The digital reader

In which I borrow an e-book and give up print for two weeks.


Laura Miller
March 31, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

A few years ago, when Salon relocated to a new office, the moving company gave everyone handouts indicating where on our furniture and office equipment we should place those color-coded stickers that tell the movers where to put each item in the new space. The handout featured little drawings of your basic office stuff -- desk, chair, filing cabinet -- and typewriter.

That last drawing made me laugh. We didn't have a single typewriter, of course, and neither did the last company I'd worked for, which wasn't a particularly high-tech outfit. But there was also something unsettling about it. When was the last time I had even seen a typewriter, let alone used one? And yet the typewriter was once an indispensable, even iconic tool in the writer's life. Somewhere in my peregrinations I'd managed to discard my old manual machine, then the electric one, without quite noticing their passing. Somehow the typewriter had become virtually extinct, passenger-pigeon style, while most us weren't looking.

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Changes in the ubiquitous technologies of our everyday life seem to work that way -- that is, sneakily. The revolutions that experts predict, on the other hand, usually don't pan out. Visualizations from the 1950s of life in the year 2000 tend to include meals-in-a-pill, robot maids and individual hovercars instead of automobiles. Those gizmos haven't materialized yet, but Post-its, fax machines and the Internet -- unimagined by the creators of George Jetson -- have.

So when I heard that consultant Hugh Look, speaking in London on March 22 at a seminar called "The Book Trade in 2010" as part of the second annual Internet Librarian International conference, had predicted that "reading material in book form" will soon be replaced by e-books, I was skeptical. After all, I'm still waiting for my own personal hovercraft.

If printed books will be replaced in the next 10 years, then what, exactly, will replace them? I'm open to the idea that the p-book can be supplanted, but the alternative, the e-book, remains pretty theoretical in the minds of most avid readers. Ask people to imagine a future in which print books have been usurped, without at the same time providing them with a clear image of the new, improved substitute, and you're asking them to visualize a beloved and enriching pleasure supplanted by -- nothing. No wonder it scares them.

So I called up NuvoMedia (a partner of Salon's) and asked them to lend me one of their Rocket eBooks for a couple of weeks. I'd endeavor to do as much of my daily reading as possible on the device, and I'd take it (almost) everywhere I take the printed books and other publications I read. If the demise of the p-book is going to leave a hole in my life, I want to know if the e-book can fill it.

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The arrival of my e-book device (which, for the sake of brevity, I'll just call the e-book, at the risk of its being confused with the digital files that are also called e-books) is an occasion of some excitement at Salon's New York office, which is more than you can say for the arrival of bushels of p-books from publishers every day.

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Now's the time to explain that my relationship to books isn't quite like that of the average reader. As an editor of and reviewer for Salon Books, I get sent at least a dozen books -- many of them "galley proofs," uncorrected advance copies of forthcoming titles -- every day. To most book lovers this probably sounds like heaven, but there's nothing like editing a book section to make you realize how much crap gets published. And 300 pages of dreck takes up just as much shelf space -- always at a premium in our office -- as 300 pages of genius; of course, the supply of dreck is far more copious. Once unwanted books are in our office, we've got to find a way to get them out again (those suckers are heavy), and even the keepers occupy a lot of room.

So if only for this reason, I'm disposed to like e-books. The paperback-sized reading device in my hand, the Rocket eBook Pro, holds up to 40 book-length texts, according to the e-manual that comes pre-installed in it. It weighs about the same as the average hardcover, but its left side is thicker and heavier than its right: It swells out into a curved ridge where the spine of a p-book would be. This asymmetry turns out to be one of the most pleasing aspects of the object's design and something that several people comment on when I hand it to them. The e-book nestles naturally in my left hand while I'm reading it, and the ridge makes it easy to carry around without worrying about accidentally dropping it. "Some market research went into this," one acquaintance said as he weighed the device appreciatively.

However, before I can actually use the e-book to read anything more that the pre-installed content (a dictionary, a user's manual and "Alice in Wonderland"), I've got to connect its cradle to my iMac and get the software that enables me to download texts from the Web to work properly. There are the usual delays; it's hard to buy any computer hardware these days without realizing at the moment of consummation that you don't have the right cable or driver, a disappointment that's a lot like being on the verge of sex and discovering you've got no birth control. The hassles are nothing egregious to someone who's not daunted by the technology to begin with, but I suspect that more inexperienced users might be stymied by them.

