Remember Ned Ludd? He's the guy who tried to stop the Industrial Revolution by destroying textile machines. Nice try. For his efforts, he became the root of a noun describing anyone in opposition to the new. Let's get one thing straight right away:
I am no Ned Ludd. I'm not even a Luddite.
In fact, I'm proud to say I came early to computers, back in the mid-'80s—remember the supposedly portable Kaypro?—and have upgraded regularly ever since. I keep the same AOL address I got originally in 1990, and while I may have been the last person in New York City to get an iPod (a few months ago), I only panicked a little tiny bit during the setup process. What's more, I started looking into and writing about the so-called e-book revolution the first time around, more than five years ago.
Unlike some of my bookish friends, I don't necessarily think the advent of e-reading technology is yet another indicator of the decline of Western civilization. I also travel a lot, and the expedience of a large-wallet—sized device that can carry many titles for the weight of one is plenty appealing. In other words: I was happy to try out the new Sony Reader for a couple of days last week.
A loaner from the company, my e-reader came loaded with a novel by Nora Roberts, a healthy excerpt from Freakonomics and parts of a number of other books. The novelty factor—these were books I hadn't read in the original—excused what I found to be a somewhat clunky operating system (it took several tries to figure out just how to work the menu button). Eventually, I was able to download a copy of Bob Woodward's State of Denial—a process that is much like downloading music to iPods—and, like more than 200,000 (and counting) other Americans, found the material riveting. The E-Ink technology, which almost made me forget I wasn't looking at words on paper, was reassuring. There was none of the watery eye syndrome I get from staring at a computer screen. And I loved the adjustable font size. (NB: large type turns State of Denial, in print a mere 576 pages, into 2,670 pages, a fact you're reminded of at the bottom of the screen.)
But I didn't find any of the bells and whistles—dictionary lookup, word count, etc.—that appeared in some of the early e-readers; I presume this is so the device can remain small and lightweight. And while I surely would have railed against them had they been there—The book is the perfect delivery system, as is; if you need a dictionary, bring one along!—their absence made me wonder exactly what, beyond convenient portability, the device really offers. As a reading experience, the Sony Reader was underwhelming.
Which is not to say I wouldn't occasionally use one, especially while traveling, once the price comes down from its initial $350 (downloadable e-books seem to cost about half the hardcover retail). But replace the ink-and-paper version? Not in this reader's lifetime. To me it's not really reading if I don't get to feel the book in my hands, to turn the pages, to have the tangible proof that I am wending my way through a narrative world.
On second thought, I might have more in common with ol' Ned than I thought.
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