Outside the British Library the slim volume in my hands could mark the beginning of the end for slim volumes. It is the Sony Reader, the electronic book that hits the British market this week – and the gadget that, if the publicity is to be believed, could kill off the book as we know it.
All this will be of some interest to the British Library, which houses 30 million books and counting (adding an extra 300,000 every year).
If the Sony Reader represents the future of books – slim and sleek and rather beautiful in a geeky, gadgety kind of way – the British Library represents the past and present of books, old and dusty and possibly somewhat dog-eared. They’re not really going to get on.
“Yeuuuch,” said Valeria Cummings, making the sort of face that suggests she’d just eaten something unpleasant. Books are Miss Cummings’s life – she spent 31 years working at the British Library and is an inveterate book buyer, with 5,000 at her home in North London (proper ones, with spines and covers). It is a fair assumption that she won’t be the first in the queue for the £199 Reader when it comes out on Friday.
“I wouldn’t want to read it in bed, because it isn’t comfortable,” Miss Cummings, 70, said. “And I wouldn’t want to read it in the bath because that would be entirely wrong. If you dropped it in the bath it would do terrible damage.”
To the iPod generation, the Sony Reader probably comes across as a technological triumph.
It is roughly the size of a paperback, has a leather cover (or is it fake – and in the digital age, does anyone care?) and comes with 200 megabytes of memory, enough to store 160 books of average length. That may not make much of a dent in the British Library stacks, but it would probably satisfy even the most voracious bookworm for a year or two.
More capacity can be added by using memory cards, and owners can buy more “e-books” by downloading them from the Waterstone’s website – the joy of one-click purchasing, perhaps, or a woeful substitute for the pleasure of wandering into a secondhand bookshop and finding an unexpected gem.
“I’ve just found three marvellous books on Freemasonry and an interesting one on Jews in London,” said Miss Cummings excitedly to her friend and former colleague, Stephen de Winter. “They’re from a very nice little bookshop in Upper Regent Street.”
Even dusty old diehards find it hard not to be seduced by Sony’s glossy little gadget. “It’s very pretty,” Miss Cummings conceded. “Very nice.”
Sony is pleased with it, too – not least for its display technology, called electronic ink or “e-ink”, which means that it uses power only when the reader turns the page. This means that, in theory, a single battery should have enough power to turn 1,680 pages.
Because the Reader is not backlit all you need to read the screen is ambient light, just as with conventional books, so that, unlike a conventional computer screen, it is possible to read it in bright daylight.
Even readers with poor eyesight are accommodated by a button that enlarges the type size.
Waterstone’s bosses, who have managed to beat Amazon to the British market – their rivals have been selling the Kindle device in the US for several months – are feeling pretty pleased with themselves, too.
Toby Bourne, the company’s category manager, said: “We are very impressed with the Reader and think our customers will be, too. We’re working with publishers to develop the best range of e-books we can – classics and new bestsellers.”
Whether it will persuade people to convert from books is a question that remains unanswered.
“There’s nothing that will ever replace reading a real book in an armchair,” Mr de Winter said. His friend looked at him askance: “I lent you a book on travel in Montenegro once,” she said. “You left it on the back of a lorry.”
Not advisable with a £200 Sony Reader, perhaps.
— A pay-as-you-go version of 3G Apple iPhone that frees consumers from long-term contracts with O2 will go on sale on September 16
— It will cost £349.99 for the 8-gigabyte version and £399.99 for 16 gigabytes, but does include unlimited data downloads for the first year
— The pay-as-you-go version is available on any of O2’s pre-paid tariffs, from £10 top-up a month, plus the price of the phone
— O2 has exclusive rights to Apple’s handset but when it was introduced last year, some people balked at the 18-month contracts
— This year Apple allowed O2 to offer the iPhone free on contract, from £45 a month over 18 months for the 8-gigabyte version
Source: TIMES ONLINE