The mystery of the Nook


December 10. Could not open box. Tried several times.

December 11. Co-worker took it to get charged. When she brought it back, Walt Whitman’s picture replaced the lady who was displayed earlier.

December 12. Could not turn on device. Accidentally discovered cable and plug in the packaging. Charged overnight through my laptop.

December 13. Tried to turn on the device. Failed. May need to return my EE degree. Display now shows a picture of a flower with a rectangle with the words


The application com.itc.bravo.radiopm
(process com.itcbravo.radiopm) has
stopped unexpectedly. Please try again

overlaid on it. Power button doesn’t do anything, and the clock is stuck at 4:09, presumably the time the crime was committed.

Plugged in power again, and the device reset itself. My laptop USB driver complained that the device was not recognized, presumably because it was wearing a disguise. After a delay worthy of a old Windows box, the flower appeared briefly, only to be replaced with a message that told me I had to “Eject or Unmount [sic] from the menu for the nook drive on your computer” if I wanted to use the nook while charging. The time now reads 8:33.

“Unmounted” the drive, but the message does not change, and the page buttons do not work. The clock is ticking. Unplugging it from the computer caused the flower and the color touch screen to appear. The touch screen then blanks, but the flower is still there, waiting. The page buttons do nothing.

Pressing the well-hidden power switch finally animates the Nook. After some poking around on the menu, I select the title (one of three initially available) called “Your New Nook” by apparently written  just five minutes ago, on December 13th, 2009 at 8:39 PM, by Dave Barry.

Of course I don’t think it was written by Dave Barry. I’ve read some stuff by him in the past, and I don’t remember him writing in the first person plural. The book by the Fake Dave Barry contains many asides related to fauna (dogs, raccoons, bacteria, fleas, and ticks), but, oddly, nothing about flowers. It also contains the following instructions on how to operate your nook:

If you’re reading this, you have already figured out how to operate your nook. So our advice is, just keep on doing whatever you’re doing.

I suppose that means I should keep writing this blog post.

9:12. I figure out that pressing the power switch turns on the color touch screen, which now shows me a strange box  that says “B&N Blogs.” I wonder what that means, because the nook is not telling. No amount of pressing on the Blogs rectangle changes the display; eventually it blanks again. I inadvertently discover that pressing the little magnet shaped icon above the touch screen also turns it on. Magnets!

9:20. Having explored the “Sort by” and “Show” menus, I am no longer able to select the Fake Dave Barry’s book to look for more animals. The nook, does, however, let me read a rather crass and thoroughly unfunny piece by “Dan_Bergstein.” I think he is still working on it, as of December 14, 2009 at 9:14 PM. Or will be, as today is the 13th.  I am now even more confused about the sequence of events, but at least he uses the first person singular.

9:27. The magnet no longer works, but fortunately, I am able to find the power switch.

I change the sort order to “Most recent” which, oddly, highlights the book by the Fake Dave Barry. I hit select, and am shown the first page of Shirley Jackson’s Demons, written on December 14, 2009 at 9:28 PM by “Steve_King.” The book, eerily, starts out

December 14: Shirley Jackson was born on this day in 1916.

I put the device down and back away slowly.

9:44. The Nook catches my eye out of the corner of the room. Walt Whitman is back, staring at me reproachfully from behind his beard.

10:06. Failed to find significant event in Whitman’s life that occurred on December 14th. However, I was able to find the nook User Guide (not written by Dave Barry) after punching the magnet button a few times, and getting to get the main menu, from which I selected “my library.” I tried selecting the book to read it, but this did not work as with the previous books. I saw a copyright and title screen, and nothing else. After some more fiddling with the menus, I found a “Now reading…” button. This landed me (after ten seconds of “Formatting…”) into a thicket of legalese, around page 92 of 115 of the nook User Guide. Oddly, the pages refer to some other document (perhaps one formatted for the Kindle), as pressing the “next page” button changes the text (to some more legalese), but the page number only gets updated every few screenfuls. I stop reading around page 94, a section titled “4. Privacy and Security.”

(a) Privacy. You agree that we may use, collect and share your information in accordance with our Privacy Policy. In particular, we will collect, use and/or disclose information regarding you and your use of your nook and the Service in order to: (i) provide the Service to you; (ii) permit you to engage in activities that you initiate through the Service, such as purchasing Digital Content and reviewing products; and (iii) analyze, operate, support, maintain and improve your nook or the Service.

