I love and hate my stupidly expensive crossword puzzle device

I received a Kindle Scribe for Christmas last year, which I probably should have expected because I asked for it. The Kindle Scribe is basically a large e-reader with a stylus. It came out late last year. I put it on my wish list because I was curious about it, but not curious enough to buy one for myself.

I am a fan of the Kindle e-reader line though. (I’ve heard Kobo e-readers are pretty good if you want to be free of the Amazon ecosystem and whole evil deal, but I’ve never used one, and Kindles last forever too, so I haven’t had to replace my pretty old one. ) My ideal reading setup is to keep a physical copy of a book at home and borrow the e-book version from the library for bars and restaurants and train commutes. (Bless Verso Books, by the way, for including a free e-book with almost all of their print books.)

What’s immediately apparent about the Kindle Scribe is that it’s a fine little device and also almost extraordinarily useless. It’s a very good oversized e-reader, but there simply aren’t many uses for an oversized e-reader. Since Scribe is too big to fit in a coat pocket or comfortably hold with one hand on a crowded train, Scribe is not at all conducive to the things you use an e-reader for. Of course, its selling point isn’t its size, but its stylus – a Kindle you can write on! – so it’s a little disappointing to report that Amazon couldn’t figure out why you’d want to write on a Kindle.

With Scribe, you can’t write directly on e-books, only leave “sticky notes” on them. It has several “notebook” templates, but all you can do with the notes in your notebook is send them to yourself as PDF files. The printer has no handwriting-to-text capabilities. (Given that I used a stylus to write words that a hand-held device automatically converted to text on a hand-me-down PalmPilot from my father in 1998, this is a rather bizarre omission.) The only documents you freely can write on are, as far as I can tell, PDFs. But PDFs are really already the strong point of things. With its much larger screen, the Kindle Scribe already handles text-heavy PDF files better than its smaller siblings.

So Kindle Scribe is basically a device for reading and doodling on PDFs.

Fortunately, there are plenty of PDF files out there for you to read. There are samizdat or quasi-legal (or even sometimes fully authorized and legitimate!) copies of out-of-print books, like left-wing economic analyst Doug Henwood’s. Wall Streetwhich is available for free on his website as a PDF. There are strange old journal papers and scanned archival documents. Just a whole world of things, I can now read more comfortably in bed than I could before. And scribble on.

So I’ve been using my Scribe primarily for reading PDFs and rarely for writing anything. Recently, when I finished NYU Transit Costs Project’s Final report and New York Case Study – two instant classic PDFs, highly recommended – I ended up turning to veteran crossword constructor Patrick Berry’s “Crossword Constructor’s Handbook”, which used to be a “For Dummies” book but can now be purchased directly from him as a PDF. The book comes with 70 sample puzzles. When I read the first chapter of the book, I noticed that very shortly he started to refer to these examples of riddles. So I opened the accompanying document. And when I grabbed the pen and got down to business, I realized pretty quickly: That’s what this strange device is for. That’s what it’s good for.

I grew up doing crosswords on the paper itself with an actual pen, and while at this point I’ve probably solved thousands more puzzles on my phone than I ever did on print, I still want to solve them with pen and paper is the “right” way to do it. The Kindle can’t check your answers as you go, or time you, or play a little jingle to announce that you’ve successfully completed a puzzle. It cannot usefully fill in an answer you struggle with; if you want to cheat, you’ll have to cheat the old-fashioned way, by looking something up or looking at the answer grid. But the Sunday newspaper can’t do any of that either, and that’s the media the crossword is designed for.

The Scribe has all the advantages of paper puzzles – easy display of unorthodox themed grids, the quick glance of the entire clue list, simple input of rebuses and special characters, the satisfying tactile feel of filling in a grid by hand – and most of the better advantages of puzzle making digitally, like pure error erasing and the ability to store thousands of puzzles in a thin device you can easily carry almost anywhere. It’s the perfect crossword puzzle device. All for just $340, which is way too many dollars.

The problem, of course, is getting the puzzles onto the device at all. One thing you need to do is basically make your own puzzle packs. Most collectible puzzle books don’t have e-book editions (and you can’t write directly on an e-book anyway, remember?), so you’ll have to track down a bunch of PDFs from the providers you like. This is a pain in the ass so far. If you subscribe to New York Times crossword, visit the puzzle section on your computer, go through the archives and press print on each puzzle you wish to save as a PDF. If you, like me, subscribe to AV Club Xwords, you’ll find it easier to trawl through their archives for PDF links. So, with both providers, you probably have to use this Adobe tool to merge all your downloaded individual puzzles into one document, which you’ll then send to your Kindle the way you normally do such things. (AVXC also sells bundles of much older puzzles in PDF format.)

The Kindle Scribe is a device that can’t seem to justify its own existence except as a monopolist’s bulwark against potential competitors in the e-book space who have recently introduced similar products. (I assume Coat Ellipsa and (ReMarkable 2 are equally capable PDF writers.) But it’s pretty good at this one thing, which more than justifies the cost, to me at least, of zero dollars.

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