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The Gutenberg Galaxy Goes Digital

How is the Kindle, along with other e-book devices, changing how we read books? Charlie Martin and Sarah Hoyt have recently discussed how it's shaking things up for writers and publishers here at the Lifestyle blog, but what about the actual reader? Journalist Kate O'Hare, at her Accidental Futurist blog a few months ago, gave one indication:

Last year, I spent some time on Twitter musing about whether or not I should buy a Kindle to accompany me on a cross-country plane trip. In the end, I decided that it was just too pricey (this was before the smaller, lower-priced ones came out) and opted for audio-books downloads instead.

That worked fine, but when I came back, a kind pal gave me a Kindle DX — that’s the big one — as a gift.

I now read books. Old books. New books. Lots of books.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t read books before. I have always been a voracious reader and, in my time, have plopped down untold amounts of cash in bookstores and on Amazon.com.

But the way I read books is different now.

I tried getting books from the library. One was on a list, but when I finally got it, it proved to be a dense tome and had to be read slowly. I couldn’t finish it in time, and since it was on a list, the library wouldn’t let me renew it.

That’s the last time I went to the library. I put this book on my Kindle for a very low price (it wasn’t a new release), so nobody can tell me how fast I have to read it.

Facing a long train ride but not wanting to spend a whole pile of money, I took advantage of the many free books available for Kindle download. I went the American-history route and got “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” “The Federalist Papers (Optimized for Kindle),” Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America, Volume 1 & Volume 2.”

Then, for fun, I threw on “Pride & Prejudice” and the complete works of William Shakespeare.

For very nominal fees, I’ve added a couple of Bibles, a pile of Oscar Wilde and “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.”

And that’s only a fraction of the classic works available for Kindle (and, one assumes, for Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the iPad and other devices) at low or no cost.

While I've never been that crazy about how the text of a book appears on the actual physical Kindle (one exception: the Kindle is readable in bright, direct sunlight, unlike many other devices), I love the freedom of mobility provided by the Kindle, and platforms with its software installed. It feels akin to those heady days when CDs began to replace LPs -- I've made jokes with my wife recently about "analog" and "digital" books. Brian Eno once said that the record made music portable, taking it out of the realm of the concert hall and putting it everywhere -- from your living room to (for better or worse) your earbuds.

Similarly, being able to read a book anywhere, and carry the digital equivalent of a massive stack of them onto an airplane via my Kindle, laptop or Android Tablet is a godsend. (Especially since I never know how bleary I'll be once I get on a plane, I can raise or lower the brainpower my reading material requires accordingly without stuffing my carrying-on bag full of "analog books.") Not to mention the opportunity to read while I'm on the treadmill at the gym, without worrying about wrecking the underlying book. Then there's the ability, at least on my PC or laptop, to cut and paste text from a book into a blogpost rather than have to physically put a book into a scanner and OCR the whole thing, as I’ve done for a few blog posts. And pray that a word doesn’t become gobbledygook somewhere in the translation process.