The Sony Reader is a Remote Scottish Beach

Last week I bought a Sony Reader PRS-650, which Sony would like you to call the ‘Touch’ and I like to think of as my personal remote Scottish beach. Sony’s eReader devices are currently locked in competition with the Amazon Kindle, a wonderful creation with wifi and 3G Internet connectivity, and the ability to buy books direct from Amazon without connecting to a host computer. The Sony has none of these things, and currently costs £70 more, if you want an equivalent six-inch screen. So why did I buy the Sony? These two devices are both excellent, so it wasn’t an easy decision.

This is my first eReader with a reflective, e-ink screen, but for two years now I have been reading books on my iPod Touch, and before that on a Palm PDA (actually a Sony Clie running the Palm OS). I had reached a point where I wanted to spend more time reading eBooks, but the iPod’s small screen was holding me back. Past generations of the e-ink screen technology never seemed good enough to me, but reviews of the Kindle, and the little time I spent with the Sony in Waterstones, convinced me that things have changed. The new screens refresh quickly, and they are sharp, and clear. It was time for an upgrade.

I like the look of the Kindle 3. Apparently it has a great screen, and the wifi seemed, at first, to be a killer feature. Why would you not want to have some access to the Internet, after all? But there are plenty of ways in which the Kindle doesn’t suit me. For one thing, the Kindle is designed, first and foremost, to drive sales from the Amazon Kindle store. And just as in the early days of iPods and iTunes, Amazon sees fit to encumber its books with copy prevention software (DRM) that stops them being read on other devices. Certainly you can put books in other file formats on the Kindle, but crucially, so far, not the open ePub format (with and without DRM) used by all the other eReaders.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the Kindle and the Sony Reader are doing different things, and addressing different markets. Perhaps they are not really competing at all. The Kindle has the Amazon store all sewn up, so if you want easy access to recent books, and don’t mind about the DRM locking you and your ebooks into an alliance with Amazon forever, that’s the one you should go for. It’s convenient, it’s slick: it’s an iPod for books.

What Sony is doing is slightly different. Sony is a hardware company, so while it would prefer customers to buy ebooks from the Sony store, ultimately what it wants is for people to buy Sony devices. Sony doesn’t really care where you get your books from as long as you read them on a Sony Reader.

Perhaps because of this, Sony has added features that apply more to documents in general, not just books. The Reader comes with a stylus, so you can write freehand on documents like meeting agendas, or in the margins of books. You could draw a diagram, or a map, or play noughts and crosses, or hangman, with your kids. Chess and Backgammon would work well too (you listening, Sony?). If you prefer to type there is a decent on-screen keyboard, though it is a little slow, and the touch screen allows you to highlight text with your finger, or swipe to turn pages.

I’ll be using it mainly for reading out of copyright public domain books. In some cases these are the kinds of books you don’t get to take out of libraries because they are too valuable. In the past I might have had to travel to read them, but Google has brought the archive to my couch. I’ll be reading other things too: books from Feedbooks and Project Gutenberg, and I may even buy some modern ebooks. I dislike the idea of DRM, but I can see two cases where I might not care about it so much: throwaway, read it once paperbacks, and technical manuals that will go out of date quickly. Anything I might want to keep for a while, and might want to read again, I’ll buy in an open format, such as a physical book. If you buy a book, or download music, that is encumbered with DRM, you have to see the transaction as a loan. And speaking of loans, the Sony Reader allows you to borrow ebooks from a large number of public libraries, including the one here in Liverpool.

The Sony Reader has different features from the Kindle, and in some ways is it less convenient and less slick. As a piece of hardware it is beautifully designed. It is solid, and nice to hold; the touch screen is very good indeed. What clinched the deal for me though, was the lack of wifi or 3G. One of the things I love about physical books is the lack of distraction. Books offer a glorious absence of any possibility of reading a blog, searching Wikipedia, or checking for email. And that brings me back to the remote Scottish beach, one of the few places remaining on Earth where access to the Internet cannot be taken for granted. It feels good to be unhitched from email, and Google, and Twitter once in a while, and my new eReader is going to take me there.