A day or two later, we're up and running. People who have tried the SoftBook Reader, a larger device produced by SoftBook Press (which, along with NuvoMedia, was purchased by Gemstar International Group Limited in January), tell me that you can plug that device directly into a phone line at night and download the next day's Wall Street Journal while you sleep. With the Rocket eBook, I've got to download documents to my iMac first, then transfer them to the e-book. The advantage of this procedure is that my computer can hold much more content than the device itself, and I can download dozens of files to RocketLibrarian, the software that manages those files on my hard drive, moving them into and out of the e-book as needed.

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Still, SoftBook's deal with the Journal intrigues me. Print newspapers get on my nerves. Every morning when I buy my copy of the New York Times, I have to extract and discard the sports section and often the automobile supplement. On Sundays, I automatically toss out a huge wad of the paper, mostly classifieds. When I'm done reading the sections I am interested in, there's another pile of newsprint to either jam guiltily in the wastebasket or lug over to the nearest recyclables depository. Besides, the large pages of broadsheets are difficult to read, especially on the subway, and the ink always seems to wind up smeared on my face.

I buy an e-book subscription to the Times, and even though it doesn't download while I sleep, it's still pretty handy. Soon I'm reading the day's top stories with a single, unbesmirched hand. If I'm on a crowded train and have to stand, I still have one hand free to hold on with as I read effortlessly through the articles -- no awkward folding, no tucking sections under my arms, no wresting the paper into a convenient position. I feel the unreasonable smugness of someone who has beaten the system. It's like shopping wholesale.

Here's what I see: The screen is fairly small, 4 1/2 inches by 3 inches and the default font resembles the classic Macintosh Geneva: sans serif with streamlined letter forms. The resolution is good but not anywhere close to that of print, and there's no color (not that I miss it) beyond the greenish glow that the screen gives off, which is identical to that of a Palm Pilot. The brightness of the backlighting, along with the font style and size and the page orientation, can be adjusted.

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The document I'm reading appears as one long, continuous stream of text. I use Page Forward/Back buttons built into the case to scroll down through it -- they're easy to push with the thumb of the hand that's holding the device. Along the right side of the screen there's a long, thermometer-style navigation bar that shows me how far along I am in the text. Menus enable me to switch to another document or book, to add underlines or annotations, to zip to specific pages, etc. I can activate them with a stylus attached to the e-book, but most of the time I just use my finger. Some documents, like the e-book edition of the New York Times, have hyperlinks so that you can touch one in a list of headlines and get the entire story.

But here's the inevitable rub: The version of the Times I've bought for my e-book contains only a small percentage of the stories that run in the edition I can buy at my corner newsstand. I get the top stories, mostly international, and way too much of the business coverage. But I don't get any of the arts coverage, including the book reviews, although I can pay extra to get the full books coverage plus some additional content from the Times' Web site. The stuff most e-book owners need to read may be the business coverage, but for me it's the cultural journalism. Plus, the one part of the paper I read purely for pleasure, the Metro section -- home to gnomic reports of strange crimes, tales of domestic tragedy and offbeat stories about exotic species of trees inexplicably discovered in Brooklyn -- is MIA as far as my e-book is concerned.

Likewise, most of the periodicals available in Rocket eBook format are the things that litter the coffee tables of early adopters: Bloomberg.com, the Industry Standard and -- hey -- there's Salon.com, but only a best-of collection that's sterling (if I do say so myself) but dated. My first request for Salon's "current weekly book review" gets me a piece that's a month old, and the second time I try I get an error message. Eventually I figure out how to transfer current Salon stories to the e-book by calling up each story, clicking on the "print this page" option, then saving the resulting page as an HTML file to my hard drive and then using RocketLibrarian to convert it to e-book format. This isn't hard, but it's tedious.

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Still, the ability to download Salon stories to my e-book turns out, surprisingly, to be one of the device's most appealing and useful features. As the amount of Salon's content has mushroomed, I've found myself reading less and less of it, because I already spend too much time at my computer. For me, it's not the actual screen that makes reading from a screen undesirable -- it's the fact that the screen is part of the machine I work on more than eight hours a day, restricted to a limited range of postures. Once I'm done working, I don't want to linger at my keyboard to do my recreational reading; sometimes I print stories out, but that seems like a waste of paper. With the e-book, I'm able to read my colleagues' work while stretched out on my sofa, curled up in my armchair, even as I chug along on the Stair Master at the gym.

