My new Sony Reader doesn't do a lot of things. Unlike the Kindle, it doesn't go online at all—meaning I can't buy e-books on it, whereas the Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook are hyperefficient book-buying machines—and it doesn't have a keyboard. It only displays in black and white; if you want to read e-comics, you'll have to get an iPad like everyone else did last year. Almost every review of the Sony Reader I've found references these "problems" with a certain air of disappointment, as though the device somehow arrived pre-broken.
But here's what my Sony Reader does do: It looks good and it works well. The left side of the device is rounded, giving it a nice rolled-spine feel. It's slender and light, and with its five-inch screen that resembles a mass-market paperback page in size and clarity, it's immensely satisfying to hold. Within the brushed aluminum bezel, each page looks like a framed object. It has a smooth touch screen that allows you to turn pages by swiping a finger across it. By double-tapping a word, you can look up its definition in the Oxford Dictionary of English (without having to drag out my OED and magnifying glass, I learned that "eirenicon" means "a proposal made as a means of achieving peace") or other onboard dictionaries. And tucked along the right-side edge is a stylus, enabling the reader to take handwritten notes directly on the page or highlight passages. (You can then download those passages into RTF files that can be cut and pasted into other documents, making a quotation-happy book reviewer's job exactly 1,248 percent easier.) And unlike the Kindle, the Sony Reader can access e-books that have been downloaded from libraries.
If you received an e-reader for Christmas, or if, like me, you finally decided to do the research and take advantage of pre- and post-Christmas sales, the first thing you should do is download Calibre on your home computer. Calibre is a free, open-source iTunes for e-books that organizes the files, transmutes them from one format to another (I prefer EPUB for its simple versatility), easily shuttles files to and from your device, and allows the user to regain some control over their e-books. As the blogger Cory Doctorow has pointed out, "When Amazon 'sells' you a Kindle ebook, they don't really sell it to you. If you read the fine-print, you'll see that they're waving their hands furiously and declaring that you aren't 'buying' the book, but rather 'taking a license to a limited set of uses' for the book. Whereas a book that you buy comes with all kinds of rights, such as the right to sell or give the book away... a book that you license from Amazon comes with a very small subset of those rights, as defined by a lengthy and difficult-to-grasp 'license agreement.'"
Reviews of e-readers always have a bunch of hardware and software information, but they rarely talk about the experience of reading. The most positive reviews of e-readers echo Jeff Bezos's statement that in creating an e-reader, Amazon's "top objective was to make the Kindle disappear" in the reading experience, the way you don't think about the book as an object while you're reading a book. But here's the thing: Reading on an e-reader is a different experience than reading a book. An e-book is not a book; just because you have tens of thousands of words in one place doesn't make something a book. (Here, I'm obviously referring to the most basic, bound-and-paginated definition of a book as a solid object. If we get too philosophical about it, we'll be here all week.)
Most of us were taught as children to respect books. We scold kids for tearing pages or scribbling on books with crayons. We're taught to return books to the library in the condition that we withdrew them. We react with visceral horror to the idea of book burnings; no other inorganic object seems so pained in a very human way as a book engulfed in flames. But an e-book is a file, and as computer users, we have very different relationships with files than we do with books. Files are for use: We fiddle with their preferences, we delete them, we rename them and copy them and stretch them, sometimes to the point of crashing. It's impossible to ascribe the same childish sense of awe and authority to a file as we do to books.
Files are for arguments. Even on a subconscious level, this affects the reading process. And not necessarily in a bad way. Files are more conversational than books; they knock the content down a notch or two in esteem. Any schmuck can make a file, but self-publishing even one physical book requires an outlay of money to hire a craftsman's expertise.
Put simply: Reading an e-book is more like reading a magazine article than reading a physical book. And that's fine—recently, I've read the Rod Serling–esque anthology Machine of Death (available free at www.machineofdeath.net/ebook), a collection of stories about a machine that can predict—sometimes cryptically—how people are going to die; local author Matthew Simmons's dry, funny short fiction about one-man black-metal bands, The Moon Tonight Feels My Revenge (available for the "price" of a promotional Twitter or Facebook post at www.keyholepress.com/store/minibooks); and other excellent short stories. A file is just as good a medium for short fiction as a magazine, and many would argue that the lack of advertising renders them superior. Last week, Amazon.com launched its Kindle Singles program, publishing novella-length fiction and very long nonfiction essays for 99 cents to $3. Smart move. If a discerning e-publisher were to start selling quality short stories as hyperaffordable—50 cents or less—individual units, it would presumably rediscover an eager market for short fiction. In the lawless land of the e-book, good writers and editors could carve a niche as important to the future of short fiction as the New Yorker was in the middle of the last century.
E-books also provide an affordable way to explore the past. Through Google's e-book collection, I have downloaded and read two astounding works of bigotry that no city library would bother to keep on hand: 1907's The Negro: A Menace to American Civilization by Robert Wilson Shufeldt and Almroth Wright's 1913 tract The Unexpurgated Case Against Woman Suffrage. Sample passage by Wright: "Nor does feminist ambition stop short [on the matter of suffrage]. It demands that women shall be included in every advisory committee, every governing board, every jury, every judicial bench, every electorate, every parliament, and every ministerial cabinet; further, that every masculine foundation, university, school of learning, academy, trade union, professional corporation and scientific society shall be converted into an epicene institution—until we shall have everywhere one vast cock-and-hen show."
Reading those two e-books back-to-back gives you quite a bit of perspective on the modern-day bigotry and racism and anti-gay-rights campaigns of the Christian and teabagger movements. (Shufeldt begins his book with an extended version of the Tea Partyish caveat "I'm not racist, but..." And like the most virulent anti-gay preacher, he seems to have some lustful affection for the target of his hate, considering the loving detail Shufeldt lavishes on his photographs of topless black and "mulatto" women throughout the book.) The lighter tone of the file drains these two books of a lot of their ghastly power, even as they make the past more intimate. Google has millions of these previously unattainable books available for free now; a reviewer or blogger could make a very worthwhile career out of spelunking these books that have barely been read for a century or more.
E-books enjoyed stratospheric growth last year, and they're poised for more in 2011. Presumably, we'll see more ambitious authors using the files for everything they're worth, employing visual, video, and audio possibilities to create something entirely new. Readers should learn to love the e-book for what it is, not what it isn't: a method of communication with its own strengths and weaknesses. Don't be afraid.