For a time there, it looked as if e-readers would be a dismal, faddish flop. It was hard to argue with the preliminary assessment of Steve Jobs: “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed.”

In the decade before the Sony e-reader arrived in 2006, one heard persistent rumors about electronic books. But beyond a few propeller-headed enthusiasts who had to have the latest gadget, the whole issue was a bore. Then Sony brought out the first successfully marketed e-reader and, to most people, it was still a bore. Only in the past year-and-a-half, with the nimble marketing of Amazon’s Kindle, have

e-readers finally become sexy—so sexy in fact that now Apple has gotten into the act. Last week, they unveiled the iPad, whose large touchscreen interactivity may well revolutionize both the act of reading and print media as we know them. Suddenly you find people in the subway or on the beach peering into these gadgets, which have started to weave themselves into the fabric of our culture.

And yet, for all that, it is difficult for most people to see the “killer app” in e-readers, the one new feature that a sizeable segment of the population will feel it cannot live without. To be sure, reading is nice—if you like that sort of thing—but the sewn codex that has been the vector of the written word for much of the past 19 centuries performs its function admirably well. And while the prospect of getting the latest bestseller for half-price in electronic form is also nice, it is unlikely to make people see the imperative need to go out and buy this fairly expensive contraption (it sells for around $260).

Then there is the mounting chatter about a synergy between e-readers and newspapers that will increase the popularity of the former while saving the latter at the same time. But even that, though highly desirable, is unlikely to be the killer app.

But in the meantime, within the context of that dreary assessment, the e-reader already possesses, for some of us, an unanticipated flash of pure sublimity, one that has been universally overlooked. Assuming that you love to read, and assuming that your main area of interest is older literature, then the

e-reader, as it exists today, is already one of the most awe-inspiring implements ever invented for the advancement of human knowledge.

As of now, the Library of Alexandria is at your finger-tips, a click away on the world wide web. And there is no better or more convenient way to use it than through the medium of an e-reader. Reading on a screen is onerous, and printing up a thousand pages of text is ridiculous, not to mention costly. But the e-reader allows you to carry around and to hold in your hand upwards of 500 volumes which, through the ingenious expedient of electronic ink, have the look and feel of an actual book. Virtually all of world literature, historiography, and philosophy published prior to 1923 (when contemporary copyright laws kick in) is now available for free in word documents or PDF files somewhere on the Internet. Not only the breadth, but also the depth, of what is available today is staggering and humbling.

Consider Project Gutenberg, which ranks with Wikipedia as one of the noblest institutions ever created for the dissemination of knowledge and the refinement of the human mind. In the past 24 hours (as of this writing), the site has added 11 volumes to a roster that has swollen to over 30,000 texts, all available for free. Among these new works are two novels by Willkie Collins, a tragedy in verse by Benjamin Disraeli (!), and a collection of stories (in German) by the eminent Biedermeier novelist Adalbert Stifter. Consider also that, even within the context of these authors’ oeuvres, most of the aforementioned works are so obscure as to be out of print. These newest additions join 40 other titles by Collins, 20 others by Disraeli, and three by Stifter that are already on the Project Gutenberg site. And while the site has relatively few works by Stifter compared with its offerings of Disraeli and Collins (because it favors English authors and books in English), it still offers a great many works in other languages, among them Afrikaans, Aleut, Arapaho, Breton, and Bulgarian.

To remedy the deficiencies (relatively speaking) in Project Gutenberg’s foreign language offerings, it helps to go to sites linked to the national libraries of the languages in question. Even if you can’t read a word of Spanish, you ought to feel awe before the Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes. The 17th-century dramatist Lope de Vega is in all likelihood the most prolific dramatist in human history: He is estimated to have written over 1,800 plays, of which the site offers 425—because only 425 of these plays survive. The site offers similar depth for authors like Tirso de Molina and Quevedo, who were scarcely less prolific than Lope. And there are sites every bit as good for German, Catalan, Italian, and French literature. Even if you don’t read Russian, it is nice to know that every surviving syllable of Tolstoy, that prolific titan, is available on one website, from his novels and journalism to his diaries and correspondence.

Regarding dead languages like Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit, things are even better. Every scrap of Latin that survives from antiquity is available online, as are most medieval texts. Meanwhile, the estimable Dana F. Sutton of the University of California, Irvine, has assembled the Philological Museum which, over the past 10 years, has assembled links to more than 33,000 Latin texts written during or since the Renaissance, an astounding number given that it probably represents half of all the texts ever published in Latin in that period.

Taken altogether, the result of this torrent of texts is a revolution in the interaction of the individual and world literature. Now the great corpus of world literature, rather than being something you purchase in single, costly installments, becomes a kind of glowing mass that is out there in the ether, available to everyone everywhere, at all times and at no cost, a thing as freely available as air or water or sunlight.

Many of these texts, it is true, are in PDF files which, to date, e-readers have been very bad at accommodating. That is a shame, since all of the texts scanned by Google Books are in this form. The issue, however, has largely been solved by the newest version of the Amazon Kindle, whose screen is far larger and looks much better than the earliest version. And now the iPad is the first e-reader to offer color, a major step in their merging with newspapers and magazines.

Another overlooked glory of the e-reader is that it permits you to create your own personalized edition of the work in question. You can append an introductory essay or the author’s entry from Wikipedia, add annotations that are also available online, or add whatever other texts and commentaries you please.

There are those who will lament the gradual passing of the physical book as an institution and work of art. And there will also be some who will decry the e-reader on the grounds that it cheapens the act of reading. It is true that the more difficult it is to obtain a text, the more we cherish it once it is acquired. When only two copies of Lucretius existed in 14th-century Europe, and when you had to trek across an entire continent just to read it, surely you valued the opportunity more than most of us can imagine today. But that must not detract from the infinitely greater service to culture and to the study of world literature that comes from the prospect of having these works available to us for free at any moment and in any land.

James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library).

Next Page