(b) Security. We employ measures designed to ensure the security of the Service, but, as provided below, make no guarantees in this regard.

To the best of my understanding, this means that B&N keeps track of my reading to permit me to read, and to do whatever else they want, but they make no guarantees about who can see that data because, as the Fake Dave Barry wrote in “Your New Nook,”

We know there’s electricity whizzing around in there. Beyond that, we’re stumped.

10:38. Undaunted, I proceeded to register for a B&N account, and tried to find something to read. I finally settled on the Real Dave Barry’s “Boogers are My Beat,” or perhaps the nook settled on it for me. The menu on the touch screen allows samples to be downloaded, and the interaction is tedious but predictable. The fun starts when the download completes. Well, actually, it doesn’t start on its own;  I had to pound on the magnet button a few times to get to “my library.” When I get there, in addition to Boogers, I find Dracula, Little Women, and Pride and Prejudice, but disappointingly, no Walt Whitman.

When I selected Dave’s book, I was shown the lovely but mysterious flower, and the top-level menu of the touch screen, which then promptly disappeared. (If this were a hypertext story, I would find myself here.) Instead, I used the magnet to get back into the library, and after some fumbling, was able to start reading the sample.

10:50. The sample consists of 21 pages, include two title pages and a table of contents to a bunch of sections I don’t have. Finally, on page six, the book starts.

I’m not a real journalist.

Just as I suspected, the Real Dave Barry writes in the first person singular.

10.53. I am bored with reading the book, and start poking around the menu. It appears there is a way to highlight text and take notes. While I was trying to find a picture of the controls online, the nook went to sleep. This time, sleeping consisted of showing a picture of Jules Verne, staring off to the right.

11:07. I am trying to figure out how the annotation feature works. Apparently, you use the control shown below


Who ate the center of the pizza?

to navigate around the text. Upper and lower slices of the pizza move around one line at a time; the left and right slices take care of words. When ready to commit to a selection, you press the “Start selection” button and use the same controls to select the passage. And least that’s how I think it was intended to work. Unfortunately, they don’t have the pagination quite right, causing some confusion in the line-at-a-time navigation scheme.

11:22 After messing around with the interface, I make my first annotation. It shows up as a little crumb of Parmesan (presumably left over from the pizza) in the left margin. The menu allows me to retrieve the highlighted text associated with the annotation easily enough, but I am uncertain about how to display the text I so carefully typed in.

Upshot: contrary to rumors circulated by Dave Barry, the iPhone UI design team was not hired to do this project. The design will, however, make a bunch of beautiful case studies for HCI courses about how not to design information appliances. Its display is comparable to that of the old Kindle in size; I wonder if B&N got a good deal on the e-Ink displays when Amazon switched over to the second generation Kindle. It’s a little heavier than the original Kindle, but its physical controls are much nicer. Like the new Kindle, it can handle PDFs, but I cannot imagine doing work-related reading without a good annotation tool. So the mystery of the nook is how B&N expects to compete with Amazon with a device that’s not as good (for the most part) as the current Kindle and with an interface that is utterly unlovable.


  1. Nooooooooooooooooo. No! I just got a Nook (read: I am waiting forever to get my Nook because it’s on backorder). I’m terrified by your account of the interaction. Has the software update done anything to ease your pain? Either way, made for a funny/horrifying post.

  2. I am curious to hear about your experiences with it. To be fair, its problems are a barrier to adoption only for those who do not have a lot of experience with technology, and only for the non-reading portions of the interaction. If all you are going to do with it is buy a book, read a book, its interface is unlikely to cause you (much) grief.

  3. […] proliferation of competitors—the Nooks, the Kobos, etc.—will only serve to drive device prices lower, further reducing the incentive to […]

  4. ryebread says:

    my boyfriend got me one 2 days ago…….i really don’t understand why you’re having such a hard time with yours. it’s a breeze to navigate, i get no error messages….maybe you should try touching it instead of pounding away at the “magnet”.

  5. @ryebread Thanks for the comment!

    My point was that there are some inconsistencies and design problems with the system, not that it cannot in fact be used as intended. Also, it’s possible that some of the software problems may have been fixed in the software you’re using.

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