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Getting a Good Read on Electronic Books

November 02, 2000|DAVID COLKER |

Harold Bloom, one of America's most prominent literary critics, minces no words on the rise of electronic books.

"I regard all this as one more horrible disaster," Bloom said. "I hope it sinks without a trace."

Not without a well-financed fight. This month marks the splashy debut of three digital reading devices, the fancy name for electronic books. Although hand-held, battery-powered units that flip pages at the press of a button have been around for two years, the devices may finally have evolved to the point of being readable enough and cheap enough to attract a wider audience.

Each of the new units can hold several books at once--downloaded via the Internet for a fee generally lower than the price of buying them bound.

Two models in particular--both marketed under the RCA name--boast major improvements in screen technology and ergonomics over previous readers.

"They cross the threshold of what is required to enjoy reading on a device," said James Sachs, chief executive of Softbook Press, the Silicon Valley company that designed one of the readers.

But the fundamental question remains: How many people will find digital readers more convenient, portable or useful than books, perhaps the most convenient, portable and useful invention of all time? As one of the most sacred artifacts of civilization, books could prove to be one of the last frontiers of the digital age. Bloom, who believes that the computer has hurt serious reading in general, believes that e-books would be a major step backward.

"Imagine that for the last 500 years we had nothing but e-books, and then there was some great technological advance that brought us the printed and bound book," Bloom said. "We would all be ecstatic. We would be celebrating after the long horror of the e-book."

Unlike Bloom, some literary figures embrace the e-book--at least for certain kinds of reading.

"The notion of having one book when I travel, with everything I need downloaded on it, would be unbelievable," said author Anne Fadiman, whose father, Clifton, brought his love of books and literature to post-World War II America through appearances on radio and television. "Similarly for students, even in grade school," she said. "My daughter is in the sixth grade, and her books are so heavy that she uses a backpack on wheels."

In fact, Fadiman's daughter is just the kind of reader--growing up at a time when reading off an electronic screen is not a novelty--who might be more accepting of an e-book. But Fadiman, whose own essays on books are collected in the highly praised tome "Ex Libris," fears the acceptance might go too far.

"I am frightened of e-books, because I am worried they will eventually displace books," she said. "The whole tactile, sensory, individual aspects of printed books would disappear. The thickness of the pages, how they are cut, the binding, type of paper, design, typeface--they're all part of the experience.

"The e-book as an addition to our lives is something I'm 100% for. As a replacement, I'm 100% against."

Sachs, who co-designed the Macintosh computer mouse and later developed the popular animated toy Teddy Ruxpin, tried to mollify the fears of book lovers. "We are not in a war with books; books are not going to go away," he said at a recent Washington conference.

At the end of his talk, he briefly held up the two most eagerly anticipated readers, the REB1100 and REB1200 (the "R" stands for RCA and the "EB" for e-book). After several minutes of passing the machines back and forth, a small group that got to try them clearly favored the lighter, cheaper, black-and-white 1100, which will retail for about $299.

The reader is the direct descendant of the Rocket e-book, which was put out in 1998 by NovuMedia, which has since been absorbed by multimedia giant Gemstar. It weighs in at 1 pound, 2 ounces--about half a pound less than the Rocket--and has a much surer, rubberized grip that allows for easy one-handed use.

Its sharp, backlighted screen measures 5 1/2 inches diagonally, which is smaller than a mass-market paperback page, but the size of the type on the reader can be adjusted. This was appreciated by several in the crowd. "I boost [the type size] up and these middle-aged eyes can read it with no problem," said Stephen Cole, 47, an Australian entrepreneur.

The typeface used is always the same, whether the book is "War and Peace" or Stephen King's latest. Fadiman, who once saw a Rocket e-book on display in a bookstore but didn't wait in line to try it, was not crazy about the single typeface.

"That's part of the character of a book, part of the effect," she said.

The 1100's memory of 8mb is enough to hold about 8,000 black-and-white pages, or about 25 good-size novels. And the rechargeable battery can last for 20 to 40 hours, depending on how bright it's kept, according to RCA.

The 1200 is the larger, color model, but that comes at a much higher price: $699.

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