[9 October 2007]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
In July, when I went on vacation, I decided to take along the essays of Michel de Montaigne—all of them, in a single volume running to 3,271 pages. A heavy and unwieldy choice, right? Not at all. The whole thing fitted nicely into a packet less than half an inch thick and weighing just nine ounces.
Welcome to Sony Reader. I downloaded the Montaigne volume from Sony’s online e-book store—cost me about $3, if memory serves—but the model of Sony’s digital device that I was sent for review already included four other complete books (among them, oddly enough, George Orwell’s “1984”) and excerpts from 11 others (including the dreaded “The Da Vinci Code”).
It comes with 64 megabytes of built-in memory and can hold 80 e-books—hundreds more if you add memory with either a stick or a card. Go to the online e-book store on your computer and you can, for instance, download John Sandford’s “Dark of the Moon” or Alan Greenspan’s memoir at a modest discount ($21.56 and $28, respectively, versus $17.99 and $20.99 at Amazon for the paper versions).
Obviously, the ability to carry around the equivalent of a small library has immense potential (the Sony Reader also lets you download personal documents as PDF files, and you can store photos in it and listen to audio files).
But the crucial question is a fairly simple one: How readable is it? The principal reason e-books haven’t caught on is that print on a screen hasn’t been able to compete with ink on paper when it comes to readability. E-books have, for example, proved less than ideal for reading in full sunlight.
The Sony Reader seems to have solved that problem. I’ve read mine in full summer sunlight on my patio. I’ve read it in morning and evening twilight on the sofa in my living room. I’ve read it in bed in ordinary lamp light. And I’ve read it on the bus and on the subway. It’s easily as readable as newsprint, and sunlight is certainly no problem. In fact, the brighter the light, the easier it is to read.
Now, I tend to read in short spurts—a half hour here, 45 minutes there. How the Sony Reader would compare to reading a book for several hours straight, say, on a cross-country air flight, I have no way of knowing.
But I do know that, from a strictly selfish angle, I wouldn’t mind using it to download review books—if for no other reason than the convenience of the book-marking feature. No need to take out a pen and write down a page number. Just the click of a button.
So the Sony Reader is promising. Only promising? What’s not to like?
A number of things. Navigation is not the easiest—what there is to navigate. It took me quite a while, for instance, to figure out how to go to the table of contents of Montaigne’s essays and scroll down to the one I wanted, so I could click it on. The help feature was no help. I had to figure it out for myself by trial and error. It seems you can only do it spottily, and I’m still not good at it.
Sony would have done well to consult with the experts—otherwise known as readers. Then they might have taken into consideration what such people look for when they open a book. There is a reason why books have indexes. Surely an electronic reader can be devised that would enable one to look at an index and go from there to a given page. (A newer version, by the way, which Sony announced last week, will allow you to use the number keys in order to go directly to a specific page.) And God knows, a search feature would seem de rigueur these days.
Another shortcoming has to do with the books that are available. The edition of Montaigne is the 1877 edition of Charles Cotton’s 1685 translation. Not only are there more modern translations, there also are better ones, notably, and indeed outstandingly, Donald Frame’s from 1958. One would think that the Sony Reader would prove an ideal vehicle for works like this and that publishers like Penguin Classics or the Library of America would be amenable to some sort of deal.
Of course, there would have to be some sort of deal for the reader, too. Right now, after you’ve coughed up the $235 it’ll cost you to buy a Sony Reader on Amazon, there’s the price of the books you download. It would seem that the electronic version of a book ought to be noticeably cheaper than a hardback version. But such is not the case so far—as the aforementioned cost of the Sandford and Greenspan books indicates.
If Sony manages to makes its reader more, well, reader friendly, the potential is obvious, especially for those who travel a lot or who commute via public transportation. And imagine if kids could download all the books they use in school? No more backbreaking backpacks to shoulder.
In short, Sony seems to have come up with a pretty good electronic answer to ink or paper. Now all they have to do is read up on how books actually work.