With the recent release of the Sony e-Reader boosting the debate stimulated by the Amazon Kindle, it seems that digital reading devices are not going to go away.  Admittedly, I have not actually had the opportunity to see or try out any e-Readers, but I’ve been reading reviews, such as those here and here, with interest.

The main innovation seems to be the screen, which is e-paper rather than LCD, and therefore does not emit light.  This, in theory, makes it more comfortable than a computer screen to look at for a long time, though some reviews I have seen still complained about light glare in certain situations.  You can upload a far greater number of books onto it than you would ever be able to carry around; for the traveller, the student, the editor and the book reviewer, this is a major advantage.  You are also able to download ordinary pdf files to it, fact which those in the publishing world have said will revolutionise their reading of submissions and proofs and save them enormous amounts of paper.  For schools, and young children who are already so used to hand-held computer games and the internet, I suspect there will be many possible uses of e-Readers.  A school may not have room for an extensive library, but can store over 100 e-Readers with thousands of books on them on only a few shelves.

There are, of course, still technical hitches and things that could be improved.  The page-turning function is apparently a bit slow and you are not able to flick quickly backwards and forwards to find a particular reference as you would with a book – you have to know the page number.  You are not able to make notes on texts, though you can highlight paragraphs, a downside for those editors and students.  The software for downloading books and then uploading them onto the device is not Mac compatible and again is rather clunky.

I firmly believe that books will never disappear.  A physical book from 1000 years or more ago is still decipherable; as technology progresses so rapidly, how long will it be before your expensive digital library becomes inaccessible because no-one makes the necessary software or hardware anymore?  Of course, there are also situations in which the e-Reader is not ideal – any situation involving water for example.  No more reading in the bath.  Their value, as well, (not to mention the value of hundreds of books stored on them) could make them more risky.  No one is likely to be mugged for their second-hand Penguin Classics copy of Pride and Prejudice, but you might be more reluctant to read an e-Reader worth nearly £200 on the bus.

I think the future of e-Readers and of publishing depends on developing and enhancing the functions of the e-Reader in those areas in which it may have an advantage over the printed book, but also on developing, enhancing and highlighting those areas in which the physical, printed book is always going to win out.  With flexible and creative thinking, publishing can forge exciting new paths with new technologies without losing sight of exactly what is so brilliant about the old technologies that have done their job so well for thousands of years.

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