Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Week of eReading

I used to think readers and book-lovers were the same people. They're not.

Last week I took my family to Wisconsin to visit relatives. (Wisconsin is where they play football. It's cold there.) All of my reading for the trip - four flights, three quiet houses, and several long drives - was done on a new e-reader. I brought no "books."

The fate of the word "book" is akin to that of the word "church" - the skin is mistaken for the substance. That's what differentiates readers and book-lovers. Readers read. Book lovers love books. Of course, one can be a reader and still be a book-lover, and vice versa. All I mean is that it is quite possible to be one and not the other.

Dedicated e-readers use a technology called e-ink that almost eliminates glare. The following technical explanation - found on Wikipedia - is worth quoting at length:

"The principal components of electronic ink are millions of tiny microcapsules, about the diameter of a human hair. In one incarnation, each microcapsule contains positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles suspended in a clear fluid. When a negative electric field is applied, the white particles move to the top of the microcapsule to become visible to the reader. This makes the surface appear white at that location. At the same time, an opposite electric field pulls the black particles to the bottom of the microcapsules where they are hidden. By reversing this process, the black particles appear at the top of the capsule, which now makes the surface appear dark at that location."

E-readers are excellent for travel, being small, lightweight, and versatile - three things paper books are not. Adjust the text size, search, highlight, lookup a word, or switch to reading something else entirely. A progress bar at the bottom of the screen shows you your position since you can't look at the book on end to see how far you have to go. Page turn buttons are located on both sides so the device can be read with either hand.

Sampling new books for free is an especially useful feature, as it saves me from spending money on books that are badly written, urbane, or simply over my head. (For some reason we feel smarter when we are filling our shopping cart, like we feel hungrier when we are filling our plate.)

In addition to sampling new books, there are millions of complete out-of-copyright books available for free in digital editions. Eliot, Pascal, Tolstoy, Melville, Chesterton: bring it.

The potential sterility of electronic reading was a concern of mine, and still is. For centuries books have been both intellectually and tactually unique. Like LP's or CD's, the medium of books created an opportunity for tactual and visual expression that was lost when the content was digitized. And so we cry all the way to the store.

1 comment:

  1. We got my brother (Ken) an Amazon Kindle for her upcoming birthday. I've been busy loading free books on to it; mostly classics. I also downloaded "Every Word" which I've become addicted to ;)
    I have read one book so far and while it was easy to read on the Kindle, I felt the whole book reading experience just wasn't the same. Like you mentioned, it felt sterile. It was missing the warmth that you feel when you're holding the books in your hands...