Saturday, January 10, 2009

My Bookshelves May Be Doomed

Like most book people, I can get effusive about the rituals of reading books, about the feel of a nicely bound book, about the smell of the paper and the binding. Many book people—and I used to think I was firmly among this group—find the very idea of electronic book readers appalling. They can't imagine that any ebook reader, no matter how wonderful, could ever satisfactorily replace Real Books.

Now, having worked in a real bookstore a couple of decades ago (it's defunct now, of course), I have fewer illusions about the wonderfulness of physical books than many people. Books are messy—they get dusty fast and even brand new books shed paper lint all over. They're heavy, they take up room (and that's a big problem for those of us who are constantly running out of shelf space), and sometimes it's hard to find just the part you're looking for in them. But it's never been easy for me to give away books (though my shelf-pruning skills have improved as the linear footage of books I own has grown) or, eek, throw them away.

But the drawbacks to physical books have never come close to making me look for an electronic book reader, and none of the current crop, like the Sony Reader or Amazon's Kindle, have done much to change my mind. The idea is good, but the execution is lacking. Neither is particularly attractive and both have monochrome screens which are slow to refresh—they scream "I am an electronic substitute for a real book."

But I'm beginning to be able to envision an appealing ebook reader, thanks to my iPhone. With one of the available ebook apps (I've got Stanza), I can (and do) carry a few classic books (most of Austen, Moby Dick, all of Shakespeare) around with me all the time. On the iPhone, they're in color—text pages are true black and white, not that irritating grayscale—and I can flick through multiple pages with the touch of a finger, do searches, and make notes. Of course, the pages are small, and if you bump up the print size enough for presbyopic eyes to cope, you're left with only a couple of sentences per screen, so it's not the ideal way to read.

But imagine something the size of the Kindle or Sony Reader, with an iPhone-style touchscreen. You'd have the capacity to carry a minor library around with you, the gestures to browse through and manipulate the text with ease, and the visual appeal to satisfy the eye.

One of these days Real Soon Now, there will be an ebook reader that will satisfy even Book People.

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