Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sony Reader response

For the last couple of weeks I've been using a Sony Reader. In researching it before arrival, I was excited by the possibility of being able to read PDF files and long Word documents in comfort, as if they were books. How many times have I begun reading, abandoned reading, begun reading again and abandoned reading again such matter? Despite warnings of issues with formatting, I was eager to begin reading again ... again.

First impressions upon arrival were deceptive and threatened initial hopes. It seemed rather small. The screen has no backlight and there is no colour, so one's eyes are not drawn let alone delighted. Mark at RSB has said already that he thinks it is cul-de-sac technology and thus ephemeral. It certainly doesn't shout very loud. However, the odd thing is that, for me, it's precisely this sense of a blocked road that will enable e-Readers to survive. The Sony Reader's problem is that perhaps it serves its purpose too well: that is, it enables the reading of books as we read them now, as books.

But what's it like to use? As with most new gadgets, it took some while to get use to the navigation and functionality. First, the ON/OFF button is a slider on a spring so, as one is expecting a click, one's instinct is to slide it across again, thus switching it off before it has awoken. Second, the page-turning buttons are also small and, worse, unsatisfying to the touch, while the other buttons seem to have very limited purpose. Third, the menu screens are utilitarian if not ugly and the speed of formatting and page-turning is surprisingly slow, certainly for one used to broadband. In use, it felt not so much cutting edge as strangely retrograde, the equivalent of expecting an iPod yet receiving a Walkman with a C90 and Fast Forward only instead.

Yet, after a weekend of using the Reader as my only source of reading matter, I realised the expectations set by music and phone gadgets obscure what makes the new technology ideal. After all, it had to take a particular form: the book.

My test run consisted of three documents: a 10,000-word .rtf file, a 33-page PDF file of an essay by Eduardo Cadava on Barthes' Camera Lucida, and a real live eBook of Paul Auster's The Book of Illusions. The latter, I assumed, would test the Reader's ability to cope with a compulsive page-turner.

I read the Word document in a couple of hours. The alternative would have been to read it on screen or to print it. The difference offered by the Reader was a revelation. I did not read the rtf document as a yet another work-in-progress but as a book. While others might lament that there was no means of editing or writing notes on screen, the lack of additional control or interaction with the words meant reading became the sole activity. Patience was required, particularly as 10,000 words equated to 63 Reader pages at the highest level of zoom. However, free of distraction, and because the Reader is comfortable to hold (like a modest hardback), patience came easily. What's more, when the transfer from page to page was slowed to several seconds with the unformatted PDF, patience was enhanced and prompted even more concentrated engagement. And, with 50 pages left of The Book of Illusions, I'm picking up the Reader as if it is a book and, for the same reason, unable to put it down.

Mark has also speculated that the technology might one day find itself "bundled back into mainstream devices (notebook laptops and phones)" which might in turn draw in those who otherwise would not read. Perhaps this will be a good thing. However, it would have less to do with the civilisation of the book than the culture of information: books as tools, books as guides, books as repositories; the movement towards a form of communication that is immediate, transparent, enabling and, ultimately, solipsistic. What the Reader relies upon instead, what it emphasises and encourages, is the face to face engagement with the singular form of the book.


  1. I like what you say in the last paragraph. I'm naturally resistant to this kind of move, and had assumed its value would lie more in the "culture of information" area. I don't know if I'll get one, but I imagine I'd especially appreciate using one for pdfs and other such documents. I almost never finish reading one now, whether online or printed out!

  2. Anonymous3:23 pm

    I like the sound of this. I might wait for the price to come down though, usually within six months or a year these kinds of technologies are much more affordable. Incidentally, what is the battery life like? How long can you read for without having ro recharge?

  3. Jay, the battery life is so good I had barely noticed it. The display has yet to indicate any use despite some hours worth of reading.

    I should have said two things: one, I use OSX and the Reader software isn't compatible with it so I haven't tried to download anything. It's easy enough to drag & drop files from the USB connection.

    Two, I didn't pay for my machine. I wouldn't have got one otherwise. I hope the price falls. As it is, no more anguish over what book to take for a train journey!

  4. Anonymous11:42 am

    Not sure about this, Steve. You seem to be justifying the device on the grounds that it's awkward. I accept that it's early days in the technology, but I can't see myself shelling out on one.
    It would be worth it if it encouraged writers to make their work available for download - especially out of print books. There's an experiment in that line at
    Texts available there would be perfect for the Reader. Is there such an experiment in the UK?
    On the Mac question, I think PDF files anyway are universally accessible. I'd be interested to know if you can plug it into the USB on your Mac.

  5. It's awkward *at first* like all gadgets. After that, it's second nature. An expert in these things told me the design is classic Sony so I presume the size and tightness (as it were) of the buttons enables longevity.

    As for the PDF and USB issue - as I said in my first comment, one can control one's files on OSX without an interface using the USB connection. And PDFs are accessible of course except *reading* them on the Reader is not always easy. On two PDFs I have the text is too small to read yet cannot be zoomed like other PDFs. I don't know why this is. One needs Acrobat to change the settings but this is not Freeware.

  6. Anonymous9:07 pm

    I've had one of these too for a while now and am currently writing up my thoughts.

    Stephen, like you I'm on Mac OSX and have found the freeware Calibre to be easy to use for file handling on the Reader (and to enable you to import the 100 free classics from the CD).

    As I understand it, the reason for the slowness of page turning, and long battery life, is because the Reader uses battery power only when creating a new page, not when displaying a static page - so text once displayed is 'frozen' and has to be wiped and redrawn with each page turn.

    I was frustrated by formatting issues on the title I read - Kertész's Fateless - which actually distracted me from the book. But otherwise, what you describe as freedom from (a different sort of) distraction did occur to me, and it would assist in reading a text denuded of the usual ephemera of publication.

    Oh, and Walkmans with fast forward only? I thought I was the only kid who had one of those!

  7. Thanks John, Calibre came in useful, though I'm still waiting for news of a freeware PDF manipulator!



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