November 27 1999

Ben Macintyre

At last, the book you can read in bed with the lights off

Is that a library in your pocket?

I have read the future, and it brought tears to my eyes. Last week I became the owner of an eBook, the electronic, paperless volume, a screen within a tablet of grey plastic, about the shape and weight of a 250-page hardback, that may prove to be the most revolutionary concept in publishing since the invention of the mass-market paperback in 1936.

On the Internet, I select a book from an electronic bookshop and download it into the machine, which has a back-lit screen, a built-in dictionary and a battery that lasts some 30 hours. My eBook can hold up to ten average-sized books at a time, but soon the truly obsessive reader will be able to carry an entire library.

The invention arrived in America a year ago (a UK distribution system will be launched next year) when there were just 140 titles available from 15 publishers. Today there are 70 publishers and 3,500 electronic books; in 2001 the figure will be one million, and by 2008 there will be more electronic than paper titles in print.

The eBook will dramatically change the way we read, altering the nature of both public and private book collections, undermining second-hand bookshops and eliminating those unmemorable dog-eared paperbacks that breed on their own. It may also improve the quality of traditional publishing, underlining Ruskin's observation that literature is "divisible into two classes, the books of the hour, and the books of all time".

The eBook has a number of immediate practical advantages. Instead of taking ten books on holiday and not reading any of them, you can now pack ten books in one, and not read any of them. Schoolchildren currently lugging knapsacks full of textbooks will be saved from spinal injury; doctors can carry every reference book they will ever need in one hand; novelists will download their work-in-progress and chisel away at it on the bus; readers with limited sight will no longer have to order large-print copies, since the font on the eBook is adjustable.

You can read it with either hand, since the text can be swivelled 180 degrees while you click through the pages with your thumb, you can underline, scribble marginalia and mark a page for later reference, and the eBook always remembers exactly where you left off.

This invention might even slow the divorce rate, since it may be read in bed with the light off when your partner wants to sleep. It will also see off that infuriating species, the book-borrower - "those mutilators of collections, spoilers of the symmetry of shelves," as Charles Lamb called them - since each text is encrypted for a single user.

All that said, the eBook has some major flaws. The range of available titles is still limited, and they currently cost as much, if not more than, their paper equivalents. The display is not crisp enough and after reading for more than an hour on the trot, I found, every book becomes a weepy. And you can't throw it at the dog, at least not more than once.

You also cannot read it on the beach, because direct sunlight reflects off the screen, and with only one page visible at a time, it is hard to see where you have got to, how far from the end of the chapter you may be, and thus whether to make a cup of tea.

Almost all of these glitches will be ironed out. A programme is under development to recreate the look of the printed page on a high-resolution screen that will be, if anything, more clearly legible than print. The savings in production costs should eventually mean cheaper books and increased royalties, as well as larger publishing profits.

Aesthetically, of course, the eBook cannot compare with the smell of a printed page, the texture of new paper or the tactile pleasure of holding an aged and loved volume.

But science is doing its best: in America you can get your eBook bound in leather to emit that distinctive Bodleian bouquet.

Traditionally, copyright reverts to an author when a book goes out of print, and in theory it may be republished elsewhere. With e-publishing, a book may be available forever, unpromoted but impossible to reclaim. Some American authors are already banding together to distribute their out-of-print works on the web. Where once one would search for obscure, non-current titles in second-hand shops, increasingly they will reside in eBook form.

The Emperor Gordian the Younger had 22 acknowledged concubines and a library of 62,000 volumes, according to Gibbon, and "from productions which he left behind him, it appears that both the one and the other were designed for use rather than for ostentation".

But his bookshelves, like ours, were still intended as a statement, a reflection of "thought in cold storage", and while the advent of the eBook may result in fewer physical books, it does not spell the end of the personal library.

Francis Bacon wrote that "some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested". The eBook is a tool for reference works requiring brief consultation, a convenient carrying case for airport novels devoured at a gulp and then forgotten. The chewable book, the object that you want to own, shelf and keep, is something else.

In future, when publishers print a paper book they will be making an object of beauty, intended for preservation, pleasure and display, as the earliest books were. Far from killing off books, the eBook may make good books better.

Next page: Paul Hoggart

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