Now button for theKindle. Everyone knows Steve is the driving force behind the Mac, the iPod and the iPhone. And soon we'll have the iPad. But Apple really likes to lock things down, to control what can and can't go on their devices. That's their right and they make wonderful products that people love, but I like that there are companies competing and that we as consumers get to vote with our dollars. I'm glad that Google Android devices are out there competing with the iPhone and that the iPad is going to be competing with the Kindle. Competition will improve these devices over time.

Which brings me back to the Kindle. When I looked at the iPad what I said to myself was what I really wanted was a light device with great battery life, that would let me read books and web pages. It would be great if it could connect wirelessly to the web (not just at wifi hotspots, but via 3G) but I didn't want to be paying a bunch every month for web access I might not use that often.

I found out that while the Nook may get a web browser at some point, the Kindle has one right now. It's not great and it's labeled "Experimental" but it's built-in and it works. It connects to the web wirelessly, for free, via what Amazon calls Whispernet. Once I found that out, plus the fact that I wasn't just limited to getting books from Amazon, I ordered my Kindle.

The Kindle is really thin. The protective case I ordered is much bulkier than the device itself, but even with the case the Kindle is smaller and lighter than a slim hardback book. And the readability of the screen is amazing. The screen looks like a page, not a screen and the Kindledraws damn near zero power from it's internal battery except when you "turn" a page. You can pick from various font sizes and rotate the screen to display your books in either portrait or landscape mode. Dedicated buttons let you page back and forth and a tiny joypad and keyboard let you take notes, place bookmarks, navigate menus and things like that. If you want, the Kindle can read to you in your choice of a male or female robotic voice.

Amazon claims that the Kindle can go for a week without a charge and longer than that if you shut off the Whispernet. The charger is very compact, an AC plug that connects to a USB cable.

The cable lets you connect the Kindle to a computer for file transfers. The Kindle side of the cable is a micro-USB, so the charger works with my Peek. The modular cable also works great with my Solar Charger, so my entire email/web-browsing/book reading kit can run off the sun.

An eReader needs eBooks and obviously Amazon is betting that folks will fill their Kindles with eBooks from Amazon. The first eBook I bought was one that I passed on in hardcover because it was just too big. Really. Stephen King's latest novel, Under the Dome, weighs about three pounds. I just couldn't see myself hauling that around on my bike. The Kindle edition adds no weight to my pack and Amazon sells it for half of what they sell the hardcover for. So a heavyweight author like Stephen King just made one more sale because his book is digital.

My second Kindle purchase supports a woman who I'm sure is not making a stephenkingload of money. Amy Stewart's The Last Bookstore in America is a wonderful grass-roots novel with wonderful characters and a great plot revolving around the changes wrought by gizmos and etexts. See her website at for more details.

While Amazon makes it incredibly easy to buy books with just a click on your Kindle or computer, they also have over 20,000 public domain classics for free.

I've long been getting free eBooks from and I was happy to find out that their 26,000 titles can all be easily searched and downloaded at the Kindle-friendly mobile version of their site at:

And if you want even more Kindle books, this great tip from A Kindle World Blog tells you how to directly load eBooks from Project Gutenberg to your Kindle.

I've been amazed at how quickly I've taken to the Kindle. I've become as annoying as those iPhone zealots. I bet Sherman Alexie wants to punch me. But I can carry a library on my bike. I can read a bunch of books at the same time and the Kindle keeps track of my place in each one. I can search for that cool quote I half remember. I can scribble e-notes and not feel guilty.

My wife, for one, is glad I've become a Kindle convert. "I've wanted one for a while," she confessed, "but I figured you'd give me crap about it". I told her I was sorry. I told her I was wrong. We're waiting for one more check to clear and then ordering her Kindle this Friday.

BTW, long suffering blog-fans, I've just wrapped up my old job, just started my new job and am amping up the Tour Divide Training. And I had to get a couple of articles out for some old-fashioned paper publications. And I've been reading about a dozen books on my Kindle. Which all is a lame way of explaining the lack of blog posts here. But fear not, trail adventures are in the works as are some more blog post where I wont try to sell you a damn thing except for the idea that you should be out on your bike having fun!

Keep 'em rolling,