The Browser

I Have Read the Future

At dinner. In a taxi. On the john. With my electronic book.

Since the launch of Slate nearly three years ago, we’ve joked about how you’d know when online magazines were ready for mass consumption. It would be when you could take them, like print magazines, to the bathroom. Well, I’m here to tell you: I’ve read Slate on the john.

Among the other places I have been reading Slate, Salon, an electronic version of the Wall Street Journal, and the e-texts of various novels and short stories, in last couple of weeks:

  • Aloud to my wife in a car at night
  • In a taxi, again at night
  • While brushing my teeth
  • On a plane without an overhead light
  • Standing on the subway
  • In bed
  • While eating Chinese food with chopsticks

These are situations in which reading is ordinarily either awkward or impossible. They present no challenge, however, to my new favorite gizmo, the Rocket eBook. I’m not what you would call an early adopter when it comes to consumer electronics. I don’t have a DVD player, an MP3 player, or a Palm Pilot. But I’m ready to blow $499 on a Rocket as soon as I have to send my demo model back. This chunky little device, which weighs just under a pound and a half, actually deserves that overused epithet “revolutionary,” because it has the power to change something as basic to human civilization as the way people read.

A lot has happened since I wrote about last fall. You can now actually buy two different models. One is the Softbook, which at $299 appears less expensive than the Rocket but actually costs more because you must commit to spending $479 on books over two years as part of the package. The Softbook is a writing-tablet-size screen with a leather cover that gives off what someone must have imagined to be the musty scent of an old book (but is actually the smell of a new shoe). The Softbook’s one big advantage is that you don’t need a PC to use it. You buy books directly from Softbook and download them into the reader via a phone line. But the Softbook has two big disadvantages. The first is that it’s poorly designed. The screen is hard to read, navigating text is clumsy, and the whole device has an unbalanced feel. The second drawback is it doesn’t work. After reading a bit of preloaded text–The Sea Wolf, by Jack London–I couldn’t download anything else, and my Softbook soon purged its preloaded content as well. The only other person I know who has a Softbook reports a similar failure.

By contrast, the Rocket, which is made by a Silicon Valley start-up called NuvoMedia, is ergonomically sound, with the pleasing heft of a folded-over paperback. The screen is superb, and you get a choice of large or small print as well as a variety of lighting settings. You can orient the text horizontally or vertically and position the grip for left- or right-handed use. And because it doesn’t need to be held open, you can read the Rocket one-handed. In fact, you can even prop it up and read no-handed if you’re eating something greasy or shaving. All you need is one clean finger to click the “forward” and “back” buttons that move the text a page at a time. The battery lasts for some 30 hours before needing to be recharged.

And while the process of getting stuff to read on the Rocket is a bit involved, it actually works remarkably well. First, you load the Rocket software onto your PC. Second, you register your eBook and get an ID and a password. Third, you go to the Barnes & Noble Web site, which is (but won’t be for long) the exclusive distributor of Rocket-formatted content, and make your e-purchase. Fourth, Barnes & Noble sends you an e-mail message with a Web link that allows you to download what you’ve purchased into the “Rocket Library” on your PC. Fifth, you transfer your book from your PC’s Rocket Library to your Rocket, which has 4 mb of memory (enough to hold 20 medium-length novels). The only hitch I encountered in this procedure was that Barnes & Noble took a few hours to e-mail the link I needed to download books I bought. (I understand that this is not an uncommon problem.) Instant gratification is an important part of the appeal of e-books, and I found this delay slightly maddening.

T here are other drawbacks of the sort you would expect from any infant technology. Barnes & Noble stocks only 524 eBook titles at present, an unfortunately large number of them in the business and self-help categories. You can buy Endless Referrals: Network Your Everyday Contacts Into Sales and Life Without Stress: The Far Eastern Antidote to Tension and Anxiety (which would seem to cancel each other out) but not Uncovering Clinton or The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Recent publications are gratuitously overpriced. The discount price of Angela’s Ashes is $10.40 in paperback, $17.50 in hardcover, and $20 for the eBook edition.

This makes no sense when you consider that the publisher has eliminated such expenses as paper, printing, binding, warehousing, distribution, and “returns.” Another advantage for publishers is that because a book is encrypted for a single user, it can’t be copied, forwarded, or resold. So, why are publishers setting e-book list prices so high? Because they fear e-books, even as bookstores, including a sizable group of independent shops, embrace them. When you think about it, though, their positions might well be reversed. If e-books become a real alternative to p-books, publishers stand to gain by eliminating most of their fixed costs and by being able to keep everything in print forever. They might even envision cutting out the middleman, namely the bookstore. If I retailed books, I’d be worried. This, however, is only one scenario. Martin Eberhard, the CEO of NuvoMedia, thinks booksellers will remain part of the process. “When’s the last time you went shopping for a Simon & Schuster book?” he asks. And it might be established authors who would try to do an end run around publishers. “It’s not clear who gets disintermediated,” he says.

T he really good news is that readers can disintermediate both publishers and booksellers and get thousands of books and magazines free. Just last week, Rocket released a beta version of software that lets anyone upload texts to its site, creating a kind of open-source library. The site offers Hamlet, the Art of War, and Aesop’s Fables, among other titles. But more significantly, the Rocket eBook lets you download any text-based content from the Web or your hard drive. With the Rocket software, I downloaded Daisy Miller, Our Mutual Friend, and some other fiction in the public domain from the Project Gutenberg Web site before a transcontinental flight. Another feature I love is that you can find remembered passages by word-searching these texts. You can also highlight words and look them up in the pre-installed Random House Dictionary, though it didn’t have “arras,” which James Wood used in last week’s discussion of Vladimir Nabokov in Slate’s”Book Club” (it means “tapestry”). And I figured out how to download the full weekly text of Slate in one go by converting the Slate on Paper Microsoft Word file to the HTML format. (Late-model word processors allow you to use the “Save As” function to save documents in HTML.)

E-books are going to evolve. They will get lighter, their screens will get more legible, and their batteries will last longer. Soon, they may do what a related device called the Audible can do, and actually read to you, either via sound files or text-to-voice software. E-books may converge with other handheld devices. You can use the newest palm-sized organizers as talking books or readers–though you wouldn’t want to read a novel on one, at least not yet. Most important, e-books will get cheaper. They may even be given away, or sold at a token price with content purchase agreements or subscriptions, on the model of cell phones. But I have no doubt that they’re coming. And when they truly arrive, I predict that the Rocket will be remembered as a landmark: The first demonstration that reading a “book” didn’t require paper, ink, or even an overhead light.