My Books of 2009–Mostly for Kids

This year has been a strange reading year for me. It began with a neck injury that made sitting still painful and concentrating on anything more than a tweet almost impossible. It ended with two university courses to teach and books to read ‘for a purpose’. Looking back, apart from reading for teaching–twentieth century American novels and primary texts from the history of America–I’ve read very little this year that wasn’t written for children. Among the few adult books I’ve read just because I wanted to, the three volumes of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy were the most enjoyable, providing the immersive world you always hope for in a book or series but rarely experience.

Of the books for children, this has been a bumper year. My daughter, who is five, is a completist of the highest order, so we’ve read all of Tove Jansson’s Moomin novels, eleven Famous Five novels (in the right order), several Roald Dahl novels, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr Fox, Kurt Schmeltzer’s The Long Arctic Night which I mentioned here and A Christmas Carol as well as stories snatched from Stanza on my iPod Touch and Just William, read by Martin Jarvis, in the car. We’re starting on the first Harry Potter now.

One thing I’ve noticed is that quality comes in different forms. Jansson’s books are extraordinary creations with a depth and darkness that is breathtaking at times. And yet they deliver it with a lightness that makes it all seem natural and bearable. The more I read of Jansson the more I admire her. The Famous Five books are almost the antithesis of the Moomin adventures. They are practical, utilitarian, dogmatic, lacking in whimsy, as well as repetitive, badly plotted and somewhat dated. And yet of all the books we’ve read together this year these are the ones we have raced through. Blyton’s books, for all their obvious faults, are the ones that make us late for school.

My pick of the year though is A Christmas Carol. We would have struggled with this if the younger partner in the endeavour hadn’t seen the recent film, but as it was we raced through it, leaving questions about vocabulary and quaint Victoriana hanging in the air. Many of those questions will be resolved by the time we read it again next year. There was disappointment (for her) that the graveside scene wasn’t extended in the book as it is in the film and surprise (for me rereading after a long gap) at just how unevenly paced the book is, with plot development frequently suspended in favour of lengthy, convoluted, and often unnecessary description and point making. But in the end this is one of the great stories and Dickens’s words are made to be read out loud. In fact it is the only book that broke out of our normal reading routine and appeared spontaneously with the question ‘Can we read …?’

E-readers: the possibilities for writers

At the Kenyon Review blog David F. Smydra Jr. ponders the double-screened laptop and gives a gentle wrist slap to those of us who have been speculating about e-readers and the future of reading. I plead guilty as charged, Your Honour. More important, he thinks, is the future of writing. Well worth a read:

So maybe we shouldn’t spend as much time asking which technologies readers will embrace – “Will we ever love the e-book?” or “Will we read magazines on our phones?” — as which technologies artists will employ to better transmit their work. If a writer knows that she could display her words digitally, and hyperlink the footnotes to appear in a Kindle’s second screen (for instance), or if the next generation’s Kurt Vonnegut knew he could insert animation into the text instead of line doodles, then couldn’t that push forward the art? Imagine a poem written with a specific musical harmony intended to play in the background. Or a novel with different narrative threads intended to display on side-by-side screens at different junctures in the story.


More on Online Fonts has some interesting speculation about whether Apple is planning on making deliver fonts universally online. As users of online word processors such as Google Docs will know, the range of fonts available is limited to those likely to be available on any computer (not many). And as any editor of technical documents and books will know, fonts have to passed around with documents if you want the person on the receiving end to see special characters and symbols, or even just an unusual typeface. Siobhan and I had some trouble with this while we were working on Key Ideas. So what happens if you want to use to distribute a document with a specialist font? In the primary document will be ok, because it seems Apple have decided to make the viewable ‘web version’ something like a PDF. But what about the downloadable wordprocessor-compatible versions? This could be the answer and if it is, it’s a huge breakthrough:

In the excitement about Apple’s beta version of – the web-based document sharing/collaborating feature of their iWork suite – people have been asking about fonts. Specifically, what happens when you use a font that that isn’t available on the receiving end of the shared document?

I thought immediately of the news that the nightly builds of Webkit [the underlying software behind Apple’s Safari web browser, Google’s Chrome, and others] support downloadable fonts. All it takes is a couple lines of CSS and, as Jobs would say, “Boom.”  [Link]

Of course this doesn’t just apply to When Safari and Chrome catch up with Webkit a wide range of fonts could also be available in Google Docs and Zoho.