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Books in Boxes

By Roger M. Williams

Seldom does hi-tech wizardry produce a gadget with innate appeal to the very population it seems determined to decimate: devoteés of the printed word. But that’s what has happened with the advent of Amazon’s Kindle and the ensuing arrival of Sony Readers, trailed by an increasingly large flock of competitors. Granted, the text is printed on screens and transmitted to them electronically, but the result nonetheless buttresses the notion that humans still want to—and actually can—decipher language that’s spelled and punctuated the way our teachers imparted it to us. In other words, that books in some form have a future.

Maybe not books as we’ve known them. But that shouldn’t be a deal breaker for bibliophiles. The text’s the thing, not the means of displaying it, right?

Amazon, Sony, et. al. are betting big bundles that readers around the world will answer “yes.” So far the bet is looking good. Sales of “e-books” have doubled each month—while the market for print books remains shaky. Late last December, Amazon announced that its holiday sales of Kindle-format books outsold those of traditional books by

a wide margin. How should lifelong printed-book readers react to all that? Give it a firm stiff arm? If only to be prudent, no. The stakes are too high, for, as one analyst notes, we’re talking about nothing less than “the most important artifacts of human civilization.”

Practically speaking, what’s it like dealing with an

e-reader? Start with the physical. It’s a lightweight, attractive object about the size and weight of a paperback book. To oldsters like us, its capabilities, like those of do-everything cell “phones,” are impressive. (Most of the following points are generic rather than product-specific; you can find plenty of the latter online.)

A single Kindle can hold as many as 1,500 books—enough to get me through a rainy weekend—and can also display newspapers and periodicals. Owners can download entire books in a minute or less. A typical price for one: $10, less than half what Amazon charges for a hard copy of a bestseller. Screens range in size from 5 to 9.7 inches, which obviously affects the size of the type and, with it, ease of reading by older or tired eyes. Fortunately, pages can be turned quickly with the press of a button. The 9.7-inch screen, which comes with the latest Kindle (the DX model) makes it much less cumbersome to read large-format offerings.

The keyboards’ tiny keys can be difficult to deal with. Again, paying a higher price will ease that problem. It

will also enable you to download PDFs. You former teachers will be interested to learn that downloads can now be made onto iPhones, which means students will probably be sneaking peeks at romance novels during class.

(And speaking of tiny tools: e-reading enthusiasts with iPhones are now downloading books onto them—providing not only miniscule keys but also a mere couple of dozen words per “page.”)

Other downsides? Some brands oblige the user to obtain materials via a computer rather than in wireless fashion. Also, there are no computer-like “folders” so that you can sort materials by genre. Control buttons, like the keyboards, can present problems to people with limited finger dexterity. The largest models feel heavy if held for a considerable period while reading. Available books can be, and have occasionally been withdrawn from circulation—right out of your device.

Prices range from a couple of hundred dollars for the original or bare-bones models to $489 for the DX, which made its debut last October. All Kindle models are available only through Amazon online, leading to consumer complaints that they cannot be “test driven” before purchase. So, a bit of caveat, you emptors!

Rebecca Rhinehart, Waynesboro, Miss.— I’ve used a Kindle and really liked it. The main reason is that you order your reading material, and it’s all paper-less. Also, you don’t have to leave home: You can do every-thing from an easy chair.

If I were still teaching, I would consider using Kindle because technology is how children learn now, and they know what to do with it. Besides, with textbook costs nearing $100 per book, paperless is the way to go for the school district. It’s good for teachers, too: The teacher who now has to look for information will be able to get it instantly.

Susanne Bensing, Lebanon, Penn.— I have not tried the electronic books, and frankly, I don’t see the appeal. As one who loves to read and reread and underline and write comments in the margins, they seem too much like work and too little like fun. I understand the appeal and convenience, but am hesitant to give up the “book in hand” enjoyment. I’m still a fan of book clubs and of paging through a favorite selection with friends; there’s nothing like reading aloud and pondering styles and turns of phrase.

Once again, technology has come up with another way to isolate us from real conversations and real interactions.

Meg Selig, St. Louis, Mo.— I can envision traveling somewhere for a long period and taking along a Kindle containing downloads of many e-books, rather than lugging around a bunch of paperbacks, as I normally do. As a writer about healthy habits, I think supplying e-readers to young students could prevent a lot of health problems, especially with the back. However, I wonder what eye specialists would say about potential vision problems from reading extensively on electronic devices. And I certainly don’t find reading on a computer as pleasant as reading a regular book, with its special feel and look.

— R.M.W.

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5-Jan-10


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