The Magazine

Switched-On Book

Is the Sony Reader the library of the future?

Apr 2, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 28 • By DAVID SKINNER
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Advertisements for the Sony Reader, a hand-held device for perusing e-books, show pretty, natural settings where fans of literature might go and read away to their brain's content. The marketers of portable technology have long suggested a kind of objective correlative between the pleasure one takes in their products and the places they are used. So marking up spreadsheets on your laptop while reclining on a tropical beach is much more like reclining on a tropical beach than it is like marking up spreadsheets.

Readers should be less susceptible than others to such hidden persuasion. First, it's not as if books themselves aren't, for the most part, already portable. And second, location is usually irrelevant to the quality of one's reading experience. The new Mitch Albom is going to be just as awful to read on the subway as in a deck chair, feet up, overlooking the crystal waters of Lake Tahoe.

So the virtues of portability are being exaggerated, but the Sony Reader has other selling points; above all, its potential to reduce the clutter of books. For me, the perfect advertisement for this device would be a picture of my bedstand without its ever-present leaning tower of literature. More reading, the tagline would say, fewer books.

The Reader, which I have been test-driving for a couple of weeks, makes clear that books are becoming less necessary to a life of reading pleasure. It also makes clear that the gadget-makers have a ways to go in fine-tuning their product. And they know it.

The Reader currently sells for $350, literature not included. At 7" by 5" it's close to the size of a smallish paperback. Slim and light, it's much easier to carry or pack than a hardback. Its screen alone earns Sony bragging rights. Unlike a computer monitor with its backlighting, uncertain depth, and poor resolution, Sony's E Ink display scans almost as well as ink on paper. It requires outside lighting just as paper text does--which means it offers nothing new to readers in bed positioned next to a sleeping body--but reading an entire novel on it presented no unusual problems. And the style of literature matters less than you might think. In separate sessions, both lasting several hours, the long, embroidered sentences of Jonathan Swift were as easy to take in as the hammer-and-nail prose of Elmore Leonard.

Still, the Reader's shortcomings prove that whatever stage of development it represents, it is not to literature what the iPod is to music. Pages can be marked to help you find your way back to a passage, and the "continue reading" function returns you to the page reached before the device was last turned off. But pages cannot be marked with marginalia, a common enough practice with books that one hopes--or perhaps the verb "to dream" would be better here--that Sony is trying to figure how to make something like it possible with the Reader.

Also, maneuverability within books and within the Reader is limited. Text is not searchable. Flipping through several pages in a row is a small ordeal. A row of small buttons beneath the screen allows you to choose items from a central menu. Unfortunately, the buttons, like the Reader's small mouse-type pointer, are awkward and hard to use. The buttons can help you shift through a long text but do not correspond to obvious reference points like chapter openings, and the selection system is slow to respond.

The Reader also plays audio files, and well--but not as well as an iPod. And the Reader can store and show pictures, though only in grainy black and white. You can purchase graphic novels from the online Sony Connect Store, but displayed on the screen, their images will remind you of art-section reviews in which fine art is dressed down in cheap newsprint.

To be read, e-book files must first be downloaded onto a PC. The Reader is not compatible with Macs, another major shortcoming. Software is provided to help organize all of your files and move them on and off the Reader. As for purchasing reading material, the Sony Connect Store website sells both novels and nonfiction, but it offers only spotty coverage of new and old titles.

Thinking I would test the Reader by simply buying digital copies of the four or five books I am currently in the middle of (including two recent New York Times "notables," so nothing too obscure), I realized that none of these was available from the Connect Store. Browsing within genres reveals many bare spots. For instance, this may be the only bookstore without an Abraham Lincoln biography. Fans of cutting-edge fiction will not find Dave Eggers or Jonathan Safran Foer, but they will find Jonathan Lethem. Philip Roth, no. John Updike, yes. The great period in Russian literature is well represented, though I could not find Nikolai Gogol's Diary of a Madman. I was only partly consoled to find the Sony Connect Store stocked many other "Diaries," including those of "A Working Girl," "A Married Call Girl," "A Teenage Stud," and so on. Prices varied, but many e-books were selling for under 10 bucks.

There are other e-book sellers. Ebooks.com has several times as many books for sale, but does not offer them in a format usable on the Reader. Amazon.com, too, sells e-docs and e-books, but these are also a no-go. The Sony Reader accepts PDFs, and there are loads of worthy texts available in PDF on the Internet, but they are generally formatted for 8.5" x 11" paper, so when shrunk onto the screen of the Reader the words are too small to read.

For classics buffs with a Sony Reader, the goldmine of e-literature is manybooks.net, where copyright-expired works (those published before 1923 along with some others) are available free and in Sony format. So are many of the canonical texts of Western literature, including many in foreign languages, and much else besides, all of it gratis.

In a brief phone interview, Sony vice president Ron Hawkins said that within a year the number of titles available in the Sony Connect Store will more than double. "We recognize that a significant multiple of content is required." Also, he said, eventually e-books for the Reader would be sold by other retailers, and Sony was already talking with a handful of potential distributors. The company's current business plan assumes that "multiple other retailers" will be involved. They are also looking at potential improvements to the Reader's software and hardware.

None of which yet saves the faithful reader from the clutter of his books. If, today, I threw out all the books in my house that could be uploaded for free onto a Sony Reader, at least one of my bookcases (out of five or six) could be retired. What I'd really like is to keep only as many books as could be squeezed into one or two bookcases.

The Sony Reader may not be the hottest thing going in the world of hand-held technologies, but it may yet gain some heat. For now, it is certainly a step in the right direction for those who love the written word more than they do the endless stacks of paper and ink.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.