But what about books themselves, the medium that the e-book is supposed to revolutionize? First I need to get some, so I troll Rocket-Library.com, the Rocket eBook community Web site, in search of books I can download for free. The titles there include public-domain favorites like "Jane Eyre," "Frankenstein" and the stories of Chekhov, along with more obscure titles reflecting the idiosyncratic tastes of the community's members. (Some big Andrew Lang fans in that crowd; and for some reason, if you read Portuguese this is the place for you.) I also find books that appear to have been written by e-book owners who have uploaded their magnum opuses to the site. I download a selection of titles that I hope will give me a sense of how various literary works hold up on the (other) small screen.

I've bought Stephen King's new "Riding the Bullet" and an e-book version of Arthur Golden's bestseller "Memoirs of a Geisha," which I wind up finding unengaging. If, by the time I get to page 40 or so in a novel, I discover that I really don't care whether I ever finish it, I usually don't -- and it peeves me that I shelled out $14 for this one. "Riding the Bullet," I discover, is short and not King at his creepy, page-turning best.

I start rummaging through the other stuff I downloaded and settle on a collection of G.K. Chesterton essays called "A Miscellany of Men." One of the essays describes how, as a young man, Chesterton once explored a half-built house, writing messages on the wall to its future inhabitant, and then, in middle age, went back to the place and asked if the man he had envisioned was at home. It's a peculiarly confessional piece, and reading it provides me with my first sublime e-book experience. I read it in bed, with all the lights off, the pale rectangle of the screen floating in the darkness over my duvet while Chesterton describes approaching the house at evening, seeing the light shining from the windows and hearing a girl playing the piano and singing inside. The way the darkness isolates the e-book screen mimics the way lighted windows glow in the night, and Chesterton's wistful pursuit of a decades-old whim seems so obliquely revealing that the moment feels intimate in the way the best reading should. I wonder if the personal essay, with its first-person voice, might be the form best suited to the e-book.

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I also read in public -- on the subway, on buses, in cafes, in bars, in the park and in the gym. I don't read in the bathtub because I'm afraid I'll drop the e-book in the water, and I don't read on the beach because it's March. In general, the darker the surroundings, the easier it is to read. My gym has very bright overhead lights, and the glare off the screen makes reading there somewhat uncomfortable. The fact that I don't have to hold the pages of the book open as I peddle the stationary bike, on the other hand, is a big advantage.

Some experts are skeptical about the future of reading devices like the Rocket eBook, and it's not hard to see why. They don't seem to be taking the world by storm. I've never seen anyone else reading one -- in fact, this was the first e-book device I'd ever seen, period. Personal Digital Assistants such as the Palm Pilot are often presented as the chief competitor to e-books. Companies like AvantGo make content (including Salon content) available in formats readable on Palm Pilots -- that's how a lot of people read "Riding the Bullet." I don't use a PDA myself, but I can see why someone who's already forked out between $200 and $300 for a Palm doesn't want to pay the same amount to get a slightly larger and less flexible device just for reading.

But the text display on the Palm can't compare to the Rocket eBook's for readability, and the addition of certain features might make the latter more appealing on balance. One of them certainly isn't sound, a feature NuvoMedia touts on its Web site. The Rocket e-book has speakers, but who cares? What would make this gadget far more handy is a wider selection of content. I may be reluctant to buy book-length works in e-book form, but I'd gladly get all my magazine subscriptions (the New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, Harper's, the New York Review of Books) in digital form -- no more piles of back issues gathering dust in my living room! And I'd want the full New York Times or I wouldn't want it at all. Other readers will probably lean toward something entirely different -- it's an idiosyncratic market -- so the offerings have to be both wide and deep.

Instead of tricking the e-book out in multimedia gewgaws, NuvoMedia should make its information-handling features more powerful. I can get an e-book file containing all the top stories from the New York Times for a particular day, but there's no easy way to set just one of those stories aside. In other words, the technology doesn't support clippings, one of the nice things about print newspapers that ought to be easy to replicate digitally. Endowing e-books with some kind of calendar and address-book capabilities -- not to mention games -- would make them even more appealing. The right price is also key. The miscellaneous people I consulted on this one seemed to agree upon $200; the top-of-the-line model I was using costs $269 from barnesandnoble.com.

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Will I keep this e-book or not? I still haven't decided. Over the past two weeks it has alternately exasperated and enchanted me, and in the end it may be the way that it makes Salon's content so much more easily accessible to me that decides the matter. That's pretty ironic when you consider that Salon is meant to be read on the screen to begin with, and that the only paper I'll be saving will be from our laser printer. Even I couldn't have predicted that.


Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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