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A Genuine Button-Pusher

Are e-books the future? Roush reads the electronic tea leaves … and likes what he sees.

Every other year, Harvard University awards the Philip Hofer Prize to the student with the best book or art collection. This year William Pannapacker, a doctoral student in the history of American civilization, took second place (worth $1,000) for his collection of some 3,000 books by 19th-century American authors. Pannapacker told the Harvard University Gazette that he will probably never read most of the volumes, but needed them anyway, to round out the collection. Indeed, his assortment includes six rare editions of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and more than 100 biographies and commentaries on the poet-more than even a grad student could stomach. “Once you get so far into it, it’s hard to get out,” Pannapacker said. “After buying 100 volumes, it’s hard not to buy those next few volumes.”

When I was a graduate student at MIT, I worked part-time as an antiquarian bookseller’s assistant. The experience taught me that Pannapacker has plenty of fellow addicts. They can be amateur collectors such as the late industrialist Bern Dibner, whose personal library of 40,000 volumes on the history of science and technology moved to MIT in 1993. They can be professionals who buy and sell books about narrow subjects (architecture, landscaping and fishing were my employer’s specialties). Or they can be elite, acquisitive institutions such as Harvard, which adds hundreds of books a day to its academic libraries, already the planet’s largest. Book collecting, in other words, is hardly an unusual or new phenomenon. Books have always existed not merely to be read, but to be possessed.

But that may soon change, thanks to a new technology for reading-the electronic book. Once a few bugs are fixed, these devices will probably infiltrate our culture in the same way that pocket calculators, laptop computers and cell phones have. So when the editors of TR asked me to take a vacation from my usual book reviews and think instead about the future of reading, I decided to spend a month experimenting with an electronic book. My forecast, counter to the argument of some critics, is that the new technology will not fundamentally alter the experience of reading, or diminish the role of written documents in our culture. It will, however, force bibliophiles everywhere to rethink the relationship between the tangible objects we call books and the ideas they contain.

Electronic book readers, paperbackor tablet-sized devices with high-resolution displays, hit the consumer market in 1998. Like PCs, they are rapidly coming down in price; one model,Nuvo-Media’s Rocket eBook, sells for about $300. (The SoftBook Reader, by Softbook Press, goes for $600; Everybook’s EB Dedicated Reader, set to debut in the fourth quarter of 1999, will cost $1,600.) The readers can be loaded with new books, erased, and reloaded as frequently as one wishes. The Rocket eBook’s 32-megabyte memory is enough for 80 average-length novels. Buying the electronic edition of a book has become as easy as browsing the Web. I’ve been testing the Rocket eBook, and I find its heft, appearance and operation so similar to that of a real book that I frequently forget about the high-tech interface and lose myself in the narrative.

All of these facts point toward the same trend. Writing-the procession of little black marks that miraculously convey ideas from the mind of the author to the mind of the reader-is breaking free from its traditional medium, ink on pancakes of cellulose. Printing on paper is a highly evolved technology; the magazine you are holding is a marvel of forestry, chemistry, photography, typography and graphic design. When it comes to efficiency, economy and convenience, however, the electronic book is beginning to give paper some serious competition.

From a technical point of view, the new electronic book readers aren’t spectacularly innovative.Graphical interfaces making it easy to manipulate words on the screen have been around since the 1970s. Electronic editions of books have been available on CD-ROMs and the Internet for years. And thanks to high-resolution monitors and software such as Adobe Acrobat, type on the computer screen has become nearly as readable as type on paper. But now these technologies, as well as batteries, touch-sensitive CD displays and microchip memory capacity, have matured to the point that designers can use them to construct a plausible imitation of a book.

What’s really new about today’s electronic book readers, then, is that they are so “retro,” looking backward to the traditional book for design inspiration. Deanna McCusker, a user interface designer for the Rocket eBook, writes that NuvoMedia’s goal in building the eBook was “to figure out how to preserve a book’s bookness.” They have succeeded.

The first thing I noticed about the eBook was its shape. One side is flat and about an inch thick, similar to an Etch A Sketch, but the other side bulges outward like a paperback book with its spine folded back. The bulge fits in the curve of the palm and makes the device easy to grip with one hand. The screen measures 7.6 cm by 11.4 cm (3 inches by 4.5 inches), the size of a small paperback, and the whole package weighs 616 grams (22 ounces), about as much as a 400-page hardcover. The overall feeling is highly booklike.

The eBook’s most impressive features, however, are inside. The display’s adjustable backlight emits a pleasing white glow that’s the brightest I’ve seen in an LCD screen. The resulting contrast between text and background rivals what you would see in a newspaper or paperback. Pressing the eBook’s “forward” and “back” buttons, positioned under the thumb, takes no more thought than turning the pages of a real book. Navigating within a text is simple, thanks to a bookmark function and a progress bar that lets you jump to any point in the narrative. And by pulling up the touch-sensitive keyboard, you can even add your own notations and search the text for specific words (for example, the first mention of a character in a novel).With the display at a medium intensity, the rechargeable batteries last about 20 hours. For people accustomed to laptop and cell-phone batteries that die in less than half this time, that’s a strong selling point. (According to McCusker, the designers considered using smaller batteries to reduce the eBook’s weight, but usability testers said longer battery life was more important to them than lighter weight.)

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.”

Birkerts, writing in 1994, was mainly talking about word processing and CDROM-based multimedia. Electronic books, however, were already on the horizon, and Birkerts was alarmed. Rejecting the argument that reading on screen is the same as reading on a page, he wrote: “The context cannot but condition the process. Screen and book may exhibit the same string of words, but the assumptions that underlie their significance are entirely different depending on whether we are staring at a book or a circuit-generated text.”

Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I have a hard time sympathizing with Birkerts’ concern that digitized, transistorized words don’t really exist.My entire PhD dissertation, completed the same year as Birkerts’ Elegies, sits on an old 40-megabyte external hard drive that I can’t access because I don’t currently own a Macintosh, but I know that it’s there and that it could be retrieved. I must report, moreover, that when I used the eBook to re-read the U.S. Constitution, “the assumptions that underlie [the] significance” of this timeless document didn’t seem to shift much.

On a related point, however, Birkerts hits closer to the mark.As I observed at the outset, some books have a dual nature as things to be read-vessels to be emptied of their symbols and meanings-and as physical artifacts to be admired or collected for their historical value. A traditional paper book can be both of these things.An electronic book, Birkerts points out, can only be the first. He writes:

In the contemplation of a single volume, or mass of volumes,we form a picture of time past as a growing deposit of sediment; we capture a sense of its depth and dimensionality. Moreover, we meet the past as much in the presentation of words of specific vintage as we do in any isolated fact or statistic. The [electronic] database, useful as it is, expunges this context, this sense of chronology, and admits us to a weightless order in which all information is equally accessible.

This is a valuable warning.With their increasing power and portability, appliances such as the electronic book are creating a global network of information. This information is so disembodied, however, that we frequently have few ways to judge its provenance or worth, and so we lose all sense of physical connection with the originator. As it turns out, you can judge a book by its cover.

As electronic books gain a following, especially in the world’s centers of writing and thought, points of tension with the world of traditional books will no doubt develop. Imagine, for example, that a Harvard student with a Rocket eBook visits Barnes & Noble’s Web site and purchases the RocketEditions of a hundred classic literary works. She puts just as much care into her selections as William Pannapacker, and then actually reads the books, resulting in a collection that genuinely reflects her intellectual passions. Would she have any chance of winning the Philip Hofer Prize? Should she? Is there something about the ink, the paper, the binding, the odor of a book that contributes to the ideas within? If not-if a book’s essence is retained when its words are reduced to electronic bits-does this mean that our attachment to the leatherbound, dusty-smelling volumes of old is simply a kind of sentimental materialism? Either way, it may be time for some serious book re-viewing.

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