All of these features work together to make the device itself recede into the background, freeing the reader’s mind to concentrate on the text. The first book I read using the eBook was Into Thin Air, journalist Jon Krakauer’s account of a 1996 expedition to Mount Everest that left eight of his fellow climbers dead. As Krakauer described the horrendous winds, frigid temperatures, treacherous terrain and suffocatingly thin atmosphere near the peak, I was shivering there with him. And as the climbing parties’machismo, misjudgments and hypoxic mental haze led them closer to the final disaster, I read faster, staying up late one night to reach the end. The book is a genuine page-turner-or buttonpusher, in this case-and I don’t see how the hardcover edition could have been any more absorbing than the electronic one.
Since that first book, I’ve used the eBook to read the Constitution of the United States, Common Sense, Northanger Abbey and Ethan Frome; next up will be Jane Eyre. Absent from this list, you may notice, are any current best sellers. This brings us to the eBook’s principal drawback: NuvoMedia’s publishing model, which is cleverly designed to prevent the electronic piracy of copyrighted works, but which is also being used to squeeze big bucks from electronic book buyers.
New releases for the eBook are available only as specially encrypted files called RocketEditions. New eBook owners receive a “RocketID” number from NuvoMedia; before purchasing and downloading RocketEditions from an online bookseller, they must submit this ID, which is used to encrypt the book so that only their eBook can decrypt it. Public-domain works don’t need to be encrypted, and electronic publishers such as Treeless Press offer them at low prices-from $1.50 to $6. But for the encrypted RocketEditions of most new books, the publishers and booksellers working with NuvoMedia, notably Barnes & Noble, charge the regular hardcover price. This despite the fact that books published electronically incur no typesetting, printing, binding, warehousing or shipping costs, which typically account for 20 percent to 60 percent of a book’s retail price.
Under this pricing system, the $300 eBook will never come close to paying for itself. Since I rarely buy best sellers, and I’m one of those “early adopters”who are willing to use new gadgets before all the kinks are worked out, I’m not overly distressed by the situation. At the very least, I can use my eBook to catch up on all the great works I should have read in college.
But will I get as much out of an electronic Jane Eyre as my more diligent classmates got from their Norton paperback editions? At least one critic thinks not. In The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, essayist Sven Birkerts suggests that literature loses something in the translation from ink to electrons.Words on a screen, Birkerts wrote, “have a different status and affect us differently from words held immobile on the accessible space of a page…. The word on a page is a thing. The configuration of impulses on the screen is not-it is a manifestation, an indeterminate entity both particle and wave, an ectoplasmic arrival and departure.”