Road Warrior

Our intrepid reporter gets a read on the advantages -- and limitations -- of E-books

Open on my desk is a copy of Frankenstein. It isn't open in the normal sense, as in "The book lay open in my lap, and I marveled at what an aesthetically pleasing thing it is and how very simple it is to use." It is open in the technological sense, as in "I downloaded and opened the frank12.txt file on my eBookMan, a time-consuming process that contributed to a precipitous decline in my mental health."

I got the gadget because I wanted to see what it was like to read books on a computer, and the eBookMan (Franklin Electronic Publishers Inc., $229.95) is the newest kid on the block -- and among the most affordable. For comparison, I also downloaded free software that would turn my Palm handheld into an E-book reader. (The eBookMan also offers such PDA-like features as a date book, a calculator, and a to-do list.)

One obvious advantage that E-books have over traditional books is that they lighten the backpack load and are great to use, say, for classes or on long plane trips. The eBookMan weighs less than a paperback and can hold up to 16MB worth of text -- the equivalent of 40 to 50 books. Larger E-book readers -- like the REB 1100 and 1200 -- can hold up to 128MB.

Despite their minimal heft, E-books can be burdensome in their own unique way. To start reading them on an eBookMan or a PDA, you must first download the necessary software and the books themselves from a Web site to your PC, and then to the device using a cable-linked syncing operation. With the eBookMan, the initial process proved well-nigh undoable. I was referred to a Web Sync page that should have popped up on my screen but failed to do so, leaving me adrift in a 155-page instruction book. I called Franklin's very sweet PR woman to get a technical-support phone number. She replied that there wasn't one. She suggested that I consult the FAQ on the eBookMan Web site.

"Are you telling me," I said, "that there's no way to contact a live person for help?"

"You can send them an E-mail," she said. You can bet I did.

As it turned out, there was a tech-support number, and the people at that number helped me get started, just as soon as they were through taking the very sweet PR woman out behind the building and flogging her with a USB cable. Soon my eBookMan was up and running. I clicked on the Franklin Free Library to peruse its virtual shelves. But as I soon discovered, the Franklin library may be free, but it's also a little musty. It contains only public-domain titles, or books whose copyrights have expired -- like The Complete Plays of Gilbert and Sullivan, Anne of Green Gables, and A History of Aeronautics. However, you can download books from other vendors and Web sites to read on the eBookMan, and its own shelves will greatly expand later this summer, when Microsoft Reader software will be available.

Titles available for PDAs (and for other electronic-reading devices, such as the Rocket eBook and its successors) are a newer, shinier lot. For PDAs, both the books and the software that's needed to view them can be downloaded from several Web sites, including and I paid $12.95 to download Myla Goldberg's Bee Season from (which was recently acquired by Palm). The actual downloading of the book and book-reader software took only seconds, but first I had to download a WinZip program, which took 20 minutes and required the full attention of a customer-support person to walk me through it.

Actually, the whole process took one day and 20 minutes because didn't list its tech-support number on its Web site. I had to contact the company by E-mail and wait for someone to write back. People like that should be punished. They should be tied down and forced to read The Complete Plays of Gilbert and Sullivan. Ah, you may reply, but how can people be expected to read a book with their hands tied? You are forgetting that this an E-book. You don't need hands to hold it or to turn the pages. You need only to touch the bottom half of the screen -- with, say, your nose in this case -- and the page advances.

I actually love that feature about E-books. You can read them while you're waiting in line at the airport with a suitcase in one hand or standing on a crowded subway holding a shopping bag, because the same hand that holds the book can also turn the page. You can set them down on a table or in your lap, leaving both hands free to operate snack paraphernalia.

As for the experience of reading off a computer screen, it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. The eBookMan's screen is actually parchment colored to make it look more paperlike. The Palm's screen has no such effects, and it's also slightly smaller than the eBookMan's screen, but even so it's just fine for reading. The experience can't be all that unpleasant, because I'm already on page 391 of Bee Season after only one night. That feat is made all the more wondrous when you consider that the book is only 275 pages long. Why the difference? An E-book has fewer lines per page than a paper book. That appeals to me, because I'm not a fast reader, and the pleasing little sense of accomplishment that comes from finishing a page happens three times as often. (Pathetic, isn't it?)

But perhaps the greatest thing about reading on a computer screen is, it has a ready-made nightlight. Because the text is back-lit, you can read in bed without turning on your reading light, which prevents so many midnight tiffs with the person who's trying to sleep next to you. You can read in the back seat of a car at night or in a plane seat whose overhead light doesn't work. The flip side of the glow feature is that E-books make lousy beach reading. Bright sunlight makes the text hard to see, and you are constantly distracted by the horrifying reflection of your own face as seen from below, looking downward, with chin folds maximally displayed.

Will I switch to E-reading? I won't, mainly because I love the look and feel of books -- particularly hardbacks. I love them enough to put up with the minor hassles of lugging them around and maneuvering them in my lap and having to set them aside while I eat my cheeseburger. I do think, however, that if you're traveling with a PDA anyway, it makes sense to download a book or two before the trip for the times you're stuck in an airport with nothing good to read.

On a more basic level, E-reading isn't yet practical. Since there's no standard E-book format, the particular software that you use -- Palm, Microsoft, Adobe, and so on -- automatically limits your book choices. You might download a reader, only to find that your favorite authors' books aren't available in a format it can read. And so far there aren't enough titles published in E-format to really get excited about the medium. But there's the catch-22: publishers will remain reluctant to spend the money to have E-books produced until there's consumer interest.

Publishers are wary of E-books for other reasons as well, mostly regarding copyright protection. They've gone to elaborate lengths to keep people from copying their books and passing them along, either for profit or as a friendly loan. (Oh, Napster, what thou hast wrought.) The eBookMan files contain encryption software that's so advanced and powerful that Franklin asks you to promise not to "use these products in the development of nuclear weapons, ... guided missiles ... or chemical or biological weapons."

Other publishers rely less on technology than on the standard ploy of telling people what they can -- or more specifically, can't -- do with an E-book. Among numerous "can'ts" listed by VolumeOne regarding its Adobe Glassbook Reader edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is the proviso that "this book cannot be read aloud." That means that the Adobe Read Aloud (a text-to-speech feature that's available on an Adobe E-book reader) can't be used, since the publisher has already sold the audio rights to the book.

More candidates for the Gilbert-and-Sullivan treatment.

Mary Roach says her upcoming book will be available in E-book format.

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