Sunday, September 16, 2007

Read any good on-screen digital images lately?

Read any good on-screen digital images lately?
Technology giving us more new ways to read old things
By Lee Gomes, The Wall Street Journal,2777,DRMN_23910_5694188,00.html

If the Jetsons have taught us anything, it's that in the future, paper will be a thing of the past and everything we read will be on a computer screen.
This isn't just about work. That future is already here, thanks first to word processing and then to the Internet. It's about reading for pleasure, too, the sort done sprawled on the couch with a favorite book or magazine and a cat on the lap.

Most people beyond a certain age would regard reading for pleasure on a computer an oxymoron. The machine is associated with the office, and nothing quite takes your mind off a detective novel than having an e-mail alert pop up. The ergonomics are all wrong, too; the eyes get tired, and even an Aeron chair has nothing on a good recliner.

All this, though, is slowly starting to change. There are new ways to read old things.

Both the Internet Archives ( and Project Gutenberg ( allow you to download entire books free, usually those no longer under copyright. The free, not-for-profit Million Book Project is in progress at

The big tech companies have discovered books. Google and Microsoft are busy scanning libraries, putting them on the Web and making them searchable. And when you buy selected titles from online booksellers, you can pay a few dollars more and start reading them right away online.

Newspapers have long made available text searches of old stories. Now, many magazines have digitized archives that present old issues on the screen just as they looked on paper.

The New Yorker has been selling its complete library for two years; the 157 years of Harper's are online free for subscribers. Bondi Publishing soon will market digital versions of old issues of Rolling Stone and Playboy.

Laptops, which you can unplug and haul to the couch, are becoming equal to the task of pleasure reading.

Even better than a laptop for casual reading, at least for books, would be a digital reader the size of a book itself. Alas, there have been so many failed attempts at e-books they've acquired a reputation as a perpetual technology of the future.

But in the past year, an innovative screen technology from E Ink has drawn praise. This display is monochrome and reflects ambient light rather than being backlit like an LCD. While you must be in a bright room for the screen to be easily readable, you can also take it outside in bright sun, where it looks best.

Its resolution is much higher than on a desktop monitor, resulting in smooth text without any jaggy edges. And since you aren't staring into a bright light, your eyes don't get as tired.

Sony has been selling an E Ink-based reader for nearly a year for $300. Amazon is rumored to be preparing its own.

Michael Lesk of Rutgers University said reading researchers like himself know that readers retain information from a screen as well as they do from a printed page. But it's an open question whether the emotional experiences are the same, or whether ink stamped on a piece of paper that you hold in your hands somehow makes more of an impact than ghostly letters on an ever-changing screen.

It is a truth universally unacknowledged that reading a book for pleasure involves a lot of hard work. You must fight to keep it open and pressed flat, and just when you've comfortably arranged everything, you have to turn the page and start all over again.

Naturally, you need to do all this without bothering the cat.

You may not appreciate these difficulties only because you've never had an alternative to a book for comparison. The Sony Reader is slim, light and can be held in one hand. To turn the page, nudge it with your thumb.

Yes, there are things not to like about reading for pleasure on a computer screen. You have to forgo the stories books themselves can tell with all their stains and scribbles. And when you're done reading, you don't get to put another trophy on your bookshelf.

In exchange, though, you get to put an entire bookshelf in your pocket.

Digital reading lists

· To download books for free: Internet Archives ( and Project Gutenberg (

· In progress: Million Book Project (

· Magazine archives: New Yorker ( Harper's (

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