11 July 2008


Last night a friend came over, a friend we haven't seen in months, and part of his news concerned a business venture/harebrained scheme that involves selling ebook readers to the European market. He wanted our two cents as to whether this is a good idea. In the US, the Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle have made some waves, but here there are few to zero places to buy such devices, and publishers are correspondingly slow to format new books in European languages. Anyway, whatever he decides to do, the best part is that he had a Reader with him. And he left it with us for a couple of days to try out!

I will defend and champion the old fashioned, ink-and-paper book as long as I have breath, but I have to admit I jumped up and down like the geek that I am when the Reader come out of its box. I've been loosely following the news on these things but hadn't yet held one in my hands, much less used one to read a book.

So last night before falling asleep I curled up in bed with a Ken Follett e-ink novel (pre-loaded, it was pretty much my only option longer than a twenty-page excerpt) instead of my ink-ink James Baldwin novel. I am rather surprised about this, but I loved it (not the novel--blech, the experience)! "Turning" pages didn't involve anything more challenging than a slight pressure of my thumb, which in bed with a husband who is bound to bolt upright and look about him as if an intruder had just catapulted through the window when I make too much noise, is an advantage.

I'm enthusiastic about the e-ink, which really is easy to read and easy on the eyes, in bright light or in low light (although there is no internal light source, so in the dark, I still needed a lamp). The device is a pleasure to hold, weighty without being heavy, and is a perfect compact size; I could slip it in my purse and easily bring it on the metro or on the plane.

And for sure, what made me interested in the thing in the first place are the implications for travel. I routinely lug around piles of novels to read while I'm in the air and wherever I'm going. Imagine no more heavy knapsacks! Imagine being able to refer to books that I needed for research without bringing the book along! Hundreds of books in one!

Which brings me to the drawbacks. As a literary scholar, I see great potential for this thing but have a feeling the realization is going to be long in coming. The titles available are bound to be best-sellers and standard classics, with not much in between. Poetry? Literary theory? History? Literature in other languages? (Which is the challenge our friend is facing.) Plus, it would be absolutely essential to be able to mark and annotate pages for future reference. The Reader has a "bookmark" feature, but it only enables you to "dogear" a particular page, with no way to distinguish why you did so. If you want to refer to your bookmarks, you get a random (the top?) line of text for the page, which doesn't help if you were interested in something further along. And your only option for deleting bookmarks is all or nothing. Plus, unless they come up with some very good interactive indexes and tables of contents, reference books will be as good as useless.

The menu interface leaves a lot to be desired, and can sometimes be slow. Even turning pages is annoyingly slow; there's a sort of black and white "flash" each time you do it. You can look at pictures and book covers but they're very slow in loading and only in black and white. It plays music, and you can stick headphones into it to listen while you read (not a feature I'd use, I don't think, since I don't like music piped directly into my head while my head is immersed in the world of a book).

I understand the Kindle does have internet connectivity, and does include newspaper and magazine reading capability. For me that would be useful, since a reader like this is the perfect distance between a laptop (on which I normally read the paper, but only at home or somewhere with internet) and a fancy phone (which I imagine is too small to really read a mag or paper), and would be perfect for commutes and travel--while saving oodles of one-use paper trash. The Reader, without these features, probably can't compete with the Kindle.

There are also looming questions about copyright, the price of books, digital vs. analog. Would I want both versions of the same book, if it's one I want to own and keep?

And the big question, the question our friend is asking us: Is it worth it? Would I buy it? For 300 bucks, I'd wait until they come out with better and cheaper versions before I'd buy. I'm thinking it's still not the moment to jump on this particular bandwagon. Hopefully someday the clever and cool folks at Apple will come up with a design that puts all the others to shame.

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