One of the chief problems of the literary world over the last few years has been Harry Potter. How is someone in their twenties supposed to read the adventures of the boy wizard, without losing all trace of credibility? No longer young enough to read it for pleasure, not yet old enough to pretend I'm doing it because I'm worried about what the kids are reading, the choices are few.
Bloomsbury realised this some time ago, and so introduced the 'adult' covers, enabling us to read the same text but with a dark, grown-up picture on the front. This worked well for about twenty minutes, but soon enough even these covers became easily recognisable as JK Rowling's work (the big gold 'Harry Potter' emblazoned on the front didn't help), and we were back to square one. And trust me, wrapping the dust jacket from Wuthering Heights round the cover doesn't help, since sooner or later someone will ask you how it's going, and you'll tell them you've always preferred Emily Bronte's other work. Embarrassing.
This is where the e-reader comes in. With no tell-tale cover, nobody on the train can know that the reason you've missed your stop is that you're frantically trying to work out if Hagrid's going to die or not – and if anyone asks you what you're reading, it is but the click of a button to bring up The Merchant of Venice or Ulysses. Of course, the lack of cover art does have its drawbacks; most notably that you can't tell which way up the book should be. I know I opened it upside down as often as not.
Of course, if you're not actually reading Harry Potter (or the Famous Five, Postman Pat annual, etc) there is the opposite problem that you can't silently show off what you're reading. What point is there in reading Hamlet (as I did in testing the e-reader) if you can't let everyone around you know that that's the kind of intelligent chap you are? I tried to make up for this by quoting extensively at every opportunity, but that's not always an option – and on public transport, people have their headphones in half the time anyway.
Speaking of which, this e-reader does offer the chance to listen to music while reading, though it's only really possible to fit a dozen or fewer songs on, I believe – as default it came with a lullaby. Clearly someone in a boardroom had the tag line “If you like reading, you'll love falling asleep!” in mind, though sadly it didn't make it to final product. Lullaby or not, I find the music cute, but fundamentally unnecessary: anyone who buys an e-reader will already own a dozen other gadgets that they can plug headphones into.
In fact, the surge of the music industry is perhaps a good parallel with the book world: from vinyl through to mp3, steadily the physical product has been sacrificed on the altar of convenience – a shame, since album artwork, like that of Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper and Dark Side of the Moon, has lost its importance in the face of invisible downloads. Perhaps this is the direction that the literary world is headed.
Do I detect the sound of spluttering? This is probably not a wise arena in which to compare literature with popular music, and I know that there are those – and I can see my brother leading the way, banner held aloft – who regard books as sacred, and more than the sum of their text. I have heard Simon go into raptures about end-paper (whatever that is) and reject recently published books based on the their lack of mouldy smell – ay, there's the rub. Book-lovers will not be won over, even if the e-reader does allow you to take your entire library with you on holiday (actually, book-lovers will not be able to take their entire library, since none but the best-known books will make it to download, I fear). While the manufacturers (Sony? I should know things like this, as a reviewer) have gone to some length to make it look as much like a book as possible, it's not sufficiently distinctive (ie falling apart) to appeal to some. Not to mention the fact that the crossover of bibliophiles and technophobes is not insignificant.
Personally, I like the idea of computerising at least some of our books. Yes, it's phenomenally annoying that whenever you 'turn the page' (press a button), the new page appears in negative for half a second before showing itself correctly, reminding you that you're reading e-ink, not ink-ink. Yes, when I tried exploring it a little, it crashed – I bet the first folio didn't do that – producing that unique feeling of helplessness and fury that only men with computers can know. And yes, it was rather vexing that the only Jane Austen book not on there was the one I was currently reading (Northanger Abbey, since you ask. But that's definitely a book I want people to know I'm reading. Chicks dig guys who read Austen, I'm reliably informed). But the clincher for me – other than concealing my Harry Potter habit – is having the choice of hundreds of books wherever you are. Well, that and not having to dust so much. I won't be re-downloading my existing books, but I'd certainly consider downloading future purchases.