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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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.