Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions. 


Sunday, April 21

Gapers Block

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While music has done away with the need for physical conveyance without difficulty (legal issues aside), books have clung stubbornly to wood based media. When it comes to reading, people demand the high contrast and tactile qualities of a paper-based display.

One of my first post-college jobs (there were several) was with a company in the business of online community. An abstract enterprise, they tried to make a science out of administering message boards, chatrooms, and customer service e-mail. Drone workers like myself were responsible for deleting unsavory posts, posing interesting questions, and facilitating "teen talk" chat rooms.

I was assigned a client doing its best to promote electronic books. More precisely, they were interested in the success of the Rocket eBook and its proprietary format. The company that manufactured it no longer exists. Perhaps, had I done a better job facilitating their virtual book clubs, they'd have fared better.

Of course, there was only so much I could do, as I was never given an eBook device of my own. There were two demo units for the project managers above me, but I had to get by with an on-screen reader. That I might get a feel for the experience of reading electronic texts, I persuaded my employer to subsidize the download of books into my Palm. Thanks to a little company called PeanutPress, I read along with my colleagues.

Tapping the screen to flip through tiny, three-inch-square pages, I read Star Trek novels, Doestevsky and, as a tie-in with the release of the movie, October Sky (you know, about the kid who built model rockets?). It sounds unpleasant, I know, but it was quite enjoyable. And apparently I wasn't alone in thinking so. PeanutPress did very well for themselves. Absorbed by the big fellows, they live on as Palm Digital Media.

That was then. The old black plastic Palm I used fell into disuse after I moved on to better things. It sits on my window sill as an example of a nearly obsolete technology, but stopped functioning ages ago. My electronic books went with it.

Or so I supposed.

My current job has me in the throes of project management. No longer the idiot savant who messes with PhotoShop and develops web sites for companies without a viable business plan, I actually need a personal digital assistant. Nothing fancy, just something that allows me to take my schedule, notes and contacts out of the computer and into my pocket. And should it match the slick design of my PowerBook, all the better.

I picked up an old Visor Edge. Pleasantly thin and aluminum, it can be had for a song on eBay.

Once again enboldened with Palm power, I remembered those pleasant days of screen tapping with a certain fondness. Those electronic texts bought and paid for, I wondered if they might still be available.

Thanks to the impeccable record keeping of the Palm people, all of them were on file and available for download. Now the Visor is filled with a Star Trek book I don't remember reading and the complete Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

I read them just before turning in. Something about reading from a tiny green screen hanging in the darkness is wonderful. Without the visual distractions that come with reading by illumination, (so 20th century) it forces a certain concentration. As in a sensory deprivation tank, the adventures of Holmes take on hallucinatory qualities. It's neat.

I'm not giving up on paper, and this tract isn't meant as an argument against traditional books. Given the money I've spent on bookshelves, I've a vested interest in keeping things as analog as possible. But there are books that I don't care to possess as physical objects. Though I read as much trash as the next person, I don't enjoy seeing tattered paperbacks clogging up shelf space.

Much better to have them on a handheld computer. There, they are enjoyed thoroughly, and disposed of with a few taps on the screen.

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Ramsin / December 12, 2003 2:18 PM

See, I would be nervous as hell if I had books on some kind of electronic platform. I'd be checking it every five minutes to make sure nothing got deleted. But I'm old fashioned.

I had no idea this technology existed, thanks Dave.

dce / December 12, 2003 2:32 PM

One benefit of electronic texts is that they can always be saved, backed up, burned to disc, etc. Though they seem more ephemeral, I'd argue that they're much easier to preserve than the printed page.

But even if they were prone to damage/loss, I find that I only want electronic versions of those books I don't care about. Indeed, I don't really want to preserve the tangible evidence of how many cheesy Star Trek books I've read.

Ramsin / December 12, 2003 3:02 PM

Good point. I do end up giving away a lot of crappy books. Still, electronic things are not neurotic-friendly.

Cinnamon / December 12, 2003 4:33 PM

I wonder if Stephen King will publish his books in this format. Those tomes can get super-heavy. 1000 pages+ and all. Thanks, Dave. I'll have to see what is compatible with my little Clie. Not that I'd read during boring meetings or anything